Cloud Accounting Xero

Cloud Accounting Comparison – User Interface

Written by Greg Lam

CloudWindowWe’ve all read a software’s feature list and thought it would work great, only to actually use the software and realize there’s a big difference between having a feature and having a usable feature. A lot of using software is about workflow and getting things done as efficiently as possible, making the user interface / experience so very important.

For this evaluation, there is no comparison matrix as in the previous posts. For the entire cloud accounting software comparison I was able to break down features into comparison points, but I had a hard time quantifying things like ease of use, thus no matrix.

After using many different accounting products, I can say that your feelings about the usability of software change between your first impressions to when you get to understand how the software works. So to generalize, most of the time it’s a bit of a struggle to figure out how to do things in the software when you first get into it. Some things that were easy to do in other software become a frustrating struggle to figure out in the new software.

As opposed to repeating myself for every review, most accounting software takes much more than 5 minutes to understand, or more specifically, to understand it well enough to be able to confidently use it. Most software takes me at least a few hours to wrap my head around, so I could imagine that for the normal user who doesn’t spend their time reviewing software, the learning curve to be confident would at least be a few hours.

There are few different ways to judge a cloud accounting user interface and experience:

  1. Ease of use: Is it easy to setup, use, and understand?
  2. Navigation: Is it easy to do what you want to do, does it take a lot of steps to complete a task, is everything organized in a logical way?
  3. Drill Down: Does the software have the ability when viewing data to click on a portion of that data to get more detailed information. For example, say you’re looking at an invoice and want to see the payment attached to it or you’re in a reconciliation and want to pull up the full details of an expense. Drilling down provides the user with the ability to access relevant data without having to go through some prescribed workflow set out by the software.
  4. Search: Is it easy to find and sort your data?

Xero

Xero touts itself as “beautiful software”. I’ve heard (sorry, can’t remember where) that the intended or original meaning behind that statement is that it’s beautiful because it works in a beautiful way, not necessarily because it’s visually beautiful (although I know they don’t try to correct people when they call the interface beautiful). Visually, I don’t think Xero is the most beautiful. If they’re talking about functionality, I think they have a very solid argument. In terms of workflow, sometimes it’s good, sometime’s I’ve seen it done better.

Ease Of Use

The time needed to learn Xero is higher than average. I think this is due in part to the software’s above average capabilities.

Despite some extra time needed to learn Xero, I think it has the best setup process and help documentation out of all the software reviewed. The setup is done in a step-by-step guided process, with helpful tips and videos every step of the way. Once you start using the software, there’s a “Geting Started” box at the top of every new page you navigate to, giving you quick tips on how to use the software and links to learn more. If you don’t need the tips, you can click on the X and they get out of your way forever. And if you need to access help again, there’s context specific help you can find by clicking on the ? icons on every page or you can go to the help link at the top right of the page to get more detailed help on Xero as a whole.

Navigation

In terms of navigation, I felt that items could be laid out and named a bit better in Xero. A quick example, is that there’s a section called “Accounts”, where my mind automatically makes me think of a chart of accounts. To me, accounts in Xero is more like “Transactions”, in that it’s the place where you’d go to enter transactions into your accounts. Although, every accounting software has it’s own terminology to deal with, and what’s logical to one person seems completely illogical to another.

Some tasks required a few clicks to get to, like creating a new invoice means 2 or 3 clicks (Dashboard > Add Sales Income = 2 clicks, Accounts > Sales > New = 3 clicks). Kashoo’s got this down to one click, and QuickBooks Online can create invoices in 1 to 2 clicks (depending on what workflow you use).

Drill Down

Xero has strong drill down functionality built in as a lot of the data in Xero is clickable.

Search

Xero’s search is strong, second only to QuickBooks Online. Many of the sections within Xero have a search button, that if clicked, will bring up a list of criteria that you can search for.

When viewing rows of data, Xero has the ability to choose how many items to show on a page, or to sort data by column titles (like being able to sort by date, $ amount, or account name).

