What Shall We Do Now?
At Apteco we face ever changing pressures for development of different parts of our products. How do we decide what to do?
From early beginnings running queries on 150,000 business records with the application and data all fitted on a 360Kb 5¼” floppy disk (yes, really!), FastStats has grown to be a big marketing analytics and automation application processing billions of rows.
Our customers constantly push the boundaries of the product’s capabilities and challenge us with their requirements. Data gets bigger, marketing gets faster, channels proliferate, user devices change, so how do we decide what to do? A few simple rules keep us in tune with the market place and could be applied to any software business.
Customers Come First
Our business model is built on recurring revenue. We license the software for a period (a term licence) and need a high level of customer retention to allow us to maintain our activities. This means our customers always come first. They can hold us to account – and if FastStats does not solve their problems in a cost effective manner they can walk away. This naturally gives us an imperative to prioritise our existing customers rather than chase new sales. We look at anything that is not working smoothly for our customers and work to improve that first. This means we often work on the less glamorous but more practical elements of the software. If things go wrong for a customer, we work intensively to resolve the problems, dedicating support, consultancy and development resources until the issue is properly resolved.
Go get feedback
We encourage feedback from our customers and partners. Our business development team are constantly arranging review meetings with our partners to identify the problems they face. These may be in technical areas or may be gaps in our ability to meet commercial requirements. Through our consultancy and support teams we get feedback on use of the application. We run FastStats reports every week on the entire support workload. We look at trends and proportions to understand where we can best help our customers. We hold an annual FastStats User Group conference and have included feedback mechanisms every year. Nowadays this is immediate – every delegate has a voting pad and can respond to speakers, sessions, surveys and competitions throughout the day. When they go back to base, they can still log on to apteco.com and “Make a Wish”.
Watch and Learn
By watching real users tackling real work, we are able to gain actionable insights to improve the software. Looking for cumbersome interfaces or inefficient workflows helps us smooth the corners of the software and make it a more pleasing working environment. I remember years ago seeing a user had split the Discoverer Selection window vertically rather than the default horizontally to allow space to see more of the selection logic. We changed the default as a result and the product has worked better ever since.
We have established a usability programme to formalise the process of understanding how our users operate our software. All FastStats users are welcome to take part, learn more by clicking here. In a usability session, we will use established or prototype versions of the analytics and automation tools and ask a user to complete a task. With a facilitator and two observers, we record how the user tackles the task, their expectations, successes and frustrations. These observations feed directly into our design and development processes.
Measure and Analyse
As our user base has expanded we have developed new tools for understanding use of the applications. The FastStats.NET architecture naturally builds an audit trail in the web service control database that acts as a decoupling point between the users and the server resources fulfilling the workload. This audit trail allows us great insight into the mix of work, the use of tools and even the use of specific variables within a FastStats system. We can help system administrators tune their infrastructure and data models to match the user’s requirements.
We have recently introduced a Telemetry system to capture anonymous details of use of FastStats Discoverer. No personally identifiable information is transferred, but we can learn more about how the elements of the application are used, the size of database and the details of any previous failure of the application. The patterns in this data will help us determine where to focus our development efforts. Guess what tool we use to analyse the data? ☺
Innovate and Lead the way
We have always been a technical business and pride ourselves in our technical capabilities. We have great developers and try to maintain a culture of innovation. This allows developers time to work on areas that may or may not become part of our production releases. The creative process of conceiving, designing, prototyping and proving a new concept is beneficial for the individual developers involved and for the wider team through the introduction of new ideas. Although it is a long time since I did any coding (yes, it was me that wrote the first versions of Cascade and Venn diagrams), I still get a real buzz from seeing developers inspired by new ideas and the coding to bring them to life.
Sure, we have hit some dead ends and gone round in circles, but we have also made huge leaps forward. The concept and prototype for our distributed processing engine was produced by our Development Director, Simon Holderness, in about two days flat and after many months of intensive work our High Performance team have implemented and tested a full production release that is now giving us a big increase in performance. It fits beautifully with our work on FastStats CloudStage, allowing us to bring scalable, cost effective high performance for our users. Don’t be afraid to experiment and to prototype. We’ve done it with our social integration and use of live data, and are now working on mobile push notifications.
There are a few simple rules to ensure software development works
- Use a commercial model that focusses on your current customer’s success
- Put real effort into getting feedback from your customers
- Act on your customers’ views and do first what they need now
- Don’t be frightened to innovate and when you find good results lead the way for your customers
Apteco have applied these principles to building the FastStats range of marketing analysis and automation tools. You can use FastStats to understand your customer base, your marketplace and your marketing activities.