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Adobe Flex: Article

Flex and LiveCycle - Platform for Enterprise Success

We have taken the decision to bring together the Rich Internet Application practice with our LiveCycle practice

When I joined Macromedia/Adobe Consulting, my role as Practice Leader was to grow a practice in EMEA around Rich Internet Application technologies. In recent months, we have taken the decision to bring together the Rich Internet Application practice with our LiveCycle practice, reflecting the recurrence in opportunity for us to fuse these client and server technologies together to solve a number of enterprise business problems. As I assume the responsibility to grow this combined practice in EMEA, I'll extend my blogging to share some of the excitement and thinking we have around how the technologies from our Enterprise Developer Business Unit - including Flex, Flex Data Services and the numerous LiveCycle technologies - converge as an enterprise business platform.

I'd like for this blog post to initiate some thinking on what this might mean.

I expect that people who track this blog - by the nature of where it is generally aggregated - are already familiar with Rich Internet Application technologies. I expect these readers already have a strong understanding of the importance and effectiveness of a user-experience that enables consumers, customers, citizens, workers or all manner of other individuals (user is such a non-personal description of the various persona of people who interact with business through a user-interface) to perform their tasks with applications that are not only useful, but usable and desirable.

What is LiveCycle ?
These same readers may not be as familiar however with the LiveCycle suite of technologies. I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail on this suite of technologies, but would highly recommend a browse through the Adobe LiveCycle section of our corporate website. Nor am I going to attempt here to be exhaustive of the business benefits of LiveCycle, but will instead aim to call out some concrete examples of where the fusion of Flex and LiveCycle allows us to tackle even more of the business challenges that our richer and more effective user-experiences have set out to address.

The Business Benefits of RIA...
I'm a great believer in education through example, and understanding through analogy, so let me try and paint a picture of the current landscape.

The ineffectiveness of online application forms not delivering on the promises of 24/7 at-your-leisure access when delivered in a browser, is well understood. Take a mortgage or a loan application from your online bank - these are characterised as frustrating processes that typically employ between 8 and 11 different HTML pages, where each page refresh results in 5% of applicants making an abandonment decision. The problems of page-refresh are well understood - technological frustrations associated with navigating back through an already completed process or session time-outs, user-experience frustrations such as being forced to complete the form in a sequential manner (what I often compare to "reading a book through a straw") rather than more familiar "complete the easy stuff and come back to the hard stuff", or the situation where you need to go and find some supporting information, like your social security number. I can pitch this "failed promise of the Internet" for an hour, so I'll spare you here.

Rich Internet Applications replace these multi-step, complex processes with simpler, easier, more effective single-screen or guided-completion processes, often employing UI metaphors such as the accordion to deliver a user-experience that more effectively matches the interaction patterns of real users.

An analogous problem to financial service application forms, is the same problems manifesting themselves through retail checkout experiences - addressing these problems with RIA have been shown in blind A/B tests to improve the appalling abandonment rates of 75% with increased conversion rates of checkout customers by 50%. So with RIA, we're well on our way to delivering efficiencies through user-experience and design-led solutions that attack the problem from the user's perspective rather than a technology perspective.

I'll talk more of such design-led approaches to RIA solutions in future blog entries.

...fuse with the Business Benefits of LiveCycle
But typically, the rich user-experiences that we deliver with RIA are often the beginning of a more complex document-based process, that inevitably crosses the digital world to a world where people interact through paper.

Let's consider some of these inefficiencies, by returning to our loan application.

Immediately you complete your application (and by replacing that application process with a design-led RIA, there are many more of you that have completed that application compared to the old days of the several HTML forms) you enter the world of workflow, and the world of paper.

In fact, many organisations will insist that you become the protagonist in their paper play. The final step of your mortgage application will often require that you print your application as a form, sign that form, and post that form to the bank.

If you print the form, if you sign it, if you remember to put it in your bag, if you buy the envelope and the stamp and if you remember to post it, then some days later, once your piece of paper has survived the postal system and made it's way to the desk of a loan processing officer, your application is ready to be processed. Electronically. But it's a bit paper. So what are we going to have to do ... that's right, having taken you from the state-of-the-art RIA-enhanced electronic world back to a piece of paper, the very next step is to capture that form information digitally again.

So how will LiveCycle help us here? Well first and foremost, moving seamlessly between the RIA and the PDF world is a simple and obvious fusion of Flex and LiveCycle. One of the key aspects to LiveCycle, is the process of document generation - leveraging technologies such as LiveCycle PDF Generator to automate the creation of PDF files or LiveCycle Assembler to "form-stitch" together document fragments to create customised PDF documents.

More effective however, is to remove the paper-trail altogether, and this is where LiveCycle can really begin to optimise the behind-the-curtain processes in an enterprise RIA solution. In addition to creating a dynamic PDF representation of our application form data, LiveCycle Document Security will enable the customer to digitally sign and encrypt a document before it is electronically submitted to the bank for processing, removing the need for manual rekeying when the document is received.

