Things I Wish I’d Known Preparing for Ground Truth – Part 1

Since our founding in 1998, Algonquin Studios has acted as a trusted ally for several startups and has even launched a few businesses ourselves. By March, 2010, several Algonquin Studios team members had built a robust hardware prototype: a mesh network of sensors, controllers, and management software. It personalized the environment and access within commercial buildings and hotels. But the team had limited sales and installation experience.

Coincidentally, I had a trip to Beijing and Shanghai forming, as my team needed a capstone project in the University at Buffalo’s Executive MBA program. What a lucky match! Beijing and Shanghai were saddled with surplus real estate following the Olympics and investment booms and firms were hungry for smart competitive advantages. Why wouldn’t this solution work in China? My team set up in-person demonstrations and feedback sessions with hotel and property managers while we were in China, and brought back a trove of on-the-ground observations.

We were surprised at what we learned and the ways that were identified for doing things better the next time around. I’m sure you would be too:

Is that a prototype or a bomb? We brought several black plastic boxes as functional prototypes. Each was the size of a juice box and had LED lights and wires hanging out the side to batteries. Frankly, they looked like bombs to our American eyes. How would we get them through customs in China? It turns out they didn’t care.

Demos will break. How many ways can you give your demo? It had better be a bunch. At our first meeting we fried the Radio Shack step-down transformer we brought with us. But we had rehearsed in the hotel – how unfair! So what? We couldn’t find another transformer in any store. We would have been stuck giving vaporware demos, and our surveys would have just measured the dream in someone’s head. But, we found a way out – powering up with batteries or laptop USB ports. In fact, laptop wall power supplies adjusted to every location with just a reliable plug adapter and laptops could be recharged, unlike plain batteries.

Tricky Demos = No Demos. The developers warned us that the devices would jump to a different port every time we started a demo. My background is development, so I could resolve the problem without anyone noticing. But the rest of my team struggled when we split the team up to do two meetings at the same time. Remember, your goal on the ground is to get feedback and the talent you’ll have won’t necessarily be technical.

What does ‘done’ mean? Following that thought, we realized our demos could have been more polished. We built our demo around what the developers showed us. Why not build it around what evokes meaningful feedback? For that matter, make it look good so you’re not distracting prospects with a bomb, highlighting how far you are from done, and maybe getting them to feel like they should work with a cool outfit like yours.

How will you pay for that? Business credit was new in China in 2010; most paid by bank transfer or online services like AliPay and TenPay. Not one of our prospects chose credit cards as a possible payment method. One kind soul wrote, “There are no credit cards in China.” We could have figured that out from a few web searches, but we didn’t do the due diligence. So, did we miss a chance to get better feedback?

Integration and Management Services. Don’t forget that a hardware solution lives in an existing context. Every one of our prospects asked how we would work with their existing systems and offer administrative tools. If you can’t do this yourself, it’s smart to partner with a firm such as Algonquin Studios.

Sales Channels. Who will your prospects buy from? Our prospects suggested that we partner with a US firm already established in China, increasing trust, avoiding intellectual property theft, and offering integration options. Even a two-person local sales team with an engineer would be better than selling from outside China. You might need local help to get products out of customs delays in port.

Each building is an island. Treat each prospect as a unique case. We met with hotels and property managers, very concrete examples. We were surprised to find that each hotel provided its own utilities and services, including massive electric, water purifying, and emergency outfits. Less literally, don’t make assumptions about the rules. Listen first.

Even if you’ll open your business in your home market, or your foreign market is in the west, there’s more to ground research than just product demos. In fact, we wouldn’t have gotten any feedback without adapting on the fly. How thrilling!

Stayed tuned for Part 2 of this post, which will cover our take-aways on the more “personal” aspects of cross-cultural market research.

Related links that rang true to me:

Tips for On-the-Ground Market Research
Global Health at MIT

Ground Truth and the Importance of Market Research
Karyn Greenstreet

Ground Truth

Consistency is Key!

A successful software development project is one that maintains consistency.

Whenever I visit a site or application that lacks consistency, it makes me uncomfortable. If each page acts differently from the others, it can end up confusing the user and feeling and looking poorly developed and unprofessional. A good development coding standard can help ensure a high level of consistency throughout an application and, once in place, these standards need to be followed. In the end, a good developer needs to make sure his/her final output reflects the standards and is built in a consistent, user-friendly way.

Another reason to adhere to a consistent, standard approach when developing a new application? Without it, the ongoing maintenance of the application will become cumbersome. If five developers are all coding differently, in their own style, you’ll eventually end up with an application that won’t lend itself to easy maintenance and might not function properly in the long run.

