For a whole bunch of reasons I’ve given a lot of thought to building software for businesses. First off, I work for a business, so it’s interesting to me. Second, I’m quite fascinated by the idea that you can build software to help things and people work more efficiently. And third, because 90% of software for businesses sucks. It’s just plain terrible. Time-sheet software is the perfect example: Ask anyone in the ad industry what part of their job they most despise and they’ll tell you it’s completing their time sheets. Sure it’s an onerous process, but it’s only made worse by how awful the majority of time management software is.
So it’s with those things in mind that I’ve developed my rules for making business software. It’s a pretty simple two-parter:
- Make software people want to use.
- Even better, make software people can get value from without even knowing their using it (without spying on them, of course).
With those rules in mind, I was quite excited to run across an essay by Jamie Zawinski titled Groupware Bad (the link came via Anil Dash who recently wrote about this very topic in relation to the iPhone). His two money lines are both things I’ve thought/said in the past (though I never read this 2005 essay until today): “If you want to do something that’s going to change the world, build software that people want to use instead of software that managers want to buy” and “Your ‘use case’ should be, there’s a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?” (The latter I wrote about in a 2005 entry titled DLA Should Get You Laid which was inspired by this story of iTunes getting a college student laid.)
Anyway, this is a topic I’m quite passionate about and while I’ve only actually built one piece of “business software” (a term I use quite loosely for it), I tried to bring these ideas to life. The Naked Aggregator is a fairly simple idea: Rather than forcing people to constantly update the Naked blog with full entries, why not pull from the content they’re creating anyway? So it pulls in content from del.icio.us, Flickr, Twitter and other people’s blogs and inserts it right into houseofnaked.com. In my mind, it’s an example of passive activity, which I define as tapping into people’s existing behavior in order to deliver, rather than asking them for the information themselves. This can come in the form of metadata created from regular digital activities or by tapping into services that people are already using (with the help of XML/APIs).
One simple solution in this area are information visualizations (think Jonathan Harris), which exposes insights into news/language/culture by aggregating lots of data people are creating anyway and organizing it in a way that allows others to extract value. (Watching Harris explain his work makes this far more clear.) As Ed at InfluxInsights so nicely put it: “in a data-driven world — infographics are the new art.” In that sense, infographics act as a mirror to our universe.
Okay, so back to business software, I think there’s a lot to learn from people like Harris. If you really want to understand what people are up to, you need to watch them, not ask them. Researchers have known this for years (hence recall bias). Business software needs to take the same tact.