This is not an ad. Seriously, after years of writing this blog I hope you'd have a little faith in me :) That having been said, if you have absolutely no desire whatsoever to listen to anything to do with my company, just stop reading. I mean it. Don't worry, I won't be offended. And next week we'll get right back into digital signage screen placement research, I promise.
OK, so the rest of you are going to stick with me for a bit. After reading this article, I believe you'll think twice before you call up your software vendor to yell at them. "Maybe...," you'll think, "...that mauve on fuscia color palette the software uses is designed to streamline my workflow." Of course, even if you did think that, you'd still snap right out of it, place your call and let your vendor have it, I'm sure.
A new product? What on earth were we thinking?
Although the screens may look the same,
small projects are a different animal.
small projects are a different animal.
On the other hand, while many of those guys in the 10-20 range thought they'd expand to hundreds or thousands of screens (one guy a while back even said "millions"), history and mathematics indicated that only a very few ever would. So we were left with a problem. Our software had to have all of these complex, sophisticated features and scalability for thousands upon thousands of screens for our big clients, but still needed to be simple enough for the smaller clients who were (and are) our bread-and-butter to use and enjoy. Needless to say, this caused many heated debates between myself and our software design team.
Trading flexibility for simplicity
Our ultimate solution (as much as anything can be an "ultimate" solution in the software world) was a compromise: we'd continue to put effort into simplifying our enterprise-level software as a service (SaaS) platform, while still retaining all of its powerful features. But we'd also create a new product, aimed squarely at the smaller guys. We estimated that it would take six to nine months and cost around a half million dollars to get version 1.0 out the door.
We knew our focus for this new product would be simplicity, but there was debate over what that meant. No multi-zone support? No network support? No interactivity? Those all seemed like pretty vital features, so they couldn't be left out, even though our support history showed that those three areas created the greatest number of support requests. But because our enterprise product was (and is) web-based, we realized that our server logs had a perfectly good record of exactly which features our customers had been using the most for the past seven or eight years. Suddenly, multi-zone support could be streamlined because 90% of our small clients were using fairly simple layouts. The look-and-feel of our network configuration tools changed as the emphasis shifted from "configure 1,000 players as fast as you can" to "help the average Joe configure his five players, at a pace he's comfortable with."
And so we went down the list. Over time, we realized that most of our customers were only using 25-30% of the features in our SaaS product. Those 25-30% became the base for the new product, which we decided to call EasyStart (it's easy, get it?). We went back to our pool of common feature requests to fill out our feature set, adding in things like real-time screen previews (impossible due to bandwidth constraints for most of our large customers with huge networks), easier file uploading and importing, and more built-in training videos and tutorials.
Unfortunately, all of this "simplicity" turned out to be pretty complex on the back-end. Our timelines and budgets both ballooned as we realized what a significant break EasyStart would be from our enterprise software applications.
You don't get a second chance to make a first impression
After 16 months and (embarrassingly large amount redacted) dollars, we were finally satisfied that our new creation was something that even our brethren at 37signals would agree is "simple." And by simple, I mean easy-to-use and understand, and not necessarily feature-deprived, which is always the nagging concern. But ultimately that won't be something for us to decide anyway. The free market -- whether you love it or hate it these days -- dictates that our prospective customers will tell us whether we hit the right combination of features and ease-of-use.
Competition in our industry is tough, and there are many companies out there with products that run the gamut from utter crap to really-freaking-awesome. Hopefully the market will decide that we're closer to the latter than the former.
So what do you think, did this article read like an ad? Go ahead, call me on it if you think so. But if you feel that way, please leave a comment and let me know how I could have made it more useful to you.