Remember, software often ends up being maintained by people who weren’t involved in the initial development of it! If you’ve ever been responsible for the upkeep on an application that was built with little adherence to quality standards, you know—it’s no fun! If the cost to upgrade or improve an inconsistent application becomes too high, it could force the client in a different direction.

I remember supporting an old ASP 3.0 application that was generally using the same connection information in a standard configuration file but had a few forms using hard coded values for the connection information. I couldn’t understand why, all of the sudden, some of these were breaking when my database information changed. This should have been a quick change to the configuration file, but turned out to be a pain!

When building front-end user interfaces, make sure you’re putting on your “end user” hat before you start working. When building out forms, do so in a consistent manner. If you have grids with search results on a screen, make sure all those grids are reporting the same data, and the same options, in the same way. Make sure all dates are displayed in the same format. All numeric/monetary fields should display consistently. Buttons with the same underlying logic should have labels that are consistent so the user can understand, from screen to screen, that button does the same job or accomplishes the same function. Make sure your form controls are organized in a pleasant manner—one that’s easy on the eyes and that can be tabbed through quickly. If it’s a data entry screen that users will be spending hours on each day, make sure the controls are aligned and sized properly allowing users to keep their focus on one part of the screen and providing a better overall user experience.

Before you start developing, take a look around! Review some of the screens in the system—there should be a common theme to the user interface; follow the same approach. Take a look at messaging and make sure you’re reporting information to end users in the same way. It won’t take long to get familiar with the site and then, once you start building your new feature, you’ll have a good context as to what it should look like. When you’re done developing, the new feature should look like existing ones.

One last note when testing your development—people still use IE! Do some browser testing to make sure your site is looking good and functioning well in the major browsers. If you’re only developing and testing only in your personal favorite, you’re not doing a full test. Sometimes, there are specific client requirements for the system you’re working on, so be sure you know what they are before you start. Some internal applications are written strictly for IE. Are there mobile requirements for this application? If so, be sure you’re testing those as well.

In the end, making sure your software development is done in a consistent matter is better for everyone in the long run. It will ensure the end product looks and feels like a well thought-out, professional piece of work!

Getting the Most Out of Your Software

As we all progress further into the wonderful world of technology, more and more of our daily tasks are gravitating towards automation.  Whether it’s cars that can parallel park themselves (and much better than I could hope to, might I add) or garage doors that can be closed from another continent, technology can make our lives easier in seemingly endless ways and, to me, it seems counterintuitive for businesses, big or small, to resist the inevitable shift towards the technology-friendly way of the future.

Several of the software packages I support are geared towards helping companies in the service industry garner additional business opportunities and make existing business practices more efficient.  From my perspective as a software support representative, the companies having the most success are the ones who squeeze all the benefit they can from all of their software.

During my time working with companies in the service industry, I’ve learned that so much of what you get out of your software depends entirely on the effort you put into it and so, I present you with my personal list of things you should be doing to get the maximum bang for your buck. After all, if you’re shelling out good money for software licenses each month, don’t you want it to work as well for you as it possibly can?

  • DO take advantage of available training sessions.  SWRemote, for example, offers an open training session each week, completely free of charge. QuantumCMS offers free user groups, tutorials, and a community forum to all clients, as well. Not only does the training benefit new users, but it can also help users who have previous experience with the software by highlighting new tricks, tools, or shortcuts they may not know about.
  • DO keep an open mind when learning new software.  It’s easy to get frustrated and take an “the old way was better” approach but it’s important to judge if the old way was really the most efficient using facts, not just an emotional, “gut” response, and to understand that the benefits of a new systems can often far outweigh any learning curve that may exist.  On the other hand, staying open-minded will also help you gauge the true usefulness of the new software once you’ve become accustomed to it.
  • DO utilize your support team.  If frustrating issues arise during your use of your new software, you can be assured that the support team would like to hear about them. And don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. I’ve received comments along the lines of, “I feel bad bothering you with this issue” but that’s exactly what I’m here for – helping users is the sole reason my position exists!
  • DO discuss the use of the product with other users (colleagues or others in your industry).  They’re the ones putting the product to the test in real-world situations so they might be able to offer helpful advice or tips that can help your business thrive.
  • DO make feature requests or offer improvement suggestions on a regular basis.  Making a request is one of the only ways to ensure your software development team knows there’s a feature you’d like to see; for the software that I support, the vast majority of enhancement ideas come directly from our most vocal customers.  If there are changes you’d like to see, speak up!

The obvious goal of most technology is to make things easier. If a specific piece of software isn’t working for you, it’s in your best interests to figure out why but keep in mind that “easier” doesn’t always mean that you won’t have to make an effort to learn or change. Remember this and you’ll be sure to stay ahead of the curve and get more value from the things in your life that are designed to help!