What the enterprise can learn from consumer technologies

Hone your competitive edge by appropriating what it takes to win over end-users in the consumer space

Today’s corporate end-users are far more tech-savvy than their productivity with IT tools indicates. After all, screen-deep in IMs, widgets, and elaborate consumer Web apps, they’re proving themselves well-versed in the production and distribution of content as facilitated by the consumer Web 2.0 craze.

Yet to surface this hidden expertise in an enterprise setting requires a deeper understanding of what draws end-users to these technologies and how these consumer technologies are reshaping end-users’ tech expectations in the workplace.

[ See  the slideshow: What IT can learn from consumer tech ]

It’s with this proposition in mind that we take a look at a bevy of consumer tech winners -- and one high-profile dud -- in an effort to help IT capitalize on the ongoing Web 2.0 adoption curve in the consumer space. After all, the consumer market has long been a proving and training ground for technologies that later hone the enterprise’s competitive edge.

So, take a tip from these seemingly lowbrow technologies, tap the interests and acumen your end-users are developing, and put the consumer-tech proving ground to work to create a more collaborative and productive enterprise.

When YouTube was founded in February 2005, few thought it would work. Video delivery on the Web was spotty, and previous video-sharing sites had failed miserably. Yet, 20 months later, when Google bought YouTube for $1.6 billion, the site was a household word, serving more than 100 million clips a day.

Enterprises developing Web-based apps, especially those aimed at culling content from end-users, would be wise to take a cue from YouTube’s success. Not only has the site bucked convention by not forcing viewers to watch ads before each clip, it has also tapped the Flash Player format, enabling clips to roll right away without launching a separate player. Respecting users’ time does more than just increase productivity; it ensures they will return to your app, time and again -- vital when the tool’s purpose is to tap users for contributions and maximize the impact and reach of their knowledge.

Furthermore, YouTube hasn’t been picky about upload formats, encouraging a wide range of contributions, from grainy cell phone clips to high-end digital productions. Also essential to stoking a critical mass of content, YouTube deftly combined the masses’ desire for self-expression with semipro content such as the early hit “The Evolution of Dance,” uploaded by an established performer.

Enterprises building collaboration portals or knowledge management systems would do well to emulate YouTube not only by encouraging contributions with as few restrictions as possible but also by actively reaching out to key early adopters to prime the pump. Once the content gets rolling, give users multiple, easy ways to navigate -- including relevancy gauges such as number of previous views -- to help them make the most of it.

But before you pack your portal with functionality, take note. YouTube also shows the importance of a simple focus. Despite the temptation to keep adding features, focus can drive usage, while clutter often dampens it.

-- David L. Margulius

People who live in dense urban areas or who work in turbulent environments are more likely to seek insulation from highly unpredictable stimulation. Or so a series of informal surveys I’ve undertaken on iPod use suggests.

A hit for its excellent design and UI that transcends electronics’ craptastic norm, the iPod lets those who are getting more stimulus than they can handle immerse themselves in content of their choosing, buffered from the intrusion of others’ thoughts or taste -- a comforting pod of personal, predictable choice.

Contemporary workplaces are riddled with stimulation (predictable and otherwise) that derails productivity. E-mail pinging, IM, arm-waving, and impromptu meetings all pull workers out of “the zone.” And because every interruption costs workers an estimated 20 minutes of productivity, workplaces where contributors are pinged three times an hour are perfect black holes that zero out productivity altogether.

So take a tip from iPod affinity, and design selective insulation into facilities and systems. Most engineers and developers, for example, need more insulation (give them offices), while successful help desk staff generally need to interact more (where cube farms work better). For insulation seekers, a daily two-hour “no-interruption period” when incoming communications are blocked or ignored is something I’ve had immense success with as a manager. Caution, though: People who tend to buffer themselves too much are less likely to attain information they could not glean from other sources, to synthesize, ergo, to create and learn.