QuickBooks Online US

There are many ways to do the same thing in QuickBooks Online. As a person who loves flexibility, this is awesome. But as a person who has to help users navigate QuickBooks Online, not so awesome. I feel that in the QuickBooks Online design there’s this inertia, not to dissimilar to that of a huge tanker – no wait, perhaps a cruise ship, one filled with accountants – and people don’t want to change workflows, how things look, and how things are named. It feels like anything new that QuickBooks Online wants to implement has to be built on top of the old way of doing things. This is why you end up with a section called “Write Check” to enter expenses paid from your bank account. With the other two types of expense functions called “Credit Card Expense” and “Cash Expense”, a more consistent name would be something like “Bank Account Expense” if you ask me. But “Write Check” is how it was and will be, although I’m pretty sure that most businesses use other forms of payment, such as a debit card or EFT more than they write checks.

There are some things that annoy me with the QuickBooks Online interface, such as pop-up windows asking me to do this and that (which perhaps is not really such a bad thing, since it’s contextual help and sometimes is does prevent you do something stupid, such as navigating away from a half-filled transaction).

And there are some things that are great, like the “Income List”, which is both a great visual look at your income, but also a practical interface to taking action on invoices (like printing, sending, and receiving payments).

In general, I wish there was a more standard design language used across all the functions. For example, why is “Vendor List” formatted differently than the “Customer Center”, when they’re essentially both lists, one of customers and one of vendors?

Ease Of Use

The fact that there are so many choices within QuickBooks Online must add to the learning curve of using the software. For a beginner, this can be overwhelming.

I think probably the best thing for any beginner to do to understand the QuickBooks Online workflow is to go to Home > Getting Around. There’s a click map with the workflow to get around the most common features you’ll use.

If you’re looking for help, it’s literally everywhere in QuickBooks Online. Actually, every corner of the screen, the top (Help), bottom (Related Activities and Information), left (Videos), and right (How do I)!

So, in general, I think QuickBooks is easy to use. The not-so-easy thing is figuring out how to use it and the best way to use it.

Navigation

There’s a menu item for everything, which is 56 things at my last count. This makes navigation a bit of a tricky thing. I mean, how could you really make 56 things easily navigable?

There’s surely an advantage in having a menu item for everything, as there are probably a lot of people who only need or want to do a few specific things in QuickBooks Online. So, just like the iPhone and iPad have “an app for that” QuickBooks Online has a “window for that”.

Because QuickBooks Online does give you the ability to rearrange your menus, and a nice click map for the most common features, it’s easy enough to modify QuickBooks Online to navigate in a way that’s more in line with your own needs.

Drill Down

QuickBooks Online does a great job of linking data together. There really isn’t much you can’t click on to get more details.

Search

The find function is QuickBooks Online is an excellent tool, by far the best search out there. My favorite part is that you can search specifically by any transaction type (such as invoice or payment) or by all transaction types. When searching, sometimes you need to filter your search results, but other times, you want to pull up as many possibilities as you can. QuickBooks Online lets you do this.

When you use the “find” function, you get a pop-up window. When you click on a listed result, the transaction shows up in your main window. This makes it fast to go through the search results and find what you’re looking for. Good job QuickBooks Online!

Kashoo

Kashoo has the simplest, and I argue, the easiest user interface out there. There’s one navigation menu on the left heft hand side, and everything is there. There’s no sub menus, drop-down menus, or fly-out menus. And before I have people commenting to correct me, there is a top navigation menu in Kashoo for your profile, help, feedback, refresh, and log out functions. In reality though, you’ll be working off of the left hand navigation menu the vast majority of the  time.

Ease Of Use

I’ve talked about a learning curve with other software and having to spend hours to figure them out. Kashoo’s the only exception, where I think I understood enough to be able to confidently use it in under an hour. Yes, there were some things I had to investigate and figure out, some things that puzzled me, but it was nothing like what I had encountered with other software. I’ll propose three reasons for why the low learning curve.

