For the past fifteen years I’ve been involved in digital projects. Where it used to be all about creating brand experiences and campaigns, usually aimed at driving conversion through inspiring and activating brand stories, I’ve also seen the uprise of digital tools and platforms in the last couple of years. They focus on delivering a tailored service to their users, and they’re often referred to by the term SaaS (Software as a Service).
From start-ups to big corporates who are busy with their digital transformation, it seems SaaS is on everyone’s mind. But with our agency as digital design partner, being involved from the early strategic stages all the way through to the go-live moments and way after, I’ve also seen the struggles they encounter, and started wondering what we can learn from their endeavors. Here are some of my insights you might find useful to browse through.
1. Insource or outsource?
One of the first choices I’ve seen SaaS companies faced with is whether to insource or outsource certain expertises. Going SaaS actually means running a software company, no matter whether you install solar microgrids in rural Africa, run consumer loyalty programs, or deal with real estate and urban planning, so you need IT expertise. And with an online platform to run and maintain, the wiser choice is often to insource back-end developers. But from there on it becomes harder. How about marketing? Design? Content creation? Will you set up a complete in-house team, or better work with an external partner?
For those who chose to work with us as their digital design partner, it seemed to work best when collaborating in a shared environment (using Git and our own brand hub Brandstation) in which we did UX, visual design and front-end development, while they used our designs and code snippets to embed them into their own back-end.
2. Make or buy?
Once you know who to hire and which external partners to work with, you have to choose what to make and what to buy. Will you make your own custom CMS, which is tailor-made for the job, but will cost your team many hours to build, or do you opt for an existing one from the shelf, which will give you a head-start, but will add to your direct costs? The same counts for plug-ins, frameworks, APIs, e-commerce tools and so on.
Another driver of decision-making in this is flexibility. What will give you more flexibility in the future: stuff you’ve made in-house, or stuff you’ve bought? Stuff you’ve made yourself needs to be maintained by you as well, while stuff you’ve bought is often kept up-to-date by 3rd party developers, depending on your licence. On the other hand, stuff you’ve bought might be adapted beyond your control, leaving you with a product that doesn’t fit your framework anymore.
And then there is the flexibility of being able to hand over code to other future developers. This is the main reason why most of our clients opt for open-source CMSes, rather than having us develop a custom CMS for them. There are other benefits as well, such as the large community bases of these open-source CMSes, that offer documentation, tips & tricks, and readily available security patches in case of security risks.
3. Drive user engagement
By now you have your team set, and you know what to make and buy. Now comes the moment you take a closer look at your proposition. You’ve probably put a lot of thought into it already and you’re convinced it’s a killer service 😉 However, you also might have heard people say it’s ‘just another screen’. Ultimately, your service will be part of the ocean of all other online services, screaming for people’s attention.
Apart from this overload of online services, people have also seen that many of them — especially B2B platforms where people have to work with data — increase their amount of work. Suddenly, apart from their normal daily tasks, they now have to log in, dive into data, interpret charts and graphs, and ultimately derive conclusions from it.
In order to avoid the rejection of your online service, focusing on real user engagement might be the best way to go. What truly motivates people to use your service, and how to engage them in working with your interface? What are their pains, and how best to relief them from it, instead of blindly pushing your service? As an example, one of our clients had come to understand that people simply don’t have time, and therefore introduced the option to export an executive summary of their data platform at any given time, which gives their users the numbers at a glance. A simple solution that reliefs the pain of not having time and engages with effective data visualizations.
4. Build for scalability
As your platform grows, you’ll face growing pains. Suddenly it turns out your code framework is not as scalable as you had thought, and you’re forced to go back to the drawing table and revise your whole code architecture. While at a certain point this is probably unavoidable, as you cannot always oversee things at the beginning, still I think it’s good to design for scalability right from the start.
This means plotting how your platform is going to grow, and how this will look from a technical point of view. Can your back-end deal with this? Do you have to pay more for 3rd party modules as traffic increases? How about hosting? How about loading speed? And security? In those cases where we’ve helped our clients anticipate on these things, it cost a bit more to set up the initial architecture, but it saved a lof of hassle — and costs — later on.
5. Premium design is a commodity
As digital design agency, we’ve always put design at the core of what we do. We believe good design helps people understand how something works, and engages them to use it, hence reinforcing product acceptance. It is proven people perceive well-designed interfaces as easier to use, whether they are or not.
