Thursday, November 16, 2006

Investing in interface

Have you ever wondered why everyone - grandmas, kids, CEOs - can figure out how to use Amazon, eBay, Google but the otherwise-intelligent staff of nonprofit organizations often need extensive support from the companies or associations that provide them with grants management, CRM, web-conferencing and other software?

I'm at the WINGS conference in Bangkok and attended a session on IT where several of the support organizations discussed their desire to provide software to their members but were daunted by the costs of maintaining tech staff to support those members. Even as they saw a potential membership benefit and revenue source, they were (rightly) worried about the costs of supporting the service.

As the session leader noted, "its because the commercial properties invested in interface once, and don't have to provide support afterwards." Amazon et al depend on their FAQs and online databases to answer your questions. Actually, they depend on their interface being useful enough that you don't have any questions. And it tends to work.

The nonprofit/philanthropic sector doesn't have the resources to spend on ongoing support. We need better design and ASP models (which allow the software providers to fix it once for everybody) so we can move beyond "dealing with tech support" and get back to changing the world. Fondazione Cariplo in Milan has built such a system for its grantees - this is the model the rest of us should be looking at.


Jason Ricci said...

Hi Lucy

This is a very interesting perspective, advocating better design/usability as a way to reduce support costs. Two of the key tenets of our philosophy towards building software are to "Make it Easy" and "Keep it Simple". We've always approached the argument for better design from an "adoption rate" perspective - if the software is difficult to use, nobody will use it. It's that simple, especially when you're talking about collaborative software. I'll have to add your support costs reasoning to our list ;-) I also noticed that David Geilhufe from CivicSpace referenced your post with a "we're working on it"...that's good to hear. I hope other open source/nonprofit focused developers will also take notice.

The Solpath Project

Paul said...

To put it as simply as I can: I couldn't agree more.

We're going to be facing this in Sahana in the future as we deploy to new locations, but this is a principle that everybody should bear in mind when approaching software development in the non-profit sector.

Paul C