A vendor’s internal organization often determines usability

Few (if any) scientific software vendors have the scale of companies like Apple and can poor millions of dollars into Usability testing – the market just isn’t large enough to support that, and even if we had the money I doubt we could find enough willing volunteers. Producing usable software in this market requires a somewhat different approach.

In an article on 52 weeks of UX, exploring “The Distance Between Maker and User” the following principle is espoused:

As the distance between the maker and user increases, so does the difficulty of designing a great user experience.

This is our approach to usability – we make sure the Geeks are never too far away from the end user, and we achieve this in the following fairly simple ways:

  • The people responsible for writing our products support them. We don’t have a support team – the guys helping our customers are the ones who you will speak to if you have a problem or need advice. This is probably the our effective way of increasing usability because not only do the developers get swift feedback on their decisions, they have an incentive to engineer out problems at source.
  • We regularly review the kinds of issues we’re getting and see if we can make them go away entirely. Sometimes this is a re-worded screen, sometimes it is removing a step or component completely. I appreciate lots of vendors do this as part of a standard quality process, although we tend to do it in fairly tight feedback loops.
  • We use the product internally. Did you know that PatentSafe makes an excellent financial records system? :-). Not only does that mean we have internal customers who deliver feedback every day, but the developers (and managers!) interact with our products daily. You’d be surprised how many little tweaks come out of this, things that customers probably notice but don’t think it is worth bothering us with.
  • Our Sales, Development, Admin and Management teams are all co-located in the same office space, which means there’s lots of gentle interaction and sharing of context. It is interesting how often a problem in one area can be resolved in another. There are some problems with this because the different functions have different working styles (for example sales people switch context every 10 – 30 minutes, developers every few hours) but some simple informal rules make things easier.

Every time we bring someone new on board they are surprised that we aren’t more “formally” organised, but so far this setup has really helped us. It does mean we need to check that techies also have people skills, that our admin people need to be slightly more techie, and our sales people do need some involvement in the more geeky side of the shop. However it does seem to work very well for us, as demonstrated by the short training period that new users need to get up to speed with our ELN, and also the low volume of support calls we get (which apparently is very low compared to most software vendors).

Interestingly once new employees get over the initial shock of the proximity of roles, they really enjoy the richer environment it creates.

Having a small distance between the designers and developers is something that happened when we were a small startup, but I’ve come to view it as tremendously important for our ongoing success.

Software licensing models

The Register has a good article on Software Licensing Models which is a useful primer if you’ve never had to encounter this wonderful world before… I thought it might be worthwhile examining our choices in this area from a vendor perspective. I know some Lab Informatics and especially ELN vendors have some quite complex models, so this area is of continued interest to us (and then there’s Oracle’s model!).

We’ve always had a very straightforward model; because our Electronic Lab Notebook needs to know about every user to do its job (every user needs to be uniquely to sign and witness their entries), it is easy to just charge for the number of users which are enabled on the system. Fairly straightforward.

We do have a slight complexity in that we split PatentSafe functionality into modules, so you can have cheaper licenses for people who just want to read, or people who just want to submit and sign stuff, etc. We have assigned “points” values to these functions, and customers buy a certain number for their system which gives them a lot of flexibility.

Sometimes we’re asked about concurrent pricing but that request generally comes from an IT dept who are (quite reasonably) looking for ease of administration and don’t realise every user is going to be setup (automatically or otherwise) with a PatentSafe account anyway. Concurrent licensing wouldn’t help anyone in our use case.

We do have a mix of perpetual and rental options in our licensing structure; this accommodates customers who have capital and want the reassurance of owning something (generally larger more established customers) as well as making enterprise-grade solutions attainable to companies who might either be short of capital (being VC funded and at the end of a round) or unsure of their growth curve.

We don’t do anything silly in terms of copy protection; it just adds to pain for the users, and ultimately support pain for us! We don’t even lock a system to a particular number of users – PatentSafe just points out how many users you have and we trust our customers to have that many licenses. We also don’t charge for test servers, although we do make a small additional support charge if you want production-level support for an additional server.

I guess we are unusual in that we’re a records system which is intended to go into court at some point, so we can trust our users to do the right thing in terms of having the right number of licenses. This level of trust makes everything easier, and interestingly means users are more trustworthy back – in all the years I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a reason to be worried that a customer may be exceeding their entitlement.

I know some software companies view having a complex licensing structure as a sales tool but I’ve never found it all that attractive. We’re providing and supporting a tool which will benefit a customer’s organisation, and the question is how to fairly measure the value we provide and hence should be compensated for. We’ve found the easiest and most reliable way to do that is count up how many scientists we’ve freed from the drudgery of the Bound Paper Lab Notebook, so that’s how we price the system. Simple, transparent, predictable – and fair.

Interestingly treating our customers like adults means they act like adults; and the relief expressed in the sales cycle when the realise we’re straightforward to deal with is quite gratifying! I continue to remain befuddled as to why more companies can’t have understandable pricing schemes – I can’t see how complexity helps the vendors or the customers.

Amphora’s new Corporate blog

We’ve just launched a new blog for Amphora as a company. This site (ELNBlog) will remain as my personal thinking space about ELN issues and anything work-related that interests me, and the corporate blog will become our general public voice.

There’s some seriously interesting times ahead for all of us and being able to have a separate corporate voice will hopefully make it easier for me to engage thoughtfully without having to consider the implications of what I write from a company branding perspective.

Responding to RFPs

There are few things I find more painful than responding to RFPs.

I’m sure writing them is difficult.

But answering them is deeply frustrating – it’s being forced to have a one-way conversation about something where you really need to have a chat, which is much more my natural style.

I remember once I turned up to a Government research establishment and was told “We can’t tell you what we do, or anything about how we work. In fact, the people in this room can’t tell you anything at all. So just tell us what you do, and show us your stuff”. Which was painful, but at least the audience gave some (non-verbal) feedback.

Guess I’d better get back to it – although I think my car might need washing, and there are some other chores to do. Or I might just poke myself with a sharp stick or something.