Sales & Marketing

Five Questions Software Companies Must Answer

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A recent contest from Mattel reveals how deeply people have accepted the role of technology in their lives. When the public was invited to decide the profession of the next “career Barbie,” the Computer Engineer Barbie took top honors, winning over half a million votes.

In the space of a decade, the technology industry has seeped into almost every category of consumer products, allows us to communicate, and augments almost every aspect of our business decisions. However, as many startups have come and gone, and others have grown into huge global brands, it’s clear that succeeding in the technology industry requires more than innovative ideas.

Software companies must forge emotional connections with their consumers and speak to them on their terms, and the best ones use design effectively to do so.

The time and effort invested to build bonds with consumers through design creates real value. In the latest Global Brand survey from Interbrand, the Top 10 is dominated by technology companies: IBM, Microsoft, Google (#2, #3, and #4) followed by Intel, Nokia, and HP (#7, #8 and #10). Despite the rankings, however, most consumers have a very complex love-hate relationship with technology. We worry about privacy yet we need to feel connected. While some of this is unavoidable, software companies can connect with consumers and boost their success by addressing a few important questions.

1. Who are you?

People are eager to use technology to communicate their stories with the rest of the world. Before they trust your company to help them do so, however, chances are they need to know your story as well. Who are you? What inspired you to create your company? What were the struggles you faced in doing so?

Creating any new product today—whether for consumers or enterprises—requires asking for an unprecedented amount of trust. This can be more of a barrier than getting people to spend. Looking at consumers’ lives, emotions and behavior means coming into contact with their fears and vulnerabilities as well. Companies need to spend time and effort to understand how to protect and deal with that information. It’s perhaps no surprise that as technology has evolved, the most hotly debated issues are no longer technical, but ethical. Bill Gates wanted to “have every computer in the world running Microsoft software,” while Google’s manifesto is far more blunt, “Don’t be evil.”

The narrative about personal motivations and passion is particularly important in technology. While iconic brands like Coca-Cola, BMW and Louis Vuitton have instant recognition with their logos and design, the names of the CEOs would elude most of the public. The same is not the case with Apple, Google, Dell and Microsoft—or even younger entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and Aaron Patzer of Mint.com. People need to know who is guarding their personal information, what your vision is and what your values are. This is a difficult exercise for the reticent leader, but this level of communication may ultimately allow you to have a voice on issues far outside your industry. Google, for example, can speak about censorship in China with a credibility that few governments could muster.

2. How will I be better if I choose to work with you?

The technology industry gave us the widespread use of personas and other tools to understand consumer behavior in a detailed manner. However, the biggest problem is that the software industry today finds itself in the same situation as many consumer products companies—adrift in a sea of sameness. The effort built in creating user scenarios, testing and developing security protocols is rarely translated into consumer terms —and often left to be discovered and communicated by expert users.

The effort that goes into building software, the reasoning behind some of the features needs to be integrated into the narrative at the point of sale. But it needs to be done in simple language, not technical terms. What will the product enable the user to do? How will I become better, more capable, more effective? Mint.com succeeded because it appealed to people who hated budgeting and bookkeeping, and made it simple for people to feel in control of their finances and offered helpful suggestions. The website itself wasn’t created by professional designers—perhaps why consumers found it easier to relate to it.

3. What happens if either one of us wants to part ways?

Consumer products companies have had to think about “cradle to cradle” manufacturing for some time now. The software industry needs to think in terms of a outlining a prenup and a living will for their offerings. What happens to the data? Will you make upgrading or changing to a new system easy? If I ever need access to my information again, can I get it? The lesson from many of the public flaps with Google, Facebook and others indicate that the issue is less about specific policies and more about ensuring that those policies are communicated, debated and refined frequently.

4. Where is the warning label?

For all the debate about privacy, what is clear from observing consumer behavior is that people are extraordinarily trusting. But just as consumer products industry has to provide labels regarding potential hazards and an age recommendation for most of its products, the software industry should think about what would be on its “warning label” if there was one. Just as there are prompts to help users with spelling and syntax, there could be prompts asking users whether they would like their employers or parents to see the information being posted, for example. Other industries provide an indication that transparency will only become more important. For example, SC Johnson announced that it is working to reveal the names of all the ingredients in its formulas—including the colors and dyes to help consumers make educated choices.

Similarly, consumer product protocols help us understand what we should do if we misuse a product. But how should we retract postings or data we entered into a system? How do we know how many people may have viewed it or been impacted by the mistake? Will a retraction be carried with the original content if it is forwarded on?

Too often, we often learn about the potential liabilities of our technology usage from cautionary tales of others. This is an area where the industry could build trust by providing usage guidelines proactively, rather than shrugging their shoulders when users are upset by the misuse of their information.

5. Where are you going next?

People have come to expect rapid change from the technology industry and wait with anticipation for the latest announcements from their favorite companies. Consumers want to know that you can adapt to changes, growth and feedback. But they also want to know what you would like to be and decide whether it resonates with their own ideas. Over time, the same platforms and ideas hold appeal for very different groups of people.

Great companies have always done more than talk about their products; they have put forth a worldview that shows people who they are. Coca-Cola, for example has done a better job at delivering Coke to the far reaches of the earth than many governments have done at delivering clean water. No one questioned Bill Gates’ command of global health issues when he started the Gates Foundation—most were simply relieved to have his voice and resources focused on the issue. IBM’s “Solutions for a Smarter Planet” echo this idea.

The true value of forging emotional connections may be the most apparent not when a product or service succeeds, but when it falls short (see “Five Beliefs that Inhibit Good Design”). In these times, the emotional connections built over time can help you change course, refine your offerings and stay in the game. Some glitches in Steve Job’s demo of the iPhone 4 haven’t diminished the success of the company, or the anticipation surrounding its other products like the iPad. The belief of consumers in the company, its products and the Apple experience allowed the company a grace period to resolve the problems and compensate consumers.

It’s unlikely that consumers will forgive and help a software company that they don’t know and identify with. Long periods of silence followed by intense communication are also unlikely to yield any useful information. We know that people are using technology to bond with one another and connecting emotionally with technology companies. We can help this process along by having a conversation about the questions that aren’t always asked, but deserving of answers nonetheless.

Deepa Prahalad is a strategy consultant and author of Predictable Magic: Unleash the Power of Design Strategy to Transform Your Business (with Ravi Sawhney), Wharton School Press.

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