Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Adapt or Die

Peter has another spot-on post about how upstarts like Moveable Type and erode the foundations upon which enterprise software companies base their business.

Even if these challengers seem like gnats to the SAPs and OracleSofts of the world, they should mind that buzz. Just like Basecamp and Writely versus to the MicroSoft dynasty, the threat looms small right now.

Still, these threats grow over time. Remember that one year ago, Firefox was barely a blip on the IE radar, now it's at least a fearsome wasp. The OS market has proven somewhat harder to crack, though Linux and Mac both have made inroads lately, though for different reasons.

These markets share the same trend - lowering barriers to entry. For a long while, the only choice for an enterprise would be suites of enterprise software and personal machines running the MicroSoft suite. Especially in the enterprise world, the products have not been built to enable users to actually get their work done, rather features and capabilities are created to satisfy the corporate purchasing managers.

To those who have to use and support this software, the situation looks like this:
  • Too many features
  • Hard to use
  • Harder to support
  • Difficult and resource-intensive to alter/add features*
The new players are attacking the problems of users with a "low-hanging fruit" approach. They make certain tasks, such a simple collaboration (Basecamp, Writely), CRM (, and enterprise services administration (Rearden Commerce) easy for end users, business owners, and IT support.
  • Give user just what they need
  • Easy to use
  • Easy to support - right now mostly hosted, but there is no reason that they can't be installed (Google Search Appliance, anyone?).
  • Simple to customize/add features*
When I read Peter's post, it reminded me of an incredibly interesting Supernova 2005 podcast of a presentation by US Navy Commander Greg Glaros from the Office of Force Transformation, formed:
Because our business model was broken, our methods of waging war were inadequate, and the enemy was out-adapting us.
He goes on to discuss that the Armed Forces are trying new ways to solve some of the same challenges that many organizations face: new operational tactics, managing information and communication, navigating organizational hierarchies, and dealing with an entrenched and sometimes rigid organizational structures.

In this case, it looks like government is recognizing its vulnerability before the private sector.

Organizations of all sizes are going to have to learn how to adapt and change more quickly. As the infoglut continues, new packaging and splashier marketing campaigns will have less and less effect on the success of products and services.

Senior managers must put decision-making power and information into the hands of the line-level employees and encourage two-way communication at all levels, or a more nimble, savvy competitor will take advantage of their vulnerability. Maybe the carnage won't be as gruesome as Commander Glaros' new approaches are designed to avoid, but it will be ugly.

The thing that bugs me is that all the drama is unnecessary. The tussles would be more interesting if all the players were nimble and clever.

* provides a special development platform, and I believe that Rearden is planning on offering the same at some point in the near future. Peter also talks about how Adaptive Path and Seed Magazine have modified Moveable Type as an alternative to traditional CMS platforms. Pretty powerful stuff.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

User Experience As Sustainable Advantage

If you want to see people finally starting to quantify and analyze why businesses need UX practitioners, read the excellent McKinsey Quarterly article on "tacit interactions" as a sustainable competitive advantage. (registration req'd) The article presents many charts and numbers on how hiring of knowledge workers is exploding. Please check them out, but I want to discuss their conclusions here.
Raising the labor performance of professionals won't be easy, and it is uncertain whether any of the innovations and experiments that some pioneering companies are now undertaking will prove to be winning formulas. As in the early days of the Internet revolution, the direction is clear but the path isn't. That's the bad news —or, rather, the challenge (and opportunity) for innovators.

The good news concerns competitive advantage. As companies figure out how to raise the performance of their most valuable employees in a range of business activities, they will build distinctive capabilities based on a mix of talent and technology. [snip] Best practice thus won't become everyday practice quite as quickly as it has in recent years. Building sustainable advantages will again be possible —and, of course, worthwhile.
The next revolution in interactions (registration req'd)

UX practitioners by nature constantly handle the complex interactions. By continuing to produce effective interactions with customers, both internal and external, our argument about how to demonstrate our value as purveyors will seem quaint and unnecessary. Plus, we were in the thick of the Web's emergence, and we will be in the thick of these new trends.
Jobs involving the most complex type of interactions —those requiring employees to analyze information, grapple with ambiguity, and solve problems —make up the fastest-growing segment.
The next revolution in interactions (registration req'd)

Sound familiar? Along with our ability to set context and capture information within a multi-dimensional space, we provide key connections between the various parties. As the transactional nature of business practice relaxes, our abilities to generate multiple approaches and solve problems become increasingly important - and less about technology.

We are developing our skillsets by adding people management, negotiation, budgeting, and political wiles. Add into this mix new software tools and networks (Web "2.0") that enhance our brainpower, we seem to be creating personal competitive advantage.
Technology and organizational strategies are inextricably conjoined in this new world of performance improvement.
The 21st-century organization (abstract)

This statement demonstrates why the Information Architect stands at the crux of these issues. We improve the performance of the customer (Internet) and employee (intranet) interactions with technology (interfaces).

Why not try lessening our focus on the technology interface and put it more on the organization and its interactions? Our understanding of the customer interaction has led us directly into the teeth of the need for organizational redesign in most companies. We should follow these possibilities.

Companies like MIG, Adaptive Path, and Ideo are turning towards the less technology-heavy issues to those of process, people, and strategic interactions. This is a very exciting development.

How many times have we dealt with bureaucratic policies of a corporation or a governmental organization - and experienced frustration similar to that of a usability participant? Too many times to count, I'm sure.

Our skills can help organizations do something about it, and the organizations are starting to wake up to that fact. We are ready for the challenge.