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Sunday, June 3, 2007

What Web 2.0 Applications Can Teach Enterprise Software

The other day, I came across the fascinating statistic that over 50% of products returned every year to stores across America have absolutely nothing wrong with them. Apparently, consumers used them for an average of 20 minutes and then gave up, because they were too complicated.

At this point, most customers of traditional enterprise software could be forgiven for thinking: “I wish I could do that.” Enterprise applications are notoriously feature-laden, complicated to use, and difficult to install. They make their users feel stupid, by presenting them with complex pictures that look like amoeba or toolbars with 150 different options. Why does enterprise software seek to punish its customers in this way?

Partly, because customers ask for it. Whether they are buying a dishwasher or an accounting application, people habitually over-estimate their ability to figure out how a complicated product works and, as a result, pay more for features that they never use. Partly, it’s because enterprise software is designed by engineers who think everyone is as technically proficient as they are, and by marketing people who view every additional feature as a new selling point.

By contrast, Web 2.0 applications such as FaceBook, Flickr, StumbleUpon, or Meebo are incredibly easy use. Even an idiot who has never seen these applications before can use them without an instruction manual or a training course. You could say that’s because they are trivially simple applications. But I think it’s primarily because, if they were not so easy to use, people would simply click away and try something else – i.e., they would die.

That to me is the real lesson that Web 2.0 apps can teach enterprise software: make something that is easy to use, easy for someone to install, and easy for them to evaluate. Get people addicted to your application because it’s so good (the average FaceBook user spends 4+ hours a day on the site). No doubt, this is harder to do with enterprise applications because they are inherently more complex. But figure out a way to hide the complexity, packaging all the functionality users need into a design that’s easy to use. This is a key characteristic of e-discovery software applications; it's the genius of salesforce.com's CRM application and Apple's iPod; and, it needs to be a core skill of any company creating enterprise applications today.

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