Business software is so good now, that it’s competing with consumer software

For a long time, business software was clunky. Consumer software continued to radically innovate on user experience, staying ahead of the curve.

Palm to iPhone. Styluses to capacitive touch. Taxis to Ubers. Torrents to Netflix. MP3s to Spotify, etc. We’ve lived through this story of how innovation in consumer software radically improved our lives in the last decade.

At one point, business software had no choice but to stop being clunky and terrible to use, because nobody wanted to walk into work to use shitty software. And as teams got more power to pick the software they wanted, business software had no choice but to be simple enough for anyone to try and buy.

If a business application wasn’t easy to use, people just abandoned it and start trialing something else. Apps that had the best user experience started winning more often at work than the ones that didn’t.

Everyone called this trend ‘consumerization of business software/IT’. Dropbox, Google Drive, Docs and Sheets, etc led this era. But despite all efforts by business apps to keep things simple, consumer software continued to set the gold standard in user experience. Business software just followed the direction already set by consumer software products.

However, I think the scene is changing.

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Fighting outdated tribal knowledge in sales and support teams

When businesses start out, support and sales teams (like any other team) are closely knit. The teams are small and most folks know the ins and outs of the product being sold. Everyone stays on top of new product updates by playing with the latest features, reading documentation or just being quizzed in the hallway by another team member.

When these team members work together, they create knowledge that’s shared within their tribe. They know what works really well in the product and what doesn’t, what pitch to use when on a sales call and what’s the best solution to provide when a certain problem is reported by customers. Even if someone doesn’t know the direct answer, they’d most certainly know an expert in the tribe who can help them out.

This is tribal knowledge. In most companies, tribal knowledge is not written down. It’s created every day. People acquire tribal knowledge by working together, talking about problems, sharing insights and know-how when solving those problems together.

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Three ideas to help you get started with user research

I started out in PR at Freshworks. I rarely spoke to customers when I was in PR, except when I worked on doing some case studies of how people used Freshdesk. It’s something I regret now – I should have used the first two years of my career to get in front of more customers. The fact that I didn’t start out in support or presales was a big disadvantage for me when I moved to product management.

But when I did move, the first thing I wanted to do was talk to our users and get a mental model of a typical business that used Freshdesk. We didn’t have a user research team back then, and I’ve never liked waiting, so this is how I rolled up my sleeves and got some work done, to start talking to several customers.

I’m sharing these three ideas, because they will help you quash blockers to user research in your organization. Let’s go.

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Making your team discover the joy and value in writing things down

Last week, my engineers and I met to discuss the specifics (or so we thought) about a feature we were going to be working on. Even after an hour of healthy debate and discussion, I felt that everyone in the room wasn’t on the same page.

  • the backend engineers thought they knew – down to the details – how they needed to structure what they’re going to build
  • the frontend engineers assumed a certain structure for how the backend engineers would build their pieces, on top of which they’d be working on
  • the new hires in the team were probably struggling to put pieces together based on our discussion

If we had actually gone ahead and built what we wanted to build without getting to the details in writing, it’d have been nothing short of a disaster.

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Convincing your team that words matter

I think copy is an intricate part of product design. Getting everything else right, and product copy wrong would still be a disaster. But in most organizations, product copy falls through the cracks. It’s the last thing anyone worries about, and it isn’t seen as something that influences user experience. When not well thought-out, unclear copy doesn’t just make your product look unprofessional, but also frustrates and annoys users.

The hardest thing to do is convincing designers and engineers – the entire product team that words matter. The best way to go about it is to show, and not tell. When we got on calls talking to Freshdesk users, we realized many of them were confused by something we thought was very simple to understand.

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You cannot scale without documentation

If you’re building a business that grows like crazy, documentation should be a culture trait you should promote and look for in the people you hire. I realized this when we worked on a major revamp of Freshdesk’s product interface in 2017.

The team worked hard for close to a year on this project, and we thought we had a great launch in 2017, but soon discovered hundreds of features that we missed out. Our very own customer support team had to tell us about features that were part of the older interface, and we scrambled to build them later. A lot of times, we learned about product behaviour only after our customers told us about how much they missed them in the newer interface.

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