Improving User Experience in OpenBoxes

April 11, 2022

OpenBoxes is an open source Logistics Management Information System designed for government and non-profit health systems in the developing world. Historically, the OpenBoxes team has focused its efforts on remaining free and accessible to all who desire to implement the software. This means that software improvements have often been driven by available funding, and user experience improvements have not been a priority despite advocacy by the OpenBoxes team.

This quarter, the OpenBoxes team has been working hard on a series of improvements designed to help users better navigate the software. After a long stretch focused on new feature development, the team is excited to switch focus to some quality-of-life improvements. For the next release in April 2022, look out for the following changes:

  • Configuration improvements for superusers and administrators
    • Updates to the product location, and inventory imports to make them more usable and remove bugs
    • Full revamp of the location create and edit screen for easier location creation
    • Step-by-step wizards for creating products, categories, and locations
  • Help Scout in-app support
    • Support sidebar in OpenBoxes with searchable articles
    • New knowledge base with content in several languages

A long overdue change

“User experience improvements have been at the top of my priority list for a long time,” says OpenBoxes Lead Developer Justin Miranda. “But it has been difficult to find funding to work on it.” “There aren’t many granting organizations that consider the specific needs of Open Source softwares.” That changed last year when OpenBoxes received a grant of $60,000 from Digital Square, a consortium of donors focused on supporting digital public goods. The grant funded several improvements focused on making it easier for new users to install and configure OpenBoxes. While the grant focused on lowering barriers to access for new implementers, the improvements will also make things easier for current administrators.

For the first round of improvements, the team focused on two key objects in OpenBoxes: products and locations. The most important feature of Logistics Management Information System is defining the quantity of a product in a specified location (the inventory), so it is essential to properly define all products and locations to give accurate inventory information.

Product and location creation often causes problems for administrators because the administrative tools available in OpenBoxes have not kept up with the increasing configurability and complexity of the system. Excel imports are missing key fields, required data isn’t clearly marked, and documentation isn’t fully up to date. This means that new administrators have a difficult time setting up the system, and may end up choosing a more user-friendly for-profit software.

“Since administrators tend to be our most tech-savvy users, we don’t prioritize making things easy for them,” says Partners In Health Product Manager Kelsey Nagel. “We assume they will figure it out. But as an OB administrator myself, it can be frustrating. I’m so excited that we can make these key processes work more smoothly. I’m excited about the improved excel imports in particular – this will save so much data entry time for implementers.”

Administrators and procurement or warehouse users will also benefit from the new in-app help feature, which will debut in April, with the support team continuing to add new documentation throughout the rest of the year. Users will be able to click on a “?” button on any page in OpenBoxes that will lead them to a series of help articles in their preferred language.

Looking toward the future

In addition to the improvements themselves, the Digital Square project has also helped the OpenBoxes team create a roadmap for a larger User Interface (UI) overhaul. With the grant funding, the core team was able to engage their first ever usability expert, Beata Komorowska. She has already improved the application by providing designs for new features based on optimizing the experience of users in the system. She will stay on after the grant ends to create a style guide for OpenBoxes. “Having a usability expert has been a game changer,” says Mr. Miranda. “We now have the expertise to make real progress, and we are committed to finding the funding to keep it going.” Keep an eye out for UI improvements in future releases. On the deck for the May 2022 release: usability improvements to the requisition feature!

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