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I have been wanting to open a discussion with the ISV community for quite some time on the topic of user experience. In my role as an ISV Architecture Evangelist at Microsoft, I have the great privilege of working with many ISVs. Over the last year a couple of trends have begun to emerge.
In almost every vertical that I work with ISVs in, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to differentiate their products from their competitors. The traditional ground for differentiation for most ISVs has been FUNCTIONS and FEATURES. It is becoming evident that in most verticals that THE FEATURE WARS ARE OVER. In most verticals there are several players who at this point have largely equivalent feature sets. Further, most ISVs have moved to shorter development cycles. This is making them more agile. Thus, feature gaps that do develop are quickly closed (there are other factors at play here as well, better tools, better methodologies, etc).
So, the question becomes, in this evolving marketplace what is the best way to differentiate your products? Clearly it is no fun to differentiate on price :). I have seen a number of ISVs pursue a strategy of differentiating based on service. While it is hard to knock this strategy, it does have one serious drawback, service dollars tend to be extremely low margin dollars.
Increasingly I have become convinced that the best place for ISVs to differentiate their products is USER EXPERIENCE. There is a large body of evidence that consumers in general and software users in particular will pay a premium for a superior user experience. In my travels I have seen several ISVs use the strategy of differentiating on user experience very successfully.
Certainly it is evident from the investments Microsoft has made that we as a company feel that this is an important strategy for both us and our partners. In the last year we have brought out a number of technologies that are designed to help ISVs provide their users with outstanding user experiences. these technologies include (but are not limited to): Windows Presentation Foundation, Windows Workflow Foundation, SilverLight, Vista, DirectX10, and the Expression Suite
So here is what I want to know:
The readers of this blog are largely the members of the ISV community. I would love to hear whether your experiences track with what I have been saying:
In your marketplace, do you feel that differentiation is still a good long term product development strategy?
Are there other areas or strategies that you thing are good bets for differentiating your products?
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT: I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR INSIGHT!
I'm from a small ISV in Germany and in our market we try to differentiate by several factors:
* (Code) Quality - e.g. expressed by Vista Certified logo
* Customer service/customer experience - This ranges from trying to solve customers' problems and not only sell off the shelf to long-term customer connections - we won a WPC06 Customer Experience Award
* Networking/building connections with other companies that add to our portfolio.
Nonetheless it's necessary for us not to stay behind in (useful) features.
Glad that you asked.
Warren -- I think it's easy to dismiss "user experience" as little more than meaningless fluff but I agree that's shortsighted. The fact is as you say: it's increasingly difficult to compete solely on features in many markets. Products are commoditizing and that means differentiation is key critical to getting noticed and staying at the forefront of your customer's mind. Properly done, I think user experience issues can make a difference by driving down training costs and raising user productivity.
In my opinion this will take some time and education, though. Executive decision makers need to understand the bottom line value of improved user experiences. Engineers need to come to appreciate that software is more than just good, fast algorithms. Designers need to learn how to build user experiences that adapt and grow with the user's skills and confidence with their software. And it seems to me that we're all going to have to mind-shift from strict conformance to the UI consistency practiced over the past 15 or so years into an appreciation that elegant design may mean a whole new set of rules.
-- Robert DelRossi
As an architect, I'd say that a huge differentiator for me is the API and overall extensibility of the product. Do the API's follow design guidelines and patterns set forth by Microsoft and\or other products in the technology space? Are they easy to use and how is the documentation? How easily can I extend the product? I've seen major differences in this area for products that even have nearly identical end user feature sets.