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Software Project Killers (And How to Avoid Them) — Part 3

By December 9, 2012Article

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on Software Project Killers (And How to Avoid Them) I described seven risk factors that significantly impact why so many software projects fail and, conversely, what makes a few projects succeed. This third and final article covers three additional make-or-break factors: designing for stress and distractions, innovating through user experience and building in KPIs.

Project Killer #8Design for the focused user

It’s basic Psychology 101 that fatigue, stress and distractions tend to degrade a person’s reasoning ability and performance. But when it comes to the design of software applications, most developers assume that users are task engaged, quasi-rational players, unaffected by emotional/time stress or distractions. Since this is often not the case, applications can end up delivering lower-than-expected ROI (as well as lower user “likeability”).

The impact of stress and distractions is especially pronounced in mission-critical software. For example, in biotech (e.g., medical diagnostics, gene sequencing), financial services (e.g., investment banking, derivative trading), or natural resource management (e.g., electrical grids, oil and gas pipelines), users are required to complete vital tasks or make tactical decisions quickly and with little or no room for error. But the pressure and multitasking nature of the situation tends to adversely impact how users detect/process information and make decisions. For software to be successful in these situations, it must facilitate users making balanced assessments and decisions in spite of stress or distractions.

While most SMB or enterprise software projects do not control life-and-death or billion-dollar investment decisions, users are often required to make rapid decisions based on incomplete information, with limited time for analysis or in environments where they get easily distracted (e.g., mobile software users are one eyeball and one thumb away from doing other things). The design principles for better decision making under stress, derived from mission-critical systems, can also be applied to these mainstream software initiatives.

Take the tendency of high workload, time-pressed or distracted users to pay more attention to positive information and the upsides of a transaction than to negative consequences or risks. One way to counteract this bias through software design is to discover the right mental models that engage and bring forward patterned behavior relevant to the high-value tasks.

An application designed around these mental models accesses any embedded skills a user has for executing a particular action, reduces cognitive load and gives the user confidence to perform an action to a given standard. If the mental model triggers the wrong patterned behavior for the situation, there will be errors in recognition and compromised analytic capabilities. With the right mental model, users increase cue utilization and deal with challenges in a more fluid, skillful and less biased way.

This is one example of how principles from our work in mission-critical application design can and should be applied to mainstream enterprise and B2B applications.

In general, successful software projects will take into account the reality that most users work under some level of fatigue, pressure or distraction.

Project Killer #9 – Add new features to innovate

It may sound counterintuitive, but adding features to a new product release, as a way to innovate, is one of the most common mistakes that software companies make.

Typically companies add new features because they are trying to match or outdo features of the competition, trying to accommodate a subset of power users, or have a “novel” idea they want to include as potentially useful. But the addition of any new feature runs the risk of making the software more complex (euphemistically called feature rich), without really making it easier to do the things users most frequently need to do. Innovation through the addition of features rarely adds real market differentiation.

Innovation that attracts and retains users more often occurs when the intuitiveness, simplicity and focus of an application establishes a connection between the user and the product. For many applications, refining existing features, or even removing features that don’t work or go unused, is the most effective approach.

Not surprisingly this is one of the most difficult concepts for software companies to embrace and implement. As Steve Jobs was quoted to say: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

One way to jump-start the innovation process is to identify what users don’t like about your current release (or your competition’s product if this is your first release). You can monitor what users say in emails and support forums as well as track actual feature usage through Web or integrated stats. What you want to pay attention to is not what users ask for in terms of specific features but, rather, understanding what they don’t like in the software and what they do to work around it.

If you have a SaaS project, you should have user monitoring built in so you can readily identify where users spend their time and where they drop out. Look for barriers and figure out how to bypass them or remove them (this could be features, unnecessary buttons, extra steps, etc.).

The goal of any innovation or redesign for software is to reduce friction in the ability of a user to complete a task. Really great UIs get out of the way completely — tapping mental models that make the experience seamless, approachable and usable.

Project Killer #10 – Design SaaS for the people who regularly use the application

Most software designers build their B2B or enterprise products for the person who uses the application on a regular basis. For example, they design their SaaS accounting package for the company accountant or the routing/logistics software for the shipping coordinator.

This of course makes sense. You want to engage and retain your target market. But for a SaaS product to be successful you need to create a set of features or module for the product that targets an additional market — the CEO, CFO, CIO and/or other senior executives who approve the annual SaaS subscription.

This is one of the most overlooked project killers. You can have the happiest, most productive daily user, but if you do not build in performance reporting that is relevant to the people who pay the bills and do not market your software accordingly, you will forever be challenged at renewal time.

Consequently, during the research and design phase for your SaaS project, you want to validate the features and user experience of your software both for the individual who uses the software every day and for the executive who may never use the software directly but is in an approval role. Build in usage reporting and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) from the start as a module or as a permissions-based feature.

Downside protection, upside competitive advantage

Businesses are always choosing what to do and how to spend their money, all while knowing these decisions carry risks. Identifying and managing the project risk factors described in this series of three articles will improve the odds of delivering a software project that comes in on time, on budget, and on value.

On the one hand you get protection from being blind-sided by projects that can’t be designed, miss functional requirements, require rework or, in the worst case, users simply don’t use.

On the other hand, applications get to market faster and have greater functional impact, resilience, customer facing innovation and competitiveness.

Paul Giurata is the managing partner for Catalyst Resources, a user experience and application design firm headquartered in Silicon Valley. He and his teams have worked on more than 450 software projects in Financial Services, SaaS, Life Sciences / Biotech and mission-critical systems.  For more information, contact

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