Dynamics CRM’s Interactive Service Hub: When Only an App Will Do

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I first saw the Interactive Service Hub back in November at the MVP Summit. Perhaps it was the jetlag of flying from Sydney, Australia to Redmond, Washington or perhaps I was just a little jaded from the various CRM form types which had preceded it but I simply did not understand the itch it was trying to scratch. Sure, Interactive Service Hub forms are prettier but so what? How did they meet an unmet demand? Why did we have to learn yet another CRM Form type?

It has taken about six months but I am finally understanding where the Interactive Service Hub fits into the Dynamics CRM universe. To this end I thought I would share my thoughts in case others were also struggling.

Two Business Cases

The first understanding I had that the current Dynamics CRM may not meet the needs of all users came from two very different clients. One was a large financial institution and the other was a startup, looking to manage what is ultimately a high-volume approvals process.

In the case of the financial institution, they prided themselves on having the latest technology to help their staff be as productive as possible. A lot of what they used was bespoke with large button ‘app’ interfaces. While a user may have to use multiple apps to do their job, all of them were intuitive and required minimal training. This is what was expected of systems in the business.

While Dynamics CRM is a powerful process management tool, the standard interface is not ‘app-like’. It has come a long way from the 2011 Outlook interface (and Salesforce is still playing catch-up) but it does not look like Facebook which was, in this case, the benchmark by which all programs were judged.

Dynamics CRM was an excellent fit for the business’ requirements but it was clear that without the user interface meeting expectations it was going to be a hard sell to the decision makers.

In the second case, I cannot go into too much details as it is a startup and I am under an NDA but, in essence, Dynamics CRM was to be used to capture requests via the CRM portal and these would be processed by staff with limited IT experience. Again, the benchmark was an interface one would expect to see on an online or iPad app, not in an enterprise software solution.

In both cases, the Interactive Service Hub is the answer. While the Dynamics CRM engine remains in the back end, the Interactive Service Hub provides an interface which is built to make the user experience as intuitive as possible. It provides the best of all worlds; a friendly interface with an industrial strength business processing engine.

How Do I Get to It?

When it first came out, at the start of this year, it was not obvious how to navigate to the Interactive Service Hub. Back then you had to click through one of the many banner messages which greet you on a new system. These days it is much easier as you simply go to Settings – Application – Interactive Service Hub.

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After a bit of cache pre-loading (which take significantly less time since the Spring release), it opens up.

Navigation

The navigation bar at the top is almost identical to the one in the standard Dynamics CRM web client.

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As you can see above, we have the usual hamburger hierarchy navigation on the left and the recent records/quick create/global search on the right.

In this case though all of these controls only work for the entities which are enabled for the Interactive Service Hub client which, as the name suggests, are those related to the Service module of Dynamics CRM. The good news is you can also activate the Interactive Service Hub for custom entities via a tickbox on the Entity definition.

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My hope is that it will be enabled for other areas of CRM, such as Opportunities, because, frankly, the simpler and more intuitive we can make the CRM interface for sales people, the happier they will be.

Interactive Elements

The new interface means a few of the traditional elements have had an overhaul; specifically Dashboards and Forms. Both of these now have versions which are used exclusively for the Interactive Service Hub. In the case of Views, the old ones are still used so nothing new to learn there.

Dashboards

This is probably where the biggest changes are. There are three kinds of Interactive Dashboards:

  • Multi-stream
  • Single-stream
  • Entity Dashboards

In a solution file, the first two are created in the Dashboard section and the choice of multi-stream or single stream happens in the layout screen when building a new Dashboard.

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Setting these up is pretty straightforward for anyone who has ever set up a standard Dashboard. In essence, you have steams (or one stream in the case of a single-stream Dashboard) and Charts. Streams can be thought of as a grid view in a tradition dashboard but, in this case, the charts and the grid interact so you can use the chart like a filter on your records in much the same way as you can with Charts in a normal CRM View. While we could always do this with Views in CRM, we could not do this with grids on a Dashboard.

Whether to use a single-stream or multi-stream dashboard is really a function of the use. A single stream offers the opportunity of more graphs (and therefore more dimensions to filter on) while a multi-stream allows the display of different Views from one entity or even Views from multiple entities.

If you want to see them in action, the Tier 1 Dashboard, which comes as a sample Dashboard with the Interactive Service Hub, is a multi-stream dashboard, while the Tier 2 is a single-stream Dashboard. As a very rough rule of thumb, multi-stream Dashboards are good for high volume scenarios where multi-faceted information is needed and multiple actions need to be within easy reach, while single-stream Dashboards suit more complex records where detailed analysis is required.

The third type of Dashboard, the Entity Dashboard is created under the Entity in the Solution file.

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It took me ages to figure out where these surface in the Interactive Service Hub as they are not available in the Dashboard area of the Navigation Bar. Rather, these are accessed by a button in the bottom left corner when viewing a list of records.

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I really hope Microsoft move this to a more prominent location in future versions. For an intuitive interface, this is the least intuitive location for it.

In terms of how Dashboards look, they look like sexier forms of the traditional Dashboards except, as mentioned, the Charts and Streams are inter-connected.

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A few key differences are:

  • New graph types. We now have the traditional Bar, Line and Pie, but also Tag and Donut
  • We can have Tiles in these Dashboards which are like the Tiles on a Windows Phone (or the little circle in the corner of the App icon for the Android and Apple phone users). Clicking the Tile shows the underlying records.

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Multi-stream dashboards also allow you to reduce your streams to Tiles via a button in the bottom right corner of the Dashboard.

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  • New controls on the top of the Dashboard such as a graph button to show the graphs in a multi-stream Dashboard, a general filter button to apply filters much like you can with Views in the normal CRM client and a time filter in the top right.

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Forms

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The forms, while slightly friendlier on the eye, are sufficiently close to the traditional forms that they are easily understood by someone familiar with Dynamics CRM. While not obvious in the above screenshot, Business Process Flows are also supported in the Interactive Service Hub forms.

The Timeline section you see in the middle is, in effect, the Social Pane (with the same restrictions on the Activities you can create but with more ability to interact with the Activities in the list) and there is a button on the right to access the Knowledge Base and associate an Article to the Case being reviewed.

Anything New In the Spring Release?

A few enhancements have been made. Specifically:

  • Forms now support the Timer, Web Resources and Iframes (Dashboards do not)
  • Forms now support lookup filters, like the normal lookups
  • Multi-lingual articles can now be searched for in the Forms

Conclusions

Six months ago, my initial reaction to the Interactive Service Hub was a prettier, cut-down version of the ‘normal’ CRM interface but little more. I now look upon it more favourably. In the situations where users are unfamiliar with traditional software programs but familiar with online/iPad applications or in the case where a user is dealing with high volumes of data, the Interactive Service Hub makes a lot of sense.

If you hear a client make noise about the look and feel of Dynamics CRM, consider showing them the Interactive Service Hub. In my case it has saved a deal going to bespoke developers on at least two occasions.

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