Monday, July 11, 2011

Customer Centered Software Design

What would it be like if software companies acted more like Zappos (the customer-centric online clothing and shoe store) - and less like... well... software companies? Zappos was renowned for their free shipping and their absolute focus on making sure the customer was happy. They allowed (even encouraged) you to buy 3 or 4 sizes of shoes (or pants or whatever), try them on in your own home, and they would pay the shipping for the stuff you wanted to return.

No questions asked. No requirement to call and get a Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA). They would even provide the return shipping label and a reseal-able box to send the stuff back. They wanted the customer to be absolutely satisfied with their purchase, and to remove the fear of buying the wrong size online and the dread of trying to return the stuff.

And it worked. In 2009, 10 years after their founding, they sold out to Amazon for $1.2 billion.

Now, let's contrast that with the typical software application lifecycle. If you work in a large company (or have them for clients) - you are already aware of how it typically goes:

  • CIO or CTO gets taken out to fancy meal by software vendor;
  • CIO decides it's time for a "sweeping overhaul" of the system you need to get your work done with;
  • No one bothers to ask you and your colleagues what you need in order to improve your efficiency and/or improve your customer service - after all -you're just a "user" (usually said with a little shutter and/or utter disdain by the keeper of the technology);
  • Software vendor gets a huge chunk of the budget (meaning you're lucky if you get paper clips, so forget about getting a few hours of programmer time to implement the 3 features you were promised in last year's budget cycle);
  • Software vendor over-promises and under-delivers: it takes them 3 years for the implementation, rather than 2 years;
  • In the meantime, your cobbled-together, built-when-the-dinosaurs-roamed-the-earth, Excel-based "application" has become even more creaky and fragile;
  • When the big rollout does happen (and internal marketing posters and "kick off event" yummies have been consumed) - the software that you're forced to use is a bigger steaming pile than the old software it's replacing;
  • In the 1/2 day "brown bag" training session you get your first chance to see the "new system" up-close and question that plays in a loop tape in your head is "... really?... wait, what? the? heck?";
  • Oh yeah, and there's still 20 or so "consultants" from the software vendor hanging around like post-office workers drinking coffee and taking 6 weeks to add a field to a screen or get your TPS report to work 

My question is - why? Why is the process that hard and the results so poor? Why do companies continue to dump money down the toilet on huge systems that, assuming they ever actually get deployed, are antiquated at launch and the end users hate?

I'm hoping with this big economic downturn - that one of the silver linings will be a change to this loathsome process. I guess, back in the day, since companies were flush with money initiatives like "computing re-alignments" and "departmental paradigm shifts" all sounded so good that no one actually looked at silly metrics like ROI, productivity and user buy-in.

Now that same amount of work has to be done by 10%-40% less people - I'm seeing more and more companies and customers start to place a value on the lowly end-user. The Jane or John Doe who is in the trenches tasked with keeping the business going and making sure that customers don't take their scarce dollars to someone else - are finally being noticed and in some cases - even (gasp!) valued!

That means that the successful companies in these lean times are investing in tools and software that will not only placate the folks on the front line - but actually delight them. And from where I sit, there's nothing that delights users more than software that's designed to get end user's top 5 tasks one in 3 clicks or less. It's about building software - not with 1,000,000 "cool" features or cluttering the user interface with 5,000 buttons, tabs, menus and options.

It's about presenting a user interface that allow one thing and one thing only: the simplest, most straight-forward way for the user to get their job done. At the end of the day - that's what we all want: to do our jobs and to go home.

In general, people are not technologists. People are not programmers. People do not give a crap about the latest software flavor-of-the-month, cloud computing, SaaS (Software as a Service), or any other techno-babble. They simply want software that helps them accomplish their job and... then they want to go home.

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