On the app side, the iPod’s success suggests that highly customizable programs that allow for an element of personal taste are more likely to make end-users feel invested in using them. Systems that deliver have-it-your-way portals or dashboards are fast becoming essential. And it doesn’t hurt to inject a little cool. Attractive, usable software isn’t hard to design, and it usually pays for the front-loaded extra work within a few days of deployment.

-- Jeff Angus

Digital video recorders have forever changed TV viewing habits. TiVo, the product now synonymous with “digitally recording TV,” has led the charge -- outlasting rivals such as ReplayTV in part due to a trouble-free setup and a novice-friendly UI.

In addition to features for time shifting, powering through uneventful content, and multitasking, TiVo’s appeal has been fostered by value-added facilities for content filtering. Its search mechanisms sift metadata to auto-record programming and reduce missed opportunities -- an intelligence yet to be widely implemented in competing boxes.

IT departments can take a cue from TiVo in an effort to ensure that relevant data gets channeled to the right people at the right time by giving employees greater control over the contextual flow.

Reports and analytics juiced by this proactive science are already cropping up in BI products such as Hyperion System 9. Desktop alert subscriptions and an intuitive Smartspace UI allow knowledge workers to tune to custom data channels. SaaS controls for BI will soon be big business.

Enterprise RSS readers, such as Attensa Feed Server and Attensa for Outlook, also help tune and prioritize feed streams. Much like TiVo’s user-controlled program weightings and suggestions, Attensa prioritizes internal and external data based on user behavior, monitoring activities such as feed selections and time spent reading a feed, as well as articles tagged, deleted, and forwarded. Weighted rankings then push key data to the top of your workgroup’s display stack.

Behind the scenes, network backup could benefit from TiVo reliability -- specifically D2D (disk-to-disk) backup. As costs for hardware have fallen, the idea of tossing tapes while improving access times looks appealing. Yet existing tape solutions don’t always play well with disk backups. D2D must be better integrated -- even TiVo offers backward compatibility to VCRs.

Much can be gleaned from TiVo’s operating model, as well. Poor QA testing has seen TiVo pushing broken software updates to users. And its dire customer service efforts could fill a playbook on how not to run a call center. So take heed: Technology alone provides no insurance marker in Enterprise 2.0.

If well applied, however, user-subscribed access to smart-filtered business data -- delivered how and when it’s needed -- can hone efficiency, insight, and thus your company’s competitive edge.

-- James R. Borck

Convenience trumps everything for the end-user. Add a soupçon of fun, and you have a killer app.

Netflix is the prototype for this rule. Having stepped into a field of competitors built on low price through volume as the One True Faith, Netflix is succeeding by delivering superior convenience. IT would be wise to consider how investments in convenience can stimulate superior levels of productivity.

To make the low-price model work, you have to strip out all costs related to people or product quality, getting rid of “cost centers” such as customer service and technical support. What you can’t cut you foist onto the customer; for the remainder, you hire the cheapest replaceable slackers you can. It’s an empty, industrial experience for both customer and staff. And once you start, you can’t change -- strip-mining is your brand.

The bulk of IT dollars spent in the past decade has been focused on this “more with less” cult crud, not qualitative improvements. “Lean and mean” systems designed to squeeze out costs or dump IT effort onto end-users are undermining organizations in the same way that the practices of video-store chains have, saving immediate dollars but eroding suppleness. And staff tasked with supporting these systems under the “more with less” mantra will be as desultory as Blockbuster clerks.

Netflix is applying technology to add value to process. For example, its catalog app allows buyers to easily surface titles they might have forgotten or never knew existed. If someone wants to see every movie Helen Mirren ever made (omit Bob Guccione's Caligula, trust me), the front end makes it easy. Exploration is part of the “product” customers pay for. The feature that delivers the most convenience, the ability to create a list of rentals in advance, is also fun, allowing customers to curate and anticipate their own private film festivals. Rather than making the search for the next cinematic escape an industrial grind, it’s almost entertainment itself.

IT should make a Netflix push, developing and delivering systems that disavow the “more with less” soul-suck mentality and instead increase the quality of the organization’s results. Providing end-users with features geared toward convenience -- especially those that integrate functionality with fun -- will make them more productive.

