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“Crazy Simple” Software For our Client’s Sake

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Lesson One

I remember it was mid-summer 2000 when I sat in a San Fransisco residence learning the ropes of a dot.com startup’s software. It was an early SaaS (software as a service) product that would empower realtors with a website that tracked visitor page views (way before Google Analytics), suck in voicemail messages as email, sync with MLS data in real-time and have an eye catching look. I was fresh out of college and eager to cut my chops. But what I saw that day that changed my life wasn’t this killer new SaaS product. It was a largely’ white webpage’ with a single search box and a Go button. The only image on the screen was a multi-colored word that said Google.’ The programmer who pulled up the search engine made a cynical comment about it. “I like this search site because they attack you with options.”

Google circa 2000
Google circa 2000

Of course none of us knew how much of an empire was coming from that simple and clean search box. Fast forward eight months and the real-estate site I had come on board to help maintain was broke – having chewed through 12 million dollars and Google was still a single search box and Go button.

Lesson Two

It wasn’t the first time I had encountered failed software. As an intern at a software company I worked on a multi-million dollar sales tool to help office furniture distributors design and sell product. It was amazing and was designed to offer endless capabilities to assist in the visualization, cost-comparison and purchase of desks, chairs, accessories, etc. A year after I moved on it was shelved because the sales teams couldn’t figure it out.

Customers Need “Crazy Simple”

I wish I could say I learned big lessons from those experiences early in my career. Unfortunately it wasn’t until I designed the first version of ClickBid that I figured out that customers want “Crazy Simple” software. They need “Crazy Simple”. I originally had high hopes for ClickBid. Data tracking. Real-time alerts. Stats. Design heavy leaderboards. But then, one of the board members of the hospice foundation stepped up and said “if I can’t make a bid in 10 seconds, we’re not using it.” She was a retired teacher who I thought was missing the point of electronic silent auctions. In the end, she saved the project and changed my viewpoint with her persistent attention to “Crazy Simple”.

Yahoo circa 2000
Yahoo circa 2000

We all talk about Google’s rise to meteoric size and breadth as a company. But it started with the simplest of concepts. Make search easy, fast and accurate. Before they became Gmail, YouTube, Adwords, Analytics and Android they were search and they were “Crazy Simple”. You didn’t need to learn how to search or get inundated with options. And anybody could “get lucky” on Google. It was just so simple.

Client Focus. Not Software Focus

I mentioned earlier that clients want and need simple software. For a programmer that’s harder than ‘ building hard software. Requiring an explanation from the programmer on a feature means you’ve missed it and customer service will chew through many hours answering questions. It would likely be better to lose the feature and save the experience than continue to tweak and force something to work. With software consuming a major part of our lives, users’ want to move quickly and tap less because there’s already not enough time in our days.

Case In Point

There’s a classic feature in mobile bidding that many of our competitors have that we flatly refuse to add. It aims to allow an organization the ability to add a bunch of small items and then group them into one big item. Some software divides this into items and packages. The challenge here is that a feature like this misses the need that organizations have. In our years of hearing about this awkward feature, what we’ve learned is that organizations want multiple donors for an auction item, giving props where props are due. That or they would like to just hang onto an item and see if they can grow it into something else. And behind it all, clients want and need it to be “crazy simple”.

So at ClickBid, we say let an organization add as many item donors as they desire to an item but leave the item alone. Have an on/off switch so the item can be used as a placeholder while you build it up. When you’re ready, turn it on. Keep it simple. Items and packages adds a required level of support just to explain the difference when many organizations have no need for this.

Confusing and not simpleI say all this because I was reminded again tonight of the pitfalls of complicated software. I spent some time digging through a software package helping customers organize some data. I noticed that each client used the software in different ways. Some went to great lengths to detail every element while others left fields blank and unorganized. I got the sense that only a small number of clients really had a grasp of the true intention of the software. And this becomes the problem. How do you mobilize your support team to help customers use the software? Do you re-do all the client’s bad settings or do you limp through it to try and save time and energy because technically it will work? Or, do you take a hard look at your software and make choices on features that may get used only 5% of the time and yank them out? If my past experiences are any clue, you go for “crazy simple” every time and do your best to leave users with the single best option. Like my colleague cynically pointed out, it’s not about attacking you with options.

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