One of the things I love about my work is the opportunity to work on large, complicated software products. My favorites are ones that have been around for years – often more than a decade (a long time in this industry). These applications are usually very feature rich, mature products, but as they have aged and more features have been added they’ve become more complicated and difficult to use, especially for new users.
Often these products suffer from what I refer to as “the Home Depot effect”. Imagine that you know very little about housing construction (that part is pretty easy to imagine for most people) and you decide you’d like to build your own house. So you go to your friend who is a General Contractor and you tell him. “Great!” he says, “I can show you just what you need.” He drives you over to Home Depot and walks you in, raises his arms and says “Everything you need is here!”
And it’s true. Everything you need to build a house can be found in Home Depot. And sprinkled all over the store are little experts: the guy in the plumbing section knows all sorts of stuff about plumbing – ditto the guy (yeah, it’s usually a guy) in electrical. The folks who work in the kitchen design center will help you to design the kitchen of your dreams. But there’s nowhere in the store where you can figure out what the steps are that are involved or how to proceed.
Software can be like that, too. Depot software has tons of features – it can do just about anything. It’s addressed every possible issue that the customers have raised over the last 10 years. But it’s big and it’s complicated. Most people, when faced with this kind of software ask the same question: Where do I start? Or they wail: It’s too complicated!
And at some point a competitor will come into the picture. The New Kid has fewer features, but his product is easier to use and it demos really well. I think of the New Kid as the prefab house business. Sure, you can’t get any house you want. In fact, your selection is pretty limited. But you don’t need to know anything about houses, except what kind of counter top you want in the kitchen, the color of siding, and whether or not to add a third bedroom. It’s easy and so lots of people like it.
Usually the New Kid has limited luck attracting existing customers – mostly he grabs new customers away. Our Depot clients notice it first in sales calls and meetings – the New Kid gets mentioned a lot. And so of course the sales folks emphasize all the great features that the Depot has, and wring their hands and wish that they had a product that just looked better.
And that’s usually when clients call us. Suddenly, they are worried about design – about making their product easy to use. They want it to look as sexy as the New Kid looks. They want it to be simple, clean, less cluttered.
And usually there is a lot we can do to make it look simpler. David is a whiz at polishing up the visual design, de-cluttering screens and bringing focus where the user wants it. I work to improve language, placement of elements on the page, fixing icons, adjusting tables – lots of little things can make pages seem less complicated.
And this kind of work can really make a difference – at least in the short term. But ultimately the buzz on the New Kid will build up and he will start luring away more and more new customers, and some of the existing customers will defect, too. Ultimately the New Kid has the advantage – he can choose to implement only the features that most customers care about, skipping the features that are less critical and keeping his application trim and simpler.
The sad truth is that so long as the Depot product is complicated (e.g. has tons of features), there’s only so much we can do to make it seem simple. The best way to make your product seem simple is to re-focus on your core customers and their goals – cut out what isn’t necessary. It’s a hard process. But if you don’t do it, believe me – the New Kid will.