However, if the bank does require receipt of a paper document with an ink signature, the manual rekeying can still be eliminated. LiveCycle Barcoded Forms automate the capture of user-provided data from printed or faxed forms, by representing that data as a 2-dimensional barcode that can be easily and rapidly scanned, removing the processing and errors associated with manual rekeying of user-supplied data.

Once your loan application is born again as an electronic application form in back-office systems it must be processed; typically this processing is a complex hand-off of your application between different departments, or different people within a department. Perhaps you have to be credit-scored, before your application is then allowed to proceed to the next department, who are responsible for checking your employer references. A gap in your employment perhaps triggers the need for a letter to be sent to you requesting further information - otherwise, your application progresses to a decisioning process that determines the maximum amount of loan you will be offered. You are then sent a letter either approving or declining the loan, and this kicks off another step in the workflow, where your approved loan exists for 30-days. After 30-days, your loan is no longer valid, until another credit-check has been performed. And all the while, you have no insight as to where you are in the loan approval process, or indeed whether your loan has even been received at all.

What we have here, is an example of a complex workflow associated with a transient document - your loan application - as it moves between a variety of systems and people. LiveCycle Workflow Server allows us to streamline these human-centric processes, allowing either the visual or programmatic assembly of "workflows", which allow your electronic application to move quickly and securely through an organisation.

Meanwhile LiveCycle Policy Server could be employed, ensuring that information remains confidential, specifying not only who has access to the document, but what they can do to the document, when they can do that to the document (for instance, once the customer receives their loan approval as a PDF, can they update their mobile telephone number in-site, but not change their address), and for how long they can make these changes. Furthermore, Policy Server will allow all these security policies to be updated even once a document has been issued - revoking access to a loan approval after 30 days, or even confirming that the user has printed the loan application approval, removing the need to send them a paper-copy in the post).

And what of keeping you, the customer engaged ? A Flex application upon a LiveCycle workflow, leveraging Flex Data Services, can offer real-time notification to a user as to the receipt, the progress and the success of their loan application. The enterprise technology stack enables a two-way communication between customer and bank, not a one-way flow of information into a black hole.

And the list goes on...
As I said earlier, I have no desire to be exhaustive in my overview of LiveCycle technologies in this post, but I hope that the above real-world scenario outlines how - effective as a Rich Internet Application can be - we can offer significant additional return on investment when the RIA on the front-end is supplemented with the process automation, document generation and information assurance services that LiveCycle can offer in the back-end.

And it's not just in financial services; think of all the online processes that you have considered that can be improved and innovated upon with RIA technology - not just financial services and online banking, but travel booking, online check-in for flights, retail commerce, making a movie reservation, booking seats at the theatre, hiring a car, submitting your tax return, filing your expenses for approval, etc, etc.

As limited as you are by your imagination, think how many of these opportunities for insanely great user-experiences also result in something physical and tangible in your hand as the result of a process of automations, approvals, workflows or generation of documents.

Like account statements. Like travel itineraries. Like boarding passes. Like movie or theatre tickets, with barcodes that can be scanned at point of sale or point of entry.

Think of how a richer user-experience can not only benefit business with inc reases in conversion rates, increases in the effectiveness of cross-selling and up-selling, increases in repeat-business or increases in customer acquisition through customer evangelism. Think of how a richer user-experience can benefit from the efficiencies of automatic and electronic processing.

Think of the value you can begin to offer your clients, and their customers. Think of how Flex and LiveCycle might work together for you.

A couple of years ago, I was using the phrase "Enterprise RIA" to define the kind of online applications that could benefit from a richer user-experience while performing complex integration with new and existing systems and infrastructure. The fusion of RIA and LiveCycle dramatically lowers the barrier to delivery of these enterprise RIA, upon a recurring solution platform for enterprise business applications.

I'm tremendously excited about the solution opportunities and business problems our consultants are going to be delivering with the combination of Flex and LiveCycle.

In future blog posts, I'll speak more of how some of these integrations can be achieved technically, whether you are a J2EE architect that wants API-level access to these services, or someone who would rather orchestrate these solutions in a visual development environment, and integrate them with your Rich Internet Applications.

Additionally, I'll be aiming to share some of the leadership our User Experience practice, and RIA and LiveCycle practice consultants are creating around Flex and LiveCycle.

I hope this blog post lifts the lid on a whole new world of enterprise RIA development, while kick starting your thinking about the solutions you could deliver, and the skills you could leverage or the partnerships you could create in order that you are more suitably positioned to deliver these solutions.

More Stories By Steven Webster

Steven Webster is the practice director for Rich Internet Applications at Adobe. Previously, he was the technical director at iteration::two, a world-leading Rich Internet Application consultancy based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Webster is the author of Reality J2EE: Architecting for Flash MX and coauthored ActionScript 2.0 Design Patterns for Rich Internet Applications (ActionScript 2.0 Dictionary) and Developing Rich Clients with Macromedia Flex with Alistair McLeod. Steven speaks regularly at conferences and user group meetings on technical and business aspects of RIAs. Steven is the core contributor to the open-source Cairngorm project, a microarchitecture for RIAs based on J2EE patterns which was innovated by iteration::two over a number of Flash and Flex RIA developments.

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