Monday 28 May 2007

BMW functionality

(Part of an occasional series on matters technological. It beats doing real work.)

Before we started Matchpeg, we used to be Terribly Important People. We used to think nothing of donning our superhero garb in the nearest phonebox, and then leaping into a presentation with senior executives to sell them hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars/euros of software and services at a time.

Like everyone else, we built our fair share of BMW functionality - not a reflection on the marque, but a comment on the sort of cars driven by the sort of people we were presenting to.

BMW functionality looks very pretty - albeit in a standardised, Stock-Option Chic kind of way - and it's not totally pointless. (A typical example is a ray-traced pie chart representing three numbers so simple that their relative proportions could be visualised, without graphical aids, by a child of seven.)

You're in a meeting where you're presenting the BMW functionality. You know that no one will ever actually "use" it. Even the users know that they'll never actually use it. But they're not in the room. You're presenting to the company's senior executives, and an 80/20 rule applies: they make 80% of the purchasing decision, but they're going to clock up at most of 20% of the eventual usage of the system.

At best, this is neutral: the BMW functionality is, in effect, part of your marketing (not your software); it helps to sell a fundamentally good system which deserves to do well; and it doesn't have any adverse impact on the quality of the system.

At worst, it's actively harmful: the time spent on the BMW functionality could and should have been spent on making the actual software better; and/or other, useful features are discarded or compromised in order to squeeze in what's effectively your sales pitch which the lowly users then have to live with day-by-day for the next n years.

This is less common on the web, because relatively few web-based applications are sold face-to-face. But there's still pressure to make sure that your software produces a great screenshot, and there's often tension between what produces the best screenshot and what produces the best functionality. (As an innocuous version of the same phenomenon, count the number of web-based applications which are demonstrated using Mac screenshots despite the fact that 97% of their users will be running Windows. Yes, we do this. Everyone does. It's the harmless end of something much more serious.)

What does all this lead up to?

We took a vow when starting Matchpeg: no BMW functionality. Deliver results.