First, anything you can do with the software is clearly visible from the left hand navigation menu, which is actually a list of 24 things. However, it doesn’t feel like a massive list. The layout is roughly organized in what you’d use the most to the least. Entering transactions makes up the top part of the menu, followed by Reports, then Add-Ons, and finally SETUP.

Secondly, the interface really doesn’t change on you and has a consistent workflow. You click on a task to accomplish from the left hand navigation menu and then proceed to fill out the fields, from the top to bottom, left to right. There’s no out-of-the way hidden fields or tucked away secrets.

Thirdly, you can use any type of account whenever there’s an account field. For example, if you want to use an expense account as a line item when creating an invoice you can. The option for choosing an expense account is not immediately available though, since you either have to start typing in the name of the expense account or use the drop-down menu to choose “show all accounts”, so it’s natural state is to show you the accounts you’d use 99% of the time. But the big thing is that you can use whatever account you want, making Kashoo, which seems simple, a lot more powerful than it looks. Instead of having a specialized page for each type of transaction, you can accomplish many things from just a few windows. This is how Kashoo can keep a clean and simple interface, yet leave itself open to be flexibly used by more advanced users.

For getting started with Kashoo, it’s unfortunately not as obvious as other software as to what you are to do. There’s a “Welcome” page at the very top of the navigation menu, but it doesn’t quite get you a complete overview of what to do when first using Kashoo. If you happen to go down to the SETUP section however, you’ll find that if you navigated through all those windows in order, starting with “Data Import” and working your way down to “Items”, you’d be going through the motions of setting up your business in Kashoo.

There’s a bit of contextual help here and there around Kashoo, but I found the best way to get help is to click on the help link and search their support site, which has both knowledge base articles and Q+A. If contextual help was a bit lacking at times, the dedicated support site organized all the answers in one place, which made it easy to search through and get the answers I was looking for.

Navigation

As mentioned previously, there’s a navigation menu on the left where you can access the majority of Kashoo’s features.

Kashoo’s three main transaction entry windows are the “Dashboard”, “Income”, and “Expense” windows. The Dashboard is actually a sort of combo window, in that it has both the “Income” and “Expense” functions windows in it. To understand how these window’s work, let’s take the “Dashboard” window for example. It has eight tabs: Enter Income, Enter Invoice, Enter Payment, Detailed (Income), Enter Expense, Enter Bill, Pay Bill, Detailed (Expense).

The real beauty in this setup, is that there is no lag time in switching between these tabs and there is no massive shift in interface. The Date is always on the top left, followed by the name, and so on. It also makes learning the software easier, since the only difference between entering income and entering expenses, is that you’re choosing different payment accounts or income / expense accounts.

One of the thing that I really like in Kashoo’s income and expense entry windows is that there’s a field called “Terms or Payment Account”. At its fundamental core, the only difference between income (i.e. a sales receipt) vs. an invoice, is that sales receipts are paid on the spot whereas an invoice is paid at a later date. Depending on which “Terms or Payment Account” you choose, an accounts receivable account or a bank account, decides whether something is “Income” vs. an “Invoice”. So if you go to edit an “Income” transaction, you’ll see that you still have the option to switch the “Terms or Payment” account, and fill out those extra fields to make it an “Invoice”.

In contrast, take QuickBooks Online, which has a specialized window for “Enter Bill”, “Write Check”, “Cash Expense”, and “Credit Card Expense”. These are four different windows, which pretty much do the exact same thing that you can accomplish with one window in Kashoo. And if you consider the fact that Kashoo has the dashboard page which combines both income and expense entries, you can do a great deal of income and expense entry from the same interface.

A little nice touch with Kashoo is that when you navigate away from a page, your data isn’t deleted. In a lot of the accounting software, once you go to another page and come back, your data is gone (QuickBooks Online and FreshBooks at least warns you of the potential data loss though).

