The Agony and the Indifference

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It’s often said that no news is good news, and in the software business, when it comes to system upgrades, no news really is very good news indeed  True, after months of intense creative work (for, after all, software design is an art), one might hope for a little adulation, but I’ve long ago learned to hitch my emotional needs to more dependable areas of life. A well-judged cheese soufflé will almost always inspire acclaim, or a nicely burned bitter-sweet tarte tatin.

As we grow, we learn to avoid risking our feelings. If I were to attempt a novel, or learn the Strauss Oboe Concerto all over again, and play it at the Proms with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, then I would be suicidal if the best response I got was indifference. But I’ve learned that in the world of business software, silence is the best you can hope for. To the experienced ear it can sometimes sound like adulation.

I was thinking these regretful thoughts in view of our impending release of Version 6 of time@work, our software for Professional Services Organisations. We’ve completely reworked the GUI (Graphical User Interface) so that it looks much nicer, at least by today’s fast-changing standards. How long it will be before we must change it again to avoid new sneers of disapproval, as its look and feel fall from fashion, I cannot predict. And it may be that the early 2010s will make a comeback (as the platform heels and long swirly skirts of the 1970s have done) and we’ll simply have to change it back to what it was. But you have to keep up, and we certainly left it a little longer than we should.

‘That’s not cool enough for our users,’ was the kind of remark I was having nightmares about hearing from potential customers, and existing ones. Business software has too look as nice as Facebook if you want anyone under thirty to use it. Or worse than the overt sneer or the snide remark, there’s just never hearing from potential customers again.

But now with Version 6 we’ve put that unpleasantness firmly behind us. At least I think we have. At least for a while. But the thing is, you can never really know. The sneers and snide remarks need no longer be feared but you can’t expect a warm shower of praise in their place. Silence and indifference are as good as it gets.

We’ve done some early upgrades of the system for our own company, and for an important client. Only two out of our 100 plus users at LLP Group provided any unsolicited feedback – very positive, as it happens. Others, when pressed (by me, and therefore under duress) admitted that we’ve produced a much improved interface, though none of them used the word ‘cool’. As for our clients, they simply remarked that it’s okay.

But, then, that’s all that one can expect, and I take it as ‘admiring with faint praise’ rather than ‘damning with faint praise’. When I think about it, I’m probably as ungenerous as the next man about similar things, so it would be hypocritical to complain. The fact is that IT and Business IT are invisible and unremarkable when they’re working well. A new version of time@work will never be like the latest video game, or a new model of iPhone. Timesheets have yet to become a pleasure for anyone, even if they’re a necessity for a professional services organisation. If the software isn’t actually unpleasant to look at, or isn’t actually difficult to use, that’s a very considerable achievement.

So, lovely though acclaim may be, I know it’s a great achievement to have achieved indifference, and I mean that seriously. We all know how badly software upgrades can go. That there are no complaints, that nothing went wrong, can feel, after thirty years in the business, almost like ecstasy

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