The Enterprise Software Hostage Crisis

Khoi Vinh has a thoughtful post on why enterprise software seems so far removed from anything that has to do with good interaction design. At Signal vs. Noise, Jason Fried adds that the buyers aren’t the users and as such the users are left with these bloated monstrosities that may get MIS guys all giggly but bring nothing but pain to the actual user base. take the conversation further, I’d add that this apparent disconnect hinges on the distinction of what drives software. In the product-for-the-masses scenario, companies like 37 Signals think long and hard about what the masses are going to value. They must apply an enormous amount of scrutiny and re-factoring to deliver something that resonates with potential customers. What’s critical in this scenario is that 37 Signals is in the driver seat. They’ve taken it upon themselves to learn and understand a potential market and deliver something of value to that market. In some instances, they may even introduce innovation – i.e. things the market failed to articulate as a real need but embrace after the fact.

This is hardly so with enterprise software. The product maker-to-market dynamic isn’t at play. Instead, you have a three-way dynamic between enterprise software makers, their customers – the MIS decision-makers, and finally the “customers” within the enterprise whom the MIS guys answer to. In this scenario, the enterprise software maker is singularly focused with making sure a critical goal is met: that the MIS guy has complete flexibility to meet just about any need, however ridiculous, that comes along.

If anyone has glanced at a gap analysis matrix that often precedes a big purchase of enterprise software, they’ll know exactly what I’m alluding to. In the enterprise world, all users are not created equal. If an investment bank’s managing director that is responsible for billions on revenue wants a feature, he’s going to get it. And so, the drivers in the enterprise software world, ironically, are the users. The MIS guys? They’re just hostages who’s sole purpose is to make sure they meet the needs of their own “customer base.” IBM and SAP know this all too well. So they deliver them what they need: a do-it-yourself Frankenstein kit.

Jason mentions that “[t]he people who buy our products are the people who use our products.” He’s right, but he’s still selling 37 Signals short. The value they bring to the table isn’t just delivering software, it’s distilling needs to down to something constrained and cohesive. There is no gap analysis. No custom bolt-on that has to be maintained. 37 Signals, not its users, is in the driver seat. Of course, this leaves 37 Signals with the significant task of figuring out where to take their software next to keep their current customer base happy and gain new customers.

So don’t blame the poor schleps who have to buy, customize, deploy and maintain enterprise software. They’re merely trying to keep the masses in check and relatively happy. They do that by being everything to everyone…and nothing special to anyone.

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