Drill Down

Kashoo provides some solid drill down capabilities from most areas of it’s software. The one area I noticed where it fell behind QuickBooks Online and Xero, is that when you’re looking at a report and drill down further, you’ll get more information but it’s not necessarily based on the same filter used for the report. For example, if you’re looking at the Aged Receivables report and click on a customer, it’ll bring you to the customer’s page which will show you a transaction list of all the customer’s paid and unpaid invoices, where really, you’d assume you’d only be shown the invoices that are unpaid.

Search

All of the windows that contain a list of data, whether it be transactions or contacts, can be searched. However, the fields you can search for is inconsistent across the different windows. Some windows you can search by $ amount, whereas other you can’t, and there’s no good in-app way to see what you can search for where. Rows of data in Kashoo can’t be organized by column titles (so you can’t switch your view of data by $ amount, name, or anything else).

Wave

Wave underwent a major interface overhaul in December 2012, and I must say, it was a definite improvement. Their interface is much more consistent and easier to use.

Wave is simple software, and user friendly in a lot of regards, but I’ve found that there’s small things that add up to take away from it’s true potential.

Ease Of Use

Like other software, once you understand the workflow of Wave, it’s generally easy to use. The only thing that would stop me from saying that it’s easy to use, is that there are certain types of transactions that you can’t do in Wave, such as receiving a single payment for multiple invoices. Because there’s a prescribed way to do most everything in Wave, if there’s no easy way to do it, you either have to do a complicated work around or you simply can’t enter the transaction at all.

To get set up in Wave, there’s a few quick links from the dashboard, such as to set up your bank accounts, add your contacts, customize your invoices, and invite guest collaborators. Wave also instructs you to click on the gear icon on the to right hand of any window to get to some more settings. You’d also probably want to go to their “Accounting” page to set up your chart of accounts. So there’s a few different places to go in Wave to get setup.

All the published help documentation in Wave can be accessed via hitting a “support” button on the top right and then either “Search our FAQ” or “Ask our Community”. Either link actually brings you to the same place, with the community forums being a subsection of Wave’s support site. It looks like Wave merged their own knowledge base (FAQs) with their community forums, which makes navigation a bit confusing at first, but not so bad once you understand it.

Navigation

The majority of their menu items are found on the left hand side and are comprised of: Dashboard, transactions, invoices, bills, receipts, accounting, reports, payroll. The settings is found at the top of every page and is in the form of a little gear icon. I would have preferred to see that gear icon simply be one more menu item, but once you know where to find it, it’s not a big deal.

Getting around Wave is generally accomplished within a couple clicks, which makes it fairly easy to navigate.

Drill Down

One thing I wish was a bit better in Wave is how all the data is linked together. Something that I enjoy is the ability to drill down into relevant contextual data, such as to investigate a customer while looking at an accounts receivable report. You can’t do this in Wave, but you can get a similar type report if you go to it’s Income page and the filter results by customer. Another little example is the chart of accounts. In other software, if you’re viewing it, you’re able to click on an account to pull up transaction histories. This is not so in Wave, but again, you can get this information if you go the right area in Wave.

So, data is mostly accessible in Wave, but you do need to know the exact workflow in how to access that data, whereas in other software I find it much easier to jump around and navigate the software by clicking on related data.

Search

The search in Wave is quite good. On most any window that has transaction data, you can click on the “Filter” button and narrow down your data via things like name, date, and status. Also, all the column headers can be selected, so that you can sort the data by that column.

The real nice window to search is the transactions window. From here, you can search any transaction by whether it has been categorized, the account used, transaction type, category, and date. The only thing missing is by amount. You can also change how many results are displayed, so that you can see up to 100 at a time.

FreeAgent

I really feel that FreeAgent could use an interface and workflow overhaul. Out of all the software I’ve reviewed, it’s the one that requires the most steps. Also the interface was not consistent and certain functionality is hidden or not available until certain actions are taken.

One thing I did like about FreeAgent’s was the WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) interface when crafting an invoice. It feels like you are really creating an invoice as opposed to filling out an ugly spreadsheet.

