Friday, June 01, 2007

The Number One Feature Request from Meeting Planners

Jerry Chandler from Business Travel Executive magazine asked me, "What is the #1 feature request that you hear from meeting planners?" I've heard this question before, and I know that editors expect an answer like "Travel Integration", "Meeting Expense Consolidation", or "Budgeting". But my answer was, "Tools that will simplify their working life".

Deliver More. Do Less.

In business, everyone is asked to deliver more product with less cost. Since the "product" of Meeting Planning is often pre-event data management, this demand translates into managing more information while using less human time. Meeting Planners are flooded with data, and they each want "The Feature" that will make their unique work flow simple. For some, the feature is roommate matching; for others, it is financial integration for month-end accounting reconciliation; for others, it is managing seating assignments.

Developing "The Feature"

Software developers try to create an application with a set of features that meets the needs of the largest group in the target audience. In the late 1990s, online registration was "The Feature" that all event planners and attendees wanted, and providing it was (in hindsight) straightforward. Some events collect payment from attendees, so integrated online credit card processing became "The Next Feature". Then room block management was the feature, but only for a smaller set of event planners since not all events manage their room blocks. Roommate matching was the feature for corporate meeting planners whose firms wanted to reduce housing costs by sharing rooms among their employees. Of course, this feature was useless for trade shows and conferences where attendees stay in individual rooms. Next, corporate travel managers who found themselves in charge of centralized meeting planning decided that travel integration was the must-have feature, for one stop group travel planning (event registration, housing, and travel arrangements). The focus on meeting expense consolidation led to feature demands for Budgeting, RFP management, Facility / Vendor databases, and so on.

Along the way, each new feature made online event registration applications appeal to a broader audience, but somehow, more features made more people less satisfied. This contradiction is explained when you remember that each individual user did not specifically ask for all of these features, what they wanted were "Tools that will simplify their working life". With additional features, applications became more complex to master, and developers became focussed on expanding breadth in the application instead of tying existing features together to streamline individual workflow processes.

When More Is Less

The May 21, 2007 issue of Forbes reports that the Honda CRV, with 88 possible configurations, outsells by 250% the Chrysler Nitro, with 167,000 configurations. Since dealers sold only 36,687 Nitros last year, Chrylser and its suppliers were paying for an infrastructure that supported five times as many configurations as any customer wanted. (The 2008 Nitro will allow 680 option combinations.)

When I apply this logic to our application, I find about 16,549,457,379,840 possible combinations in our custom reporting area alone.
  • 21 report types
  • 7 report output formats
  • 11 report display options
  • 4 report visibility options
  • 2 report data scope options
  • 8 "Changes Report" options
  • 10 "Role-based"options
  • 11 group options
  • 6 subtotal options
  • Approximately 1000 columns
  • 29 filter options, plus 2 date filter options with 9 date options and 34 date range options
  • 2 header/footer options with 63 dynamic fields
  • 3 export action options
  • 10 custom column options
I've worked on this application since the first line of code, and there are few features or options that were added without solving a specific customer need. But after 8 years these features in aggregate have made life more difficult for some users than it should be. And it has created a "headwind" that slows down development; because each new feature can potentially affect more areas, QA must test more possible combinations in order to ensure backwards compatibility, and a wider audience demands more new periphery features that perpetuate the cycle.

Paid to Provide Solutions, not Just Identify Problems

While providing more features for the event planning industry, our design philosophy has to step back and create a User-centric (and Workflow-centric) focus on simplicity. I will continue this discussion in a future blog.

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