The Agony and the Indifference

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It’s often said that no news is good news, and in the software business, when it comes to system upgrades, no news really is very good news indeed  True, after months of intense creative work (for, after all, software design is an art), one might hope for a little adulation, but I’ve long ago learned to hitch my emotional needs to more dependable areas of life. A well-judged cheese soufflé will almost always inspire acclaim, or a nicely burned bitter-sweet tarte tatin.

As we grow, we learn to avoid risking our feelings. If I were to attempt a novel, or learn the Strauss Oboe Concerto all over again, and play it at the Proms with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, then I would be suicidal if the best response I got was indifference. But I’ve learned that in the world of business software, silence is the best you can hope for. To the experienced ear it can sometimes sound like adulation.

I was thinking these regretful thoughts in view of our impending release of Version 6 of time@work, our software for Professional Services Organisations. We’ve completely reworked the GUI (Graphical User Interface) so that it looks much nicer, at least by today’s fast-changing standards. How long it will be before we must change it again to avoid new sneers of disapproval, as its look and feel fall from fashion, I cannot predict. And it may be that the early 2010s will make a comeback (as the platform heels and long swirly skirts of the 1970s have done) and we’ll simply have to change it back to what it was. But you have to keep up, and we certainly left it a little longer than we should.

‘That’s not cool enough for our users,’ was the kind of remark I was having nightmares about hearing from potential customers, and existing ones. Business software has too look as nice as Facebook if you want anyone under thirty to use it. Or worse than the overt sneer or the snide remark, there’s just never hearing from potential customers again.

But now with Version 6 we’ve put that unpleasantness firmly behind us. At least I think we have. At least for a while. But the thing is, you can never really know. The sneers and snide remarks need no longer be feared but you can’t expect a warm shower of praise in their place. Silence and indifference are as good as it gets.

We’ve done some early upgrades of the system for our own company, and for an important client. Only two out of our 100 plus users at LLP Group provided any unsolicited feedback – very positive, as it happens. Others, when pressed (by me, and therefore under duress) admitted that we’ve produced a much improved interface, though none of them used the word ‘cool’. As for our clients, they simply remarked that it’s okay.

But, then, that’s all that one can expect, and I take it as ‘admiring with faint praise’ rather than ‘damning with faint praise’. When I think about it, I’m probably as ungenerous as the next man about similar things, so it would be hypocritical to complain. The fact is that IT and Business IT are invisible and unremarkable when they’re working well. A new version of time@work will never be like the latest video game, or a new model of iPhone. Timesheets have yet to become a pleasure for anyone, even if they’re a necessity for a professional services organisation. If the software isn’t actually unpleasant to look at, or isn’t actually difficult to use, that’s a very considerable achievement.

So, lovely though acclaim may be, I know it’s a great achievement to have achieved indifference, and I mean that seriously. We all know how badly software upgrades can go. That there are no complaints, that nothing went wrong, can feel, after thirty years in the business, almost like ecstasy

Mutual Frustration – Why do IT systems users wait so long for features that already exist?

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I attended a conference recently where, by chance, I met someone who’s using the expense management system that I design – expense@work.  It’s always a little alarming when you meet a real user since you must expect them to be honest, and there are no better judges of what you’ve done. This one was direct:

‘I hate it,’ he said, with the kind of mock fury that told me that he knew he was exaggerating and didn’t really want me to go away and kill myself.

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Well, it’s so out of date. I can’t attach images to my expense claims, and I can’t use it on a mobile device,’ and so on.

‘But you can,’ I said. ‘We’ve had those features for years.’

‘Then why haven’t we got them?’

‘I don’t know.’

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It’s so frustrating, but this happens time and time again. And not only with our own software. We also sell and implement a financial system, SunSystems, and again, we often have to deal with users who want features that we have, but who aren’t getting them.

This is actually a widespread problem in system implementation and the end result seems to be unnecessary reputational damage for the software author.

Why does it happen and how can it be avoided?

It happens because system implementation is a lengthy, expensive and risky business and end users don’t often determine what’s on the list of features that they’re going to get. Sponsors and project managers on the client’s side have a highly controlled, and usually narrow, list of objectives, and their criteria of success won’t usually include the implementation of features that are merely ‘nice to have’ but not necessary.

That’s why ‘nice features’ don’t make the list during an initial implementation, but it doesn’t explain why nice new features don’t get implemented later as soon as they become available.

The problem is that once a system is implemented, the policy becomes ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, so new versions with ever more up-to-date features, don’t get implemented either. And this is eminently sensible, because upgrades take time, often go wrong (for a while at least), and cost money. Upgrade projects are sometimes almost as large, expensive and risky as initial implementation projects, even if the software automates many aspects of the upgrade (such as updates to the database).

Software authors want their software to be liked by their end users. End users want ‘nice’ features. The obstacle lies between the two, in the conservatism of the client’s project managers and IT department.

Sadly, I can’t see what’s wrong with this. ‘Conservatism’ is a very sensible policy with business systems. The tragedy is that result is frustration on one side and unhappiness on the other. is there anything we can do about it?

I ask this question without knowing the answer. I wish I could find a way to deliver new features in software without risk or disturbance. But this is difficult. Business software isn’t like a desktop productivity tool. The problem is that what you do in one corner of the system can have unintended consequences in another corner. And when a system is implemented for a client it’s often integrated with lots of other systems, so a change in one corner of our part of the whole, can disturb a corner in another part that isn’t within our control, as authors of just one part, at all.

To some extent this problem is solved in ‘cloud’ or ‘hosted’ solutions, because authors then control the version that an end-user uses, and can introduce and publicise new features without obstruction from intervening project managers.

But ‘cloud’ and ‘hosted’ solutions aren’t always suitable when it comes to complex business software, especially when the software must be integrated with a client’s own systems. When there is deep integration, conservatism rules, and must do so.

And yet, it’s so frustrating to meet end-users and to have to repeat time and time again,’But our software CAN DO THAT!’

Any ideas?