Ease Of Use

I found the learning curve on FreeAgent to be quite high, and even once I learned how to use FreeAgent, certain things still didn’t make sense to me. I don’t mind a higher learning curve for software that gives me extra capabilities, but I found the learning curve was needed because the software was not laid out as effectively as it could be.

Here’s just a couple examples of where FreeAgent could have been laid out beter.

When I wanted to delete an invoice, I couldn’t find a “Delete” button anywhere. It turns out, that you have to click on the “Mark as Draft” button on the invoice before the option to delete shows up. This seems like an unnecessary extra step.

Likewise, in order to move your invoice from being a draft to being real, you have to click “Mark as Sent” or “Send by Email”. If you click on “Save as PDF” it doesn’t actually move the Invoice from the “Draft” category to the “Sent” category.

The first part of setting up FreeAgent however, was one of the better experiences I’ve had in setting up software. It takes you through a 5 step process, with “handy” tips and videos along the way. Now the second part of the setup process, wasn’t as great. That’s because in FreeAgent there’s no way to modify your own chart of accounts.

A helpful feature of FreeAgent is that when you first go to a page you haven’t used, there’s a nice explanation of what the feature is and how to use it. Once you start using the feature, that explanation automatically disappears.

FreeAgent has two different sections, the support side (with knowledge base articles and faqs) and the community forums side. The support side is a bit hard to navigate. For example, using the search box on the sidebar will give different results than using the search found in the footer. Actually, the community forums side also has two search boxes, one is for searching topics and one is for asking a question. One thing I did like on the support side was the liberal use of screenshots, which made it easier to follow step-by-step instructions.

Once you figure it out how to navigate through the support side and community forums side, there’s some good information, however the organization of the help documentation could definitely be improved.

Navigation

In terms of navigating around the software and using the entry forms, I found that sometimes FreeAgent forced me through unnecessary clicks or steps. An example is the process to create a customer invoice. To create an invoice, you must:

  1. Go to “Work” then select “Invoicing”
  2. Click on “Add New Invoice”
  3. Click on “Create New Invoice”
  4. Click on “Add Invoice Item”
  5. Click on “Create and Finish” or “Create and Add Another”
  6. Click on “Send by Email” or “Mark as Sent”

That’s a minimum of 6 clicks. Most accounting software can do this in 2-3 clicks. I don’t see any reason why an invoice couldn’t be created in one screen.

For the most part though, if you navigate FreeAgent by first going to the “Overview” page, you’ll end up clicking a bit less.

Drill Down

FreeAgent has drill down capabilities, but it’s not as good as the other software out there. One example is that if you’re viewing an invoice or bill that’s been paid, there’s no option to see the associated payment, something that other software lets you do.

Search

I couldn’t find a search feature in FreeAgent (That’s funny now that I think of it, I couldn’t find the search feature…). If you’re looking for data, you have to go to whatever section you entered it in order to find it.

When you’re viewing data, there’s also no way to sort the data and there’s limited ability to filter the data by dates dates. For example, you can’t choose a custom time frame for a Profit and Loss report.

FreshBooks

FreshBooks has a fairly clean interface and look. Everything is quite straightforward and simple in FreshBooks, which means there’s not much to talk about.

Ease Of Use

When you first start using FreshBooks, you’re guided through with helpful forms, tips, and videos, every step of the way. It’s the most aesthetically pleasing – and if you can call setting up accounting software fun – fun setup experience I’ve been through.

Part of FreshBooks ease of uses also stems from it lack of capabilities, as it’s really more of an invoicing and expense tracking software than it is accounting software.

The workflow is well thought out, and I didn’t find myself getting lost or confused while using FreshBooks. In terms of learning curve, it’s among the best. The reason I say among the best, is that I still consider to Kashoo to have the lowest learning curve, because when I tried to do more accounting-type tasks in FreshBooks, I hit a wall, because FreshBooks just couldn’t do some of the basic tasks I expect from accounting software.