More knowledge management, more interactive BI and BPM, better online education, better solutions to deliver more timely service and support. It’s not hard to do. Just stop thinking like a big-box strip miner and start thinking like Netflix.

-- Jeff Angus

Flikr is the ultimate Web 2.0 app -- one of the first to implement tags, RSS feeds, and AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML); to offer APIs to third-party developers; to encourage mashups; and to incorporate groups or “lite" social networking into a tool previously viewed as family-centric.

But Flickr’s biggest lesson for enterprise IT is how it took an existing mainstream app -- photo sharing -- and changed the paradigm altogether. Rather than copy existing “album” and “slide show” models to the Web, as early online photo sites such as Ofoto and Shutterfly did, Flickr started with a blank slate, treating all photos as part of one universal photo album that could be categorized, shared, and presented in infinite ways. It also lowered the bar for accessing content (fewer password hassles) and set the photos against an uncluttered, noncommercial, white background, increasing their impact.

Although not part of Flickr’s initial launch in 2004, tagging has proved central to Flickr’s ability to scale and add value to an otherwise unsearchable universe of photos. Users can add keyword description tags when uploading photos, thereby creating a taxonomy that would have been impossible or cost-prohibitive to create centrally. Flickr also allows users to navigate via “tag clouds” -- visual representations of photo-subject popularity.

Enterprises looking to expose end-users to troves of content should take a tip from Flickr and consider leveraging user-created taxonomies to aggregate and share that content. Not only does the approach facilitate collaboration, but as the taxonomy grows, much can be revealed about the company’s collective interests and expertise. Besides, the more organic your method of categorizing knowledge, the fewer limits you place on how that knowledge evolves.

-- David L. Margulius

MySpace and Social Networking
Poster child and 900-pound gorilla of the social-networking category, MySpace is a study in explosive growth and the difficulty of managing that boom.

From its start in 2003, MySpace spread quickly, adding upward of 200,000 users per day, driven by the popularity among teenagers of its raw mix of self-expression, sexually suggestive content, and garage-band music clips. The service allows users to build highly personalized yet unstructured blog pages, using a variety of widgets and modules, and then link them to friends’ pages.

One key lesson for enterprise IT is that minimally structured apps allow users to maximize personal expression. MySpace -- and similar sites such as Facebook (for college students) and LinkedIn (for career professionals) -- facilitates community building by giving users a blank stage on which to perform, plus a way to develop an audience via “friends” links. Allowing employees greater latitude in personalizing and defining the terms and parameters of their collaboration platform will greatly increase their participation in such initiatives.

But another lesson MySpace has to offer is that as social communities grow, they become less cohesive and it’s more challenging to police them and make IT policy decisions that please everyone. MySpace has weathered criticism, for example, for providing a venue for allegedly criminal activity, ranging from copyright violation to identity theft to child-safety issues. Facebook ran into a privacy firestorm when it launched News Feed, an alert system that allows users to monitor friends’ blog pages for personal news events -- such as romantic breakups.

But when it comes to balancing buy-in and control, sites that target and tailor their platforms to discrete domains are among the most successful. Honing the focus and delivering functionality suited to the particular forum and participants ensure a vibrant forum for collaboration without requiring an undue amount of policy management. After all, self-perception and reputation are powerful motivating factors for building worthwhile relationships -- whether the setting is social or corporate.

-- David L. Margulius

Segway Human Transporter
When it comes to tech deployments, cool can take you only so far. Sure, cool can cement success in an app that gives people something they want or know they need, but coolness alone can’t make a technology succeed.

Take the Segway Human Transporter: cool factor 11, the most frisson fabricated for any product this millennium. But it has sold units in the tens of thousands instead of the millions mainly because it was introduced into a system without the requisite infrastructure in place to fuel its success.