However, where good design used to be a differentiator — sometimes even a USP — when it comes to SaaS platforms, I now see all professional platforms look absolutely stunning. Premium design has become a commodity. This means you simply cannot get away with something that navigates poorly and looks below average. Instead, make sure your platform is well-designed, both on UX and branding levels, and start thinking about functionalities that you can still differentiate on.
6. Get user feedback asap
I know this is old news, but I still see many owners of SaaS platforms reason from their own perspective when giving feedback on prototypes. Where this may be justified when it comes to the brand’s tone of voice, it shouldn’t be the case for feedback on UX. Then it’s your users you need to listen to. What are they searching for when browsing around on your platform? Do they know how to navigate? Do they see your call-to-actions?
Luckily, most online platforms nowadays are made using a scrum approach, which is characterized by a series of relatively short development sprints. Scrum as a design and development approach seems to fit well with big and complex projects such as SaaS platforms, rather than using the more classic waterfall approach, which is more often used for the creation of brand experiences and campaigns. Working in scrum makes user testing much easier, since every sprint ends with a working prototype, ready to be tested. So there’s no excuse anymore to skip user testing!
7. Embrace agility
Due to the fairly large time scopes when creating a SaaS platform — 6 up to 12 months are not unsual — you’ll probably gain new insights along the way, forcing priorities to shift. These insights can come from user feedback, shifting markets, changes in your company and so on. But this is ok! Be agile and allow priorities to shift, your product will only get better! If you work in scrum, shifting priorities means taking other user stories from the backlog onto the next sprint, rather than the ones you initially thought, or even creating new user stories.
Be aware, however, that when your team starts working on other stories, this means it goes at the cost of the originally planned stories (since sprints have a fixed length and budget). This is especially important to realize if you happen to work with an external design and/or development partner. Probably they’ve signed a contract with you that states exactly what will be delivered for which price, while shifting priorities asks for flexibility in this field. Being flexible with the contract might be scary territory if you’re not used to it, but with scrum a lot is based on trust. Your external partner will probably do his best to deliver as much as possible within the given time scope and budget, because in the end everybody wants a good product and a happy client.
8. Avoid scope creep
“We don’t want to be another Facebook” is what I’ve heard lately during briefings or when filling the backlog of a scrum project. The realization that a SaaS platform should maybe not offer the whole world of possibilities seems to kick in. And I agree. Scope creep (the process of adding functionalities along the way while losing sight of the initial focus of the platform) is a phenomenon that is always lurking. And that’s because it’s so tempting to simply add functionalities based on user feedback, especially when your technical framework allows it. Therefore always keep your product proposition in mind, and carefully balance the scope as you enter new design sprints.
9. Design the on-boarding funnel
Just as any other business, your SaaS platform also needs a sales strategy. Who are you selling to? What’s your pricing scheme? And most importantly: how are you planning to get leads on board? This is probably one of the biggest struggles I’ve seen amongst SaaS companies. They explain their platform, what it solves and how it solves that. They provide demos, free trials, all aimed at converting interested leads. But then it remains silent. The final decision to actually buy a licence for the platform keeps on being postponed. Where does it go wrong in this funnel?
Though it can be many reasons — such as the fact that whether or not purchasing a licence for a big SaaS platform is often part of a bigger internal company strategy, and therefore makes it a complex and political decision-making process — I’ve experienced it’s often due to not knowing all the different people that influence the final purchasing decision during the on-boarding funnel. Who are the different stakeholders? Who are external influencers? Who is the actual buyer (the end-boss if you will)? Therefore it’s absolutely necessary to map all of them, get to know what drives each of them, and carefully place them in your on-boarding funnel at the right time. Then, finally, think of a way to get all of them on-board: show demos to some of them, prices to others, and introduce your team to those who seek trust etc. Yes, it’s hard.
10. Have a maintenance team ready
Finally, you’re seeing the fruits of all your efforts grow. All of this has been a precise job of turning the right knobs, added with a dash of luck and the right timing, and off you went! But hold on! We’re dealing with a SaaS platform here, built on web technology in a world where innovation goes with an ever-increasing speed, and code is outdated before you know it. Therefore, make sure you have a maintenance team ready, consisting of developers, designers, content creators, product owners and scrum masters, in order to keep your platform alive and kicking!