The context sensitive help that popped up when using FreshBooks was great. The help section could be better. Don’t get me wrong, the published content is quite good, but I definitely felt it was missing it’s user forum, which was officially shut down. This means that where in other software I could search the forum to find items being discussed that would help me solve problems (because forums tend to highlight problems and workarounds in software), I sometimes had a hard time figuring out what FreshBooks could and couldn’t do.

Navigation

All your navigation can be found in the top-right grey navigation menu, the main blue navigation menu, and the sub-menu below the main menu.

Your “Overview” (Dashboard) contains a snapshot of your activities as well as links to help getting started and creating new things.

By clicking on the “New” button, you can create anything you’d want to in FreshBooks: Clients, Invoices, Estimates, Expenses, Payments, Projects, Support Tickets.

Overall, the navigation was easy to understand and never overly complicated.

Drill Down

The drill down in FreshBooks works as well as I’d expect it to. You can drill down into reports as well as find associated information (such as payments for invoices) when you needed to.

Search

FreshBooks doesn’t have a universal search feature like you may find in other online accounting software. However, it does have window specific searches, like the ability to search only invoices or expenses.

Within a specific window, such as invoices, clicking on the search button will give you a detailed search interface. The search in FreshBooks is quite nice as it gives you a whole host of criteria to search for, such as expense category, client name, project name, a date range, and amount (and that’s just naming a few).

When viewing data, you can sort it by header columns.

So, who has the best interface and user experience?

I’m going to have to give the crown to Kashoo on this one. Kashoo has found a way to boil down a lot bookkeeping tasks into an easy to navigate and relatively small amount of windows, yet still keep a lot of the flexibility and accountant-friendly power behind-the-scenes.

The consistent way each page was laid out, meant that you spent less time figuring out a workflow, and more time just working. It also lets you complete functions with the least amount of clicks. For some of the more complex or lesser used bookkeeping tasks, it sometimes stumbles (for example, undeposited funds could certainly be more user friendly). However overall, it makes the task of bookkeeping simple.

FreshBooks comes in second place. The one big but, is that it can’t do many core accounting things, which makes using FreshBooks as accounting software either hard or impossible.

Xero and QuickBooks Online both have decent interfaces, but the complexity sometimes gets in the way of ease of use. Wave is simple, but sometimes too simple and not flexible enough to what you’d like it to do. I hope FreeAgent does a redesign to help with their workflow and ease of use.

QuickBooks Online does win in the search category, with their universal search. Being able to search all your data and then use the search results to navigate to the right area in QuickBooks Online is such a useful feature.

See the next installment in this series – Invoicing

For a complete list of the articles in this series – Cloud Accounting Introduction

Now Available!

Written by video blogger and online accounting expert Greg Lam (aka “The Small Biz Doer”), this new book from The Sleeter Group explains, compares, and contrasts 185 features found in today’s leading online accounting software products.Online Accounting Software: Finding the Right Match

Online Accounting Software: Finding the Right Match evaluates:

  • QuickBooks Online (small business)
  • Xero (small business)
  • Cheqbook (microbusiness)
  • Kashoo (microbusiness)
  • Wave (microbusiness)
  • Zoho Books (microbusiness)
  • FreshBooks (invoicing)

Greg gives you everything you need to assess the software and “find the right match” for your own accounting firm or for your clients’ small businesses.

Order your copy today and you’ll receive Greg’s first update FREE!

About the author

Greg Lam

Greg Lam is a passionate small business guy who loves technology and automation. He holds a BBA from Simon Fraser University, Canada. He's a Certified QuickBooks ProAdvisor, Certified Xero Partner, and Kashoo MVP. His business interests are focused on online accounting and how it can be used to streamline and automate a company’s accounting processes. He currently lives in Tokyo, Japan.

Greg operates the Small Biz Doer website, an "Entrepreneur's Guide to Small Biz Bookkeeping." He is the author of Online Accounting Software: Finding the Right Match, published by The Sleeter Group.

Connect with Greg on Twitter, Google Plus, YouTube, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

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