The Wall Street Journal article “Business Software's Easy Feeling” yesterday discussed how “Many vendors have "consumerized" their corporate software and online services, making them easier to learn and navigate by borrowing heavily from sites such as Facebook or Amazon.com. They have also tried to make their products more intuitive by shying from extraneous features -- a lesson learned from simple consumer products such as Apple Inc.'s iPod.”
Three of the firms we cover in the On-Demand Index (ODI) are featured in the article: SuccessFactors Inc. (SFSF), Omniture Inc. (OMTR) and Salesforce.com Inc. (CRM.) The applications offered by these companies are varied: writing performance evaluations (SFSF), providing Web-analytics (OMTR) and sales force management (CRM.)
Although these applications are available as software-as-a-service (SaaS) or on-demand software offerings, the article did not address the pros or cons of that approach but rather why people found these products easy to use. When selecting an application (or investing in the application company itself) it is important to examine what the application offers to business people, what are the competitive alternatives and will business people actually use it in their jobs.
Every IT group and consultant worth their salt knows how to conduct a product evaluation. And industry analysts’ supporting that activity routinely publishes their top picks in various product categories. These evaluation processes are skewed towards the products that have the most features. (They also are biased towards the companies with the most customers and are the biggest in size but that’s another discussion.)
Is it the most features-packed product that a business person will use productively and generate a business return-on-investment (ROI)? If a product isn’t used there is not any business value returned.
The product has to be both easy to use and perform useful functions. That is why iPod/iTunes succeeded where so many portable music players did not. That’s what the products mentioned in this article offer.
The cautionary note to those companies and others that provide easy to use products is to watch out for being seduced into cramming additional features into your products. This inevitably results in complexity and may become a drag on business people using your products. It is easy to want to add more features to your product and get caught up in trying to win those product evaluations. But sit back and resist! More is not always better.
Part of the appeal of various BI products from SaaS, open source software (OSS) and other “small” software vendors is that they are easy to use and get the job done. This is in contrast to BI products that may win classic product evaluations but are overloaded with features and products stuffed into a BI suite. Feature-rich may win evaluations but not necessarily business users if the offering is too complex.
“Best” is most often defined differently by business people versus IT, consultants and industry analysts. Techies usually associate best with the most features. Business people define it as the best fit matching the functionality they need with its ease of use. Too many features often mean not much use.
Some IT people will tell me that their business people ask for everything so that’s what they try to give them. First, the IT group probably talked to “power” users who are more techies than business people. Talk to the people you want to really use it. Second, just because you ask for everything does not mean you are willing to pay for it (either in dollars or your time learning it.) A lesson many people learn in sales and one IT needs to understand.
Ease-of-use gets mentioned every few years as critical to business adoption and then the vendors fall back into the classic approach of stuffing features into their products to win those evaluations. It is not just the vendors fault, they are goaded into it from IT, industry analysts and competitors.
Disclosure: No investments in any of the stocks listed in this post