As customers and businesses continue to shift the way business and communication happens from the analog world to the digital world, the barrage of software options gets even more complicated.
It can be a challenge to quickly assess new technology offerings and determine how this stuff can fit into your overall business strategy.
I’m going to share one of the methods I use to make sense of technology. There are lots of ways of evaluating tech tools and toys — from the time-honored "My little brother says this is the future of computing" method to the "Let’s hire a consultant to do a ground-up evaluation." The method I’m going to share is somewhere in between.
Software tends to operate in a three-step process. First there needs to be data to manipulate — a data source. Next up, the software does something with that data according to your business rules.
Finally, the software presents its results to you in a user interface and a series of workflow steps.
As our software gets increasingly fragmented from monolithic "productivity" suites into single-purpose interconnected apps, some of our software will excel at one of these three areas.
Some of our software will be miserable in one of the three areas but be so indispensable in the others that we put up with it.
Software, by its nature, processes data. To a computer, everything it can manipulate is just data — even things we don’t normally think of as data, like pictures or our friends. To a piece of software, even these emotional things are just a pile of ones and zeros: data.
Once we get our heads around that, it provides the starting point for evaluating software. The first question we can investigate when we look at some new software is, "What data does this software work on?"
The answer to this question will be the data source for the software.
Some examples and their data sources:
- LinkedIn: your business history.
- Your blog: articles and pages of content that you make.
- Twitter: short bits of content that you make.
- Photoshop: digital photographs that you obtain.
- Integrated Internet Data Exchange (IDX) software for your website: MLS property data that you provide and/or license.
You’ll notice that getting the data source for the software is where you, the user, will probably spend a fair bit of time.
Once you know what the data source is, asking questions about how that data is obtained and pumped into the software will let you know if the software will be a good fit for your workload.
Applying business rules to the data source
After the data source has been identified, the next step is doing something with that data. How the data is manipulated is the "business rules" part of software. Software vendors usually talk about "configuration" or "filters" when they’re describing business rule capabilities of software.
This is the area that gets the least attention of the three parts of software because it is the part that we don’t interact with directly, except perhaps when initially configuring the software. However, this is where I like to spend the most effort in understanding software.
All of the social innovation of the past few years is having a big impact on how software operates, and it is primarily in the realm of how the source data is processed via business rules that is making things interesting.
Want to know if someone is just bolting on some fluffy social networking feature or really getting serious about social? Ask them how social data is integrated into their product.
For example, customer relationship management (CRM) software is a natural fit for making use of social data and business rules that surround that data.
Where a few years ago you might be satisfied to sort your list of leads (a source data for a CRM tool) by ZIP code, today you might want to sort a list of leads based on who they know.
The ability to sort based on social relationships or geographic location or any other parameter is an example of the sort of business rules you want to be aware of in software.
If the software can’t help you make meaning from data that is important to your business strategy, then it doesn’t have the business rules chops you’re looking for.
How inviting software looks, how easy to use it is, the number of steps required to complete a task with it — all are aspects of user experience. This aspect of software is often the one that is given the most attention because it’s the part we see all the time.
Early-stage beta software is typically miserable at this "UX" (user experience) stuff. The software that survives, though, tends to polish up its act. Only software that has incredibly powerful business rule or data-source strengths can survive a poor UX.
Interestingly, in the fragmented world of Web apps, some software is primarily a new interface for some other technology. TweetDeck, for example, can do very few things that the standard Twitter interface can’t do — TweetDeck just presents Twitter data in a more usable format.
In real estate, there could be a future in UI development for integrated IDX search as vendors develop APIs (application programming interfaces, which can simplify developers’ use and adaption of the tools) for their search and data products.
Depending on the business rules those APIs support, this could lead to innovation in the search space.
Putting this all together
So next time you get the itch to get some new tech working for your real estate practice, here are a few things to consider:
- Is the data source for the software relevant to your business?
- Will you be able to get the data source into the software without spending too many resources?
- Can the software manipulate the data source in a way that is meaningful for your business?
- Can your business rules be reflected in the way the software works or will you be expected to change the way you do business in order to use this software?
- Will the end result of whatever the software does be understandable and meaningful to you?
- Will the effort of using the software negate the benefits it provides?
An example of looking at software this way might be the Google Base WordPress plug-in I reviewed a little while back (see: "Add real estate search to your WordPress site").
The data source is Google Base property listings, which the software automatically grabs. The software allows the typical search functionality that is available on most other property search integrations, no better or worse.
The UI is a website that can be styled and customized to fit your needs, though it could use a few more hooks for CSS customizations. (CSS, short for "Cascading Style Sheets," is a type of online formatting template that is used for design and layout.)
An interesting feature of the software is that it is open source, which means you can fix what you don’t like about it.
For many, Google Base as the data source is a deal-killer — even though the software is free and the Google Base data is free, and the software requires no hands-on entry of property information.
Having data that is perceived as being inaccurate can be a non-starter. So even though the other two areas of the software are pretty much as good as other solutions, the data source makes the software unusable to many (even though changing the data source is possible within the open-source licensing of the software).