How SaaS vendors are designing software for the 'best of breed' world

Chief product officers must bridge the divide between what users want and ensuring their offering doesn’t become a “Frankenstein of features”

Chief Product Officer, Box, Slack, Pager Duty, Zoom
Computerworld UK

Over the past decade the software industry has undergone a number of significant changes. The shift from on-premise to a cloud-based ecosystem has altered the way in which users buy products, with many companies now choosing to assemble a ‘best of breed’ stack instead of buying everything from a single vendor.

At the San Francisco offices of incident response platform PagerDuty this week, four chief product officers from leading software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors Box, PagerDuty, Zoom and Slack assembled to discuss the challenges associated with building products in a landscape where customer expectations are higher than ever before and an abundance of choice means product monogamy is no longer guaranteed.

The importance of integration

Integration is the word of the day amongst this panel, and as Jonathan Rende, SVP of product at PagerDuty describes it: “We’re not only partners but also customers of each other’s products.”

This was very much a shared view amongst the panelists, who agree that providing their users with ways to integrate with their peers’ software within their own product can only be a good thing for both the end user and the company’s bottom line.

“If someone has a better vantage point for building features, we should integrate with them rather than try and build it ourselves,” Jeetu Patel, the chief product officer at Box explained.

Ilan Frank, head of enterprise product at business messaging service Slack agreed, noting that “if your goal is to serve the end user and make them more productive, it makes sense to us to integrate. We’ve become a platform because that’s what’s being demanded by employees and users.”

Today’s employees are often described as being 'time-poor' and, because the software market is so saturated, users can afford to have high expectations.

Gesturing to the street outside the office, Rende pointed out that every day in San Francisco you see people cancel an Uber and order a Lyft because an Uber driver is going to take longer than a couple of minutes to pick them up. He explained that enterprise software is no different, with users having a wealth of options to pick from if they find their original choice doesn’t perform how they want it to.

“If it doesn’t work right away, you lose users,” he said.

Like the other speakers on the panel, Nitasha Walia, group product manager from the video conferencing specialist Zoom said that her organisation supports integrations because of her company’s “relentless focus on customer experience”.

Patel from Box noted that the advent of multiple software platforms has brought about the rise of dedicated engineering teams that are focused on getting the best possible products to market, which integrate seamlessly with other products that their end users rely on daily.

“What happens when you post a document in Slack? You now get a notification from Box asking you about access permissions,” Patel added. “That couldn’t have happened if we’d worked in a silo on this issue. You’ve always got to think, ‘what is best for the user?’”

You can’t always get what you want

Today, it’s not unusual for large enterprises to have hundreds of SaaS applications running at the same time. According to its 2019 Business @ Work report, identity management platform Okta found that large enterprises have on average of 163 enterprise applications in their estate. While the availability of products is still important, if your product doesn’t meet the needs of your end users, they’ll simply go elsewhere.

As a result, chief product officers, like these, often find themselves treading a fine line between addressing customer needs in the form of new features and avoiding destroying their product by overwhelming it with the whims of every end user.

“Usability trumps features,” Walia explained. “If users can’t use it how it’s intended, it doesn’t matter what features you have, people won’t be there to try them.”

There was clear consensus amongst the panellists that there is such thing as feature overload, with Patel saying that if software companies were to add every feature requested by users, “you’d have the worst product on the market”.

Walia agreed, giving the example of when Zoom Phone was launched earlier this year, it had a small number of customers requesting they add fax capabilities to the product; an idea that was both unworkable and counterproductive.

However, despite this, she said that Zoom takes the time to read every customer review and support ticket that comes through, in order to help the firm better understand what customers want.

“Our focus areas are product quality, enterprise management and making Zoom easy to use in physical spaces," she said. "If a request comes in that doesn’t align to these values, we question if we should be doing it.”

She explained that product officers have to ask themselves if the requests from customers will provide value and ultimately improve the offering. If not, she believes organisations run the risk of turning products into a "Frankenstein of features” and spread it so thin that it no longer functions as a useful product.

Each of the panellists explained that they are able to make distinctions between the features they should and shouldn’t add by having key principles which help to guide their decision making.

For Patel and Box, one of the core product principles is to “build horizontal software for the masses”.

“If millions of users can’t use a feature, you shouldn’t think about building it,” he said.

For Rende at PagerDuty, it’s about continuing to ask the question: what is the vision?

“If you don’t know, you lose your way,” he explained. “Requests that don’t amount to our core themes are eliminated right away. Quality of service remains the number one priority.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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