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When Andy Warhol made his famous prints of Campbell’s soup he achieved something unique in the art world. He inverted the idea that artists are cultural creators and instead suggested they could be creators of commodities. His numerous prints, with repeating pop(ular) patterns were seen as innovating spectacles at the time.

Within SaaS this repeating pattern or commoditizing effect is neatly captured by the multitenant concept where the original instance can be scaled up and represented to millions of customers. And just like Warhol’s commoditized art, it focuses the user of the software on the spectacle of the experience. A good example of this commoditized software spectacle is Slack. On the day of its launch Slack’s site read ‘Slack is free to use for as long as you want for teams of all sizes.’ In other words, sample our product for as long as you want for free and the spectacle of our user experience will keep you coming back.

This is a story about how SaaS apps pirouette endlessly between further commoditization of their product through the freemium model and their pursuit of innovation to maintain the spectacle of their user experience.

Where no competitive advantage exists with price this commoditizing effect can be at its most brutal. The resulting outcome is often a product being offered for free no matter how useful it is to the customer. SaaS companies will argue that the value they deliver is the differentiator. If you create a new market like Airbnb or Linkedin perhaps so, but a quick view of most aspects of the cloud software market will demonstrate a highly competitive landscape where products are quickly emulated and often free at point of entry and in some cases for as long as you want. A commodity hell if you like.

The counter argument here is through new features a product will differentiate itself and therefore add further value. There’s the v word again. The issue with this strategy is, it often creates feature creep and almost always dilutes the user experience. A worse user experience dulls the spectacle of the software and when that happens, users migrate from Yammer to Chatter to Slack and maybe even to MS Teams. And so, the endless dance of adding features and calling it innovation vs improving user experience through a spectacle continues. Or as Clay Christensen might say in his seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, ‘differentiation loses its meaning when the features and functionality have exceeded what the market demands.’

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If we fall further for the elixir of software as a spectacle then the obvious next question is, what does the user experience of a software spectacle look like?

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To use an analogy. In the Coen brothers movie, The Hudsucker Proxy, the main character Norville Barnes, presents his invention of the hula-hoop as a simple circle on a blank page. The concept and design is so simple that it appears misleading and contrarian.  The spectacle of this image is intriguing because the design of the product, as we are all familiar with, reduces the concept to its bare essence. In the software world Google imitates this spectacularly with its search box.

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A product with extraordinary complexity is reduced to its bare essence. Beautiful, elegant and solely focused on what the customer requires.

When considered carefully, Google search, has done something that no other cloud software has managed. It has retained the brilliant spectacle of its simplicity even as it increased its complexity and most crucially its user base. #Software taxidermy.

User communities and major software events can attempt to resuscitate the spectacle but no window dressing is required if a user experience is superior to the competition. After all as Amazon might say, if you like this, you’re gonna love that.

by

Mark Power

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