How "Update Madness" Hurts SaaS Customers (And What You Can Do About It)

February 7, 2017

As the "software as a service" model becomes more prevalent, software companies must find ways to keep their customers engaged and the revenue stream flowing. Before Software as a Service (SaaS) became a mainstream practice, customers paid large upfront fees to license and install the software on their own servers. These fees provided the software companies a fixed budget to be used for future enhancements.

 

Now that customers pay a subscription fee as they go, software companies may no longer have a stable user base providing "guaranteed" development funds. To keep the customer engaged, companies more frequently update their products to keep them feeling fresh and expand their feature set.

 

So What's the Problem?
Continual software updates can sometimes do more harm than good. Software service products can be changed in ways that customers aren't prepared to handle. In some cases, productivity suffers when employees must re-learn how to use the software. In more extreme cases, these updates can entirely break solutions that depend on the software's underlying functionality. When updated and expanded software comes at the expense of stability and consistency, most users would prefer that software companies KISS (keep it simple, stupid).

 

Updates Can Hurt Productivity More Than They Help
One of the most popular SaaS platforms evolves weekly as the technology driving it matures. Every Tuesday, updates are published that change how the software service's tools look, how they work, and how they are maintained.

 

When software service user interfaces (UIs) change, the end users suffer immediate setbacks. They must determine what is different, how it affects their practices, and how to keep their business moving. Time and money must be spent to retrain employees and implement workarounds. Furthermore, software service updates potentially introduce bugs, delaying customers from getting back to work until they are corrected.

 

Ideally, software services should offer a simple UI that users easily understand. Any updates to the service should maintain the core UI for consistency. Since users generally use around 10% of any tool's functionality, additional features should only be added if they relate the primary functions of the tool.

 

Changing Software that Companies Depend On Can Break Things

Updates can also make the software unusable for the customer. This occurs when an update deprecates a function, temporarily breaks it due to glitches or changes the function so drastically that previous functionality can't be restored.

 

For example, a future update in a popular software service will deprecate its ability to publish external websites. The software company provided an explanation of how this change is good for the tool's stability, but that's little consolation for the many companies using the tool for their public-facing website. These customers now must work within the software company's timeline to find a new public website tool and move their content over before their current public website is gone.

 

Managing all of their internal and external websites using a single tool made things simple for customers. The loss of this key feature helps only the software company, who will continue to charge the same subscription fee for a "technically superior," but less capable, tool.

 

Software that "Thinks  For Us" Often Wastes Resources

New features are often added to software according to software company's assumptions about what irritates users. They automate processes that they think users find tedious or generate assets they expect users would create following certain actions. In effect, software companies are trying to make their software think for the user. Unfortunately, these changes tend to get in the user's way more often than they help.

 

For example, a recent update to a collaboration software service changes the way security groups function. Previously, security groups allowed administrators to identify a set of users and to assign an access level for those users. With the update, if a new security group is created, the software not only creates the group to control security, but it also generates a group site containing a group mailbox and document repositories. Once simple and straightforward, creating security groups is now a confusing and wasteful process.

 

These assets consume the customer's allotted disk space by introducing unwanted repositories that disorient users with unnecessary options they won't use. If a customer's available disk space is depleted, they will then have to purchase more from the software company. This rewards the software company's bad practices with a higher subscription fee and can make customers very unhappy.

 

Customers Don't Want to be Guinea Pigs for Software Service Providers

It can be difficult for software companies to relate to their customers. Without the experience of using the tool as end users, they try to "see what sticks" by implementing new features with little advance warning and observing how users react. Customers may feel software companies are forcing them to vet an update while disrupting their business processes.

 

For example, imagine the impact of a UI transformation that changes the appearance of document repositories, menus, and the way users manage content. The updated UI frustrates real-world users, who find their workspaces changed without their permission. What's worse, even though the ability to "roll back" to the original UI is offered, it will eventually no longer be available.

 

This effectively puts the customers in the role of quality assurance evaluators for a product they are already paying for. They subscribed to the software service based on their impressions of the original UI. Now the software company has changed the experience, and is using the reactions and feedback of paying customers to prepare for when they deprecate the original experience entirely. The loss of a simpler and well-liked UI needlessly complicates the use of the product, therefore hurting customers' opinion of the software company.

 

Software Companies MUST Communicate with their Customers

The best way for SaaS software companies to have a positive relationship with customers is through communication and transparency. If updates are coming, these companies need to be upfront with their customers about what is changing and why, and what they can do to prepare.

 

Best practice for communicating with customers goes beyond posting an update changelog to a company blog. SaaS providers must make an effort to respond to questions from customers. Ideally, they should also offer free customer service with some amount of support for legacy solutions. Most importantly, they must help their customers adjust to the new solutions. This helps earn the trust of the user base and encourages their ongoing patronage.

 

What Can We Do?

SaaS customers must take initiative. For customers to get the simplicity and stability they want out of software services, they must stay informed of the product's future and voice concerns as they arise. The more software companies know about what their customers want, the more likely they are to provide it.

 

Keeping an eye on SaaS product road maps helps customers spot potential issues ahead of time. Many SaaS companies also allow users to sign up for email alerts when updates are announced. Customers in first-release programs may choose to un-register, showing the software company they're not interested in testing changes. When all else fails, the SaaS model allows customers to opt out of their subscription and move on to something simpler that better suits their needs.

 

If a software company releases an update that adversely impacts their business, customers must inform them of problems they're having. If the software company sends out email surveys asking for opinions, customers should answer them quickly and honestly. If it is clear that customers value simplicity and stability above all else, then software companies have their work cut out for them.

 

Who Can We Trust?

It's expected that SaaS companies will update their products over time. The intent of this practice is to provide customers more "bang for their buck." There are times when updates are requested by customers to improve the tool's capability, compatibility or speed. Customers want the products they pay for to evolve as long as updates don't disrupt productivity, make using the tool more difficult or consume valuable resources.

Are you seeking tools with simple, clean, and logical interfaces that you can depend on to work consistently over the long term? i-Squared works hard to keep things simple, so get in touch and let's KISS for a change.

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