Building Simple Enterprise Software

by Jim Berkowitz on November 8, 2010

In “Building the Simple Enterprise,” Aaron Levie, the founder and CEO of Box.net,  makes a strong, passionate argument for the benefits of simple, easy to use enterprise software over what seems to be an unfounded belief that a complex business with a complex set of problems require complex technology solutions.  Here are a few excerpts from the article.  But if you are intrigued, I highly recommend that you take the time to read the complete source article:

In the enterprise, simplicity simply doesn’t sell. Complexity, on the other hand, justifies costly software licenses and a swat team of consultants and systems integrators. It explains why updates are available every three years instead of being pushed weekly. And it even serves as an easy – but ultimately blameless – scapegoat for failed deployments and lagging user adoption. After all, the problems faced by today’s enterprises are incredibly challenging, and complex problems require equally complex solutions, right?

Wrong. This mindset needs to change – in fact, in order to survive, enterprise software must become simpler…

Consumers are bringing new technology and expectations into the workplace where, more often than not, they’re forced to work with and around legacy platforms that disable rather than enable productivity. Simplicity will become the most important factor in business technology’s success, and to get there it can no longer be a dirty word in the enterprise. But it’s going to require some serious effort on the part of vendors and buyers alike.

While I deeply respect and admire the many innovations brought about by legacy solutions, the current state of technology in the enterprise kind of sucks. There’s a reason why a Google search returns more than 2 million results for “I Hat Lotus.” Complexity is the culprit, and it takes many forms: tedious processes for common tasks like HR and expense reports, inability to collaborate beyond the firewall without IT intervention, and information silos without any security rationale. Not to mention the bad UI, error messages, upgrade failures, and downtime that users and IT departments contend with on a daily basis. And while no one explicitly desires cumbersome technology, we keep buying it because we’ve built a strong correlation between the number of features a solution has and the likelihood it will solve our problem. That, and you won’t get fired. While building or adopting the most feature-rich service looks great on paper, in practice it means that customers have signed themselves up for technology that can never be upgraded, unhappy end-users, and (paradoxically) inertia to move off tools that required so much time to implement and experts to maintain.

Building simple software takes vision and discipline

Mark Twain (or Ben Franklin, depending on your source) said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” This, in essence, is the challenge with simplicity. Building simple technology is not easy; it inherently takes much more work to reduce complex problems into simple solutions for people. Building products that suck is far easier, as David Barrett of Expensify pointed out in his post yesterday. Simplicity requires that you have user experience drive product management and solve problems with exceptional design. And it also means you sometimes have to say no.

How to build a simpler enterprise:

If you’re in IT: Look throughout your organization and find the areas where employees spend a disproportionate amount of time or run into problems on a specific set of tasks. Enabling technologies in these areas will pay huge dividends for your organization. Pilot tools with employees, or find out what they’re already using before implementing something site-wide — more likely than not, a simpler solution has already been adopted. Consider the intangible value of implementing simpler technologies: less support, less maintenance, less headache, more productivity. Demand simplicity from your vendors.

If you’re building software: Invest disproportionately in design, usability and engineering. Create transparent feedback loops to make sure your product is being successful. Building great, usable technology is not subjective. Constantly test what you’re building on users and gather data consistently. Reduce features sets, allow for customization, and stick to your vision. Sell based on the complexity of the problem and the simplicity of the solution.

If you’re a business manager or end-user: Talk to your IT department. Explain why your existing technology isn’t meeting your needs, and offer to pilot new technologies. Use your IT organization as a source of knowledge and innovation rather than just a support center, and they’re far more likely to implement user friendly, innovative technologies.

Simplicity will be incredibly beneficial, and it will also be incredibly disruptive. The losers will be the technology providers who are either too lazy or too overextended to settle on a vision; the winners will be workforces that are empowered by usable technology and the vendors that serve them.

I can’t agree more with what Aaron has to say in this article.  I have always felt that the need for extensive focus on function and feature analysis is just plain overrated.  It’s not what the software does, but how it does it that will ultimately lead to success in its implementation and use.

In any mature software category 70% or more of the functionality will typically be the same; it’s the 30% that’s different that’s worthy of some evaluation.  However, more care should given to analyzing whether it would be better to do without most, if not all, of this non-core functionality then trying to determine if any of this functionality could be useful.  The bottom line, is that useability should be the most important criteria in selecting enterprise technology.

{ 1 comment }

Pankaj November 8, 2010 at 10:43 am

Our motto at HyperOffice is “no geeks required”, and it is also our belief that software no longer be thought of as rocket science which required a dozen certifications. With the advent of SaaS, users need not worry about server end issues at all, and just make functional usage of the software. This does not mean the inability to tailor your solution at all. But even for that, you need no software expertise, as customization options are created for use by a lay user.

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