Avoiding The Shelf-ware Trap

Steven NgDesign, Random, SoftwareLeave a Comment

My Graveyard of Organizers

How often have you bought something that was supposed to revolution some pain point that never came into fruition? I definitely have. My best worst example is personal organizers.

Most of my life, I’ve wanted something to help me organize my life from a time management perspective. I’m no spring chicken, so let’s say I’ve been searching for such a solution since being a freshman in high school (1984) and didn’t get the problem completely solved until 2008. That is a total of 24 years before I finally found the ideal solution. If you add up all the money I’ve spent on personal organizers, electronic or not, we’re talking several thousands of dollars, and that’s not adjusting for the current value of money.

In the 80s, it was coil bound agendas (and a Sharp Wizard for a short period of time). By the time I was in university in the early 90s, it was more expensive Dayrunners and Filofaxes. As I began my career, I started with an Apple Newton. Then I tried WindowsCE, Palm Pilots (and their Handspring offshoots), a REX organizer, Windows Mobile phones, etc. Nothing stuck around after the honeymoon period until 2008.

Old Habits Die Hard

The reason why none of these tools (many of which had significant cost) stuck with me is that they involved some habit changes, weren’t convenient, or both. Back in the paper days, you had to carry a pen and the organizer. And the good organizers weren’t very pocketable. The top end Filofaxes back in the day were the size of a textbook. Inconvenient wasn’t even the beginning of it.

Things got a little better as technology got better. My first Apple Newton was pretty big, but smaller than a Filofax. The handwriting recognition was quite abysmal, and the data was for all intents stuck in the device. Things got better with WindowsCE and Palm, as they offered better syncing, but you had limited application support on your computers. You didn’t really have a lot of flexibility.

With the early smartphones, like Windows Mobile (that includes the Palm Treos and Blackberries), things got a lot better. You got syncing with Microsoft Exchange (often for extra cost), so your calendar was at least in Outlook’s calendar. The user interfaces on those devices, however, still made data entry a little slow.

What Happened

The world basically had to change for me to be able to stick with a personal organizer solution. Two things happened.

First, the cloud. Google introduced Gmail and Google Calendar and made the API open and free. You had access to your calendar and email from any device with a modern web browser, and you had access to native applications that used the API. There was now a lot of choice in how you could access your personal organizer.

The second thing that happened was the iPhone. I get that it was introduced in 2007, but that model wasn’t available in Canada. When the first iPhone (the 3G) became available in Canada in 2008, I picked one up. And it was glorious. After more than a dozen failed solutions, I finally found something that stuck.

The reason why it stuck? Habits and convenience. While I still hate onscreen keyboards, it doesn’t take much to input data into the phone. And because my phone is pocketable, I always keep my phone with me. And because I’m using the cloud for storage, I don’t have to rely on just my phone for accessing or inputting data to organize my life.

When the smartphone industry matured, it didn’t really matter what device you used, and I’ve since switched to Android, but I’m still managing my life using a smartphone and a cloud back end.

Who Cares?

So what does my long winded story have to do with shelfware? Well, every single tool I purchased prior to my iPhone 3G became shelfware. The tools were inconvenient and required a habit change that just had too much friction. My little story about personal organizers isn’t limited to just that. I’ve spent a good chunk of my career working in companies that peddled enterprise software, and a lot of the times, that software became very expensive shelfware.

That thought is always front-of-mind when I’m building something. And it was front of mind when Vince and I came up with Assign It To Me.

How We Try To Avoid Making Shelf-ware

Assign It To Me has to accommodate two primary user types. People who do work and people who run projects. Each user type has a very different mindset, so we try to accommodate each of them differently.

Resistance to change is firmly ingrained in human nature, and it affects all of us, whether we’d like to believe it or not. From my experience in the software business, people in the front line don’t like the changes associated with the new software that “management decided would make our lives easier”. Front line workers are already super busy, and aren’t really big fans of administrivia like status reports, time booking and having to use software that tends to make something simple more complicated.

On the other hand, the small population of power users who were instrumental in getting the software purchased and deployed tend to be very hands on and love the software.

With that, you have two different sets of users with different incentives and motivations with respect to a new application.

In Assign It To Me, front line workers, i.e., the people who do the work, don’t want to be bothered with, for lack of a better term, “crap work”. After all, they’ve got real work to do. For these users, we have tried to keep their exposure to the app simple and tight. The “Assigned To Me” view is where we hope they live most of the time, and we’ve tried to make it as frictionless as possible to update time and progress on their assigned tasks. We want these users to be “in and out”. As long as they make a tiny amount of time to update their time and progress, they probably don’t even need to put together a weekly status report of what they’ve done. For a front line worker, having to use Assign It To Me might be a necessary evil, but we try very hard to make it as painless as possible. In other words, what we’ve attempted to do is minimize habit changes and provide a lot of convenience at the same time.

With project owners, we consider them to be our power users. They need (and hopefully love) managing their projects. We offer them multiple perspectives to view their projects, and reports that hopefully help them have a better picture of a project’s progress and health. Of course, the critical path is getting data from front line workers, and as mentioned earlier, we tried to make a system where users wouldn’t hate inputting that data.

We won’t know if our approach will fully work until we’ve had some extensive usage, but we do think it’s a great start, and we hope you give Assign It To Me a try.

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