“Every business is a software business.” This statement may be overused but it happens to be true. Just about any organization, from a mom-and-pop business, to a franchise owner, to a healthcare company, to a major corporation, are all using software to improve their business.
Improvement comes in the form of increased worker productivity, streamlined operations between vendors, and improved customer service. At the core of these outcomes is the communication process between the parties, particularly the structured communication required to keep information organized and business moving without the need for complex interpretation.
As consumers we are all familiar with unstructured communication, such as status updates on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, or emails between individuals. This is free form communication between a couple of people or to a larger audience. This format is expressive and entertaining to engage with. Unfortunately, businesses do not run on free form communication like this. Businesses require structured communications, such as registration forms, applications, questionnaires, and the like. The gulf between these two communication formats is the reason that most software development is either done for businesses or for consumers, rarely for both.
Consumer software applications are all about expressive free form communication that generates engagement from users, whether they are generating the content (writing things or posting pictures), acting on the content (liking, commenting, or sharing), or just viewing the content (scrolling through a feed, looking at pictures, or watching a video).
Business software applications are primarily focused on collecting information (registration forms, applications, or documents), processing information (reviewing data and documents), generating responses (proposals, bids, invoices, and orders), and evaluating results (productivity reports, sales reports, accounting reports).
Today’s most advanced consumer software converts information from business software into a consumer-friendly format that allows for purchasing decisions to be made or inquiries to be submitted. Think travel websites and real estate websites. The consumer is presented with a mountain of information with the ability to sort and filter as desired, then act upon when ready. On ecommerce sites the action is purchasing or preparing to purchase the item. On lead generation sites the action is usually an inquiry.
This consumer action step is the front line of engagement between a consumer and the back end business application. It is in this area that a lot of innovation can happen. I like to build systems where the consumer can go deeper into the business work flow, supplying structured information and completing tasks needed for providing service. This kind of action can happen all at once, like completing an online application for services, or over time, like completing an e-learining course.
The opportunities to enrich the interaction between consumer, business, and other vendors, is where new productivity gains will be made. As the world moves toward self-service tools for consumers in everything from healthcare to legal services, the interactivity provided to a consumer will be at the heart of innovation. The lines between consumer software and business software will be blurred further and further.
Some trends that I am excited about involve a third party service provider that specifically focuses on pushing a consumer through a business process, so that the business has a complete “file” on the consumer they are serving. The goal is to take work of collecting structured information and processing it out of the hands of a business that may not be optimized to do this function. These third party services oftentimes take the the form of a call center with a highly interactive web portal for the consumer, all of which is shared with the business. Just about every industry will likely see these type of specialty service providers appear to help consumers interact with consumer-facing business applications.