The market for automobiles caught fire in part because a smoothed road system had already been laid down for bicycles in the 1880s. The Segway, on the other hand, is seen as dangerous to pedestrians (it goes three times walkers’ rate on sidewalks) and its rider (it tops out at half the cruising speed of vehicles on roads). And because the finely tuned technology -- and marketing -- inspired grandiose investor expectations, it needed to achieve mass adoption quickly, as opposed to the successful diffusion of bicycles and then autos, both of which proliferated on a handcrafted basis with stochastic evolution and mass extinctions.

IT would do well to remember the abundance of great (and cool) technologies that didn’t have the social infrastructure to catch on quickly. Lots of ERP implementations trickled out simply because documentation used vocabulary that didn’t match the buyers’. And if you roll out a time-keeping or SFA system, for example, that uses an entirely different workflow from legacy processes without investing in change management, it’ll get nothing more than a dead-rat bounce.

“The infrastructure” for these apps is user buy-in; you have to sell users, in their own terms, on what the apps can do for them. Users can be “made” to use the systems you deploy for them, but if they don't really want to, they sabotage effectiveness explicitly or passively through lack of intense commitment. And that happens no matter how tricked out the tech.

-- Jeff Angus

Massively Multiplayer Games
Effective collaboration is essential to achieving synergistic productivity rewards. And what’s good for the guild in World of Warcraft is good for the enterprise -- especially those that, dispersed or lean, struggle with diseconomies of scale.

What makes MMGs (massively multiplayer games) such as World of Warcraft a passion for many is that it provides an emotionally secure environment in which they can define themselves from birth, frequently down to the way they look. What’s more, although MMGs offer varying levels of rules, all -- from Avatar to Second Life to Sokker -- are designed to be far more predictable than real life.

But what fuels the addiction is interactivity. Enterprises looking to improve collaboration initiatives could benefit by examining what makes MMGs sticky.

First, MMGs feature token economies -- currencies that have value only internally -- for acquisition of pleasures or status. Knowledge acquisition and sharing apps, such as wikis, help databases, and sales contact spreadsheets, where the effort to populate is personal but the rewards are groupwide, are ripe for this model. Recognition and token rewards can be powerful -- and not costly -- incentives to get input flowing quickly, ultimately to the benefit of all involved.

What’s more, the social structure of most MMGs includes mixers -- “clans” or “guilds” that draw people together almost randomly, creating connections that would not exist otherwise. In many settings, you can increase group cohesion, especially within apps that share real-time interaction, such as CRM, BPM, and knowledge management systems, by creating gently competitive cross-departmental tribes.

-- Jeff Angus

Gaming Consoles
Depending on the altitude from which you view them, game consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation 3, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’s Wii can look like anything from brilliant works of high-integration engineering to metaphoric exemplars of efficient large-scale architecture. The rare but wise IT architect or development lead willing to take lessons from video games will find insights well worth appropriating.

From packaging to play, video games and consoles are all about the players, some of whom are brought in early and often for test-drives. In games, as in IT, designers and developers are blind to flaws users spot in a heartbeat. Losing sight of the user during development, and keeping them out of the feedback loop, is a surefire recipe for unproductive and readily ignored apps.

The gaming industry also makes a strong argument in favor of flipping the concept stage of your design process on its head. Before the first logic gates are laid out, every possible source for game and console design inspiration is explored. Form usually follows function, but sometimes it’s appropriate to let form shape function. Many user-facing apps that start life as code would fare far better if the first step in their evolution had been to create a GUI prototype. After all, much like gamers, users who are captivated by the software they use are motivated to attain higher levels of competence, translating into more time spent with the software they’re paid to use and less time trying to escape from it with IM and surfing.

Another takeaway worth nothing is that game consoles never get attacked by malware. In the main, even when they are visible to the Internet for community gaming, no malicious effort survives a reboot. IT can easily borrow this lesson. Marking a file on a hard drive read-only is merely a switch that a cracker or in-house thief can flip at will. But if you store privileged executables and exploitable configuration files, or an entire VM image, on read-only or write-once flash or optical media guarded from physical access, even a cracker that knocks down all your walls can’t create a back door.

But can’t somebody boot with an altered copy of the DVD? Think like a game console engineer and solve that problem yourself.

-- Tom Yager

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