The New RFP

By Michael Staton - Mon, Apr 11, 2011-->

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The New RFP

I have a friend whose company recently got funded.  Their idea: to introduce a new payments system.  If you read their response to the question “What makes you different from Paypal and Google Checkout?”, their answer was simple: “It doesn’t suck.”  I was very envious of the big balls it takes to make that statement, but then realized that the statement is representative of a giant paradigm shift - one that I need the balls to talk about.

Here’s the OH SNAP zinger:

“In Higher Education today, the RFP process kills good products, and committee driven purchasing kills great design.”

We get questions all the time that sound something like this: “Yeah, but what does it DO!”  Somehow, the idea that we have software that’s simple, usable, and sticky, doesn’t yet register as purchasing priorities in quite a bit of the Higher Ed crowd.  But, these should be the top priorities.

The RFP and procurement process for software has traditionally been about Features.  What features does your software have?  We’re putting out an RFP for software with all of these Features.  And if two software packages have the same Features, well you go with the one with the lower price, right?  This process, in theory, creates a competitive environment in which the school saves money and yet satisfies their software needs.

But this process kills the potential for great products and also kills the possibility of creating great companies, and instead the RFP/Feature-based purchasing creates incentives for feature rich software that, while it may meet a laundry list of requirements, is either entirely unusable or aggravates almost everyone that uses it.

There are often a million little design decisions that total up into a great user experience.  These can’t be listed out in line-item form.  If they were, there would be a thousand things like this: “Appropriate use of white space.  Consistently fast load times using memcache.  Social Proof accompanied with calls to action.”    There are also a million little efforts and characteristics that go into providing good service, many of which just go deep into the SOUL of the company that creates the software.  Equally, there’s no checklist for this.  It would sound like “Always friendly when I get them on the phone.  The person helping me has direct access to engineering and product development.”

Feature driven software may suffice in the previous paradigms associated with administrative software.  In administrative software, like ERP, SIS, CRM and other acronyms, you can write inane manuals and hold week long training sessions (which cost boatloads), and you can hire consultants to come in and augment the broken system to make it do what it promised it would do in the first place.  Even more fun for these companies, you can hide a lot of the total cost of adoption in these services.

But obviously, in the face of consumer technology that works all the time and retains its allegiance to simplicity, usability, and stickiness, everyone in Higher Education is looking at their technology stack with a great degree of impatience.  Everyone I’ve ever talked to in Higher Education talks about most of their software as a POS, even the ones that do solve their problems or process their workflow.

Look at my friend Daniel Rabinovich’s presentation at Web 2.0.  Daniel is the CTO of the EBay of South America.  They are an enormous and successful company, and the presentation is all about the fight to reduce complexity and get your design down to its Simple, Usable, and Sticky essence.

When you’re making user-centered software, having a lot of features is almost impossible.  Casual users do not read manuals.  They do not go to training.  You can’t sell them consulting.

Well, actually, for some reason in Higher Ed there are consultants who train administrators to strategize around and use easy-to-use consumer technology like Facebook, but why they are so prolific or anyone finds them really necessary is beyond me.  I think it has something to do with the fact that administrators, before they dive in, assume that this kind of training and planning is necessary because of their past experience with technology. I’ve been asked many times over to come speak or do some consulting.  But I refuse out of principle.  There are plenty of great consultants in Higher Education.  But there’s a dearth of great products.  Introducing a great product is Inigral’s mission.)

So, forget your old RFP, here’s the new RFP:

  • Don’t suck.
  • Keep your software simple, usable, and sticky.
  • Solve at least one problem for me really, really well.
  • Don’t complicate my life.  It’s already complicated.
  • Don’t stress me out.  I’m already stressed.
  • Be human.  Give me a level of service that makes me like you.
  • Surprise me with something elegant.

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higher ed, higher education, inigral, michael staton, rfp

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This post was written by:

Michael Staton

Michael Staton

Michael Staton is an educator turned Internet entrepreneur. As founder of Inigral, he has led Inigral through three rounds of investment and brought on twenty early partner institutions. He has been a panelist for the ASU Innovation in Education Summit and Internet Week. He helps education entrepreneurs get off the ground the best he can. He has an MA from Clark University in International Development. Prior to starting Inigral, he was an innovative educator and curriculum designer. He’s out to help create opportunities for people, one step at a time.

11 Responses to “The New RFP”

  1. Avatar image
    Karine Joly Says:

    “Well, actually, for some reason in Higher Ed there are consultants who train administrators to strategize around and use easy-to-use consumer technology like Facebook, but why they are so prolific or anyone finds them really necessary is beyond me.”

    Do you mean higher ed institutions don’t need consultants to learn how to use Facebook as much as they need Facebook apps like yours, Michael?

    Looks like a different middle man to me, don’t you think so?

    Reply

    • Avatar image
      Michael Staton Says:

      Hi Karine,

      I think consultants can provide a lot of value, but I think most large organizations don’t look into their own talent base before they reach out to external consultants.

      I also think that quite a bit of social media is simply being present, being consistent, experimenting, and putting in the elbow grease. There’s not a lot of magic juju like in organizational design or hr processes. So, I get surprised there are just so many social media consultants these days. It’s not to diss the consumer or the provider here, just express that I find it strange there’s such a market. (Having said that, we’ve hired one - not for strategy but for actual elbow grease.)

      Like Karlyn says, we provide a product that is intended to meet the needs of admissions in more direct ways than consumer internet products. It’s not just comparing Apples to Oranges, it’s comparing Bread to a Three Course Meal made for a specific event.

      Thanks for your input Karine, and yes, in a way we’re just a platform on which other people can accomplish a goal.

      Cheers,

      Michael

      Reply

  2. Avatar image
    Karlyn Morissette (author) Says:

    I don’t think that’s what he’s arguing at all. The app that Inigral offers is a completely different thing than hiring a consultant to show them something that they could probably learn from an entry level person in their office. Inigral’s app gives schools advanced functionality within Facebook they wouldn’t otherwise have - that’s not a middle man at all.

    Reply

    • Avatar image
      Karine Joly Says:

      Point taken, although it sounded a bit like: “why do you work with them instead of working with us?” But, I can have a twisted mind on Mondays ;-)

      What kind of advanced functionality?

      What I have heard about this app so far reminded me of the Open University App launched in October 2007: Course Profiles.

      I did an interview about it for a University Business column three years ago.

      Reply

  3. Avatar image
    Mark Rothbaum Says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t think this issue is applicable just to schools. It’s a function of large organizations. If you’ve ever tried to do business with any large organization, you’ll often times run into the same issues you discussed (RFP processes, disbursed decision-making, feature-based comparisons). You can see it in colleges, government institutions, and large companies.

    If you truly feel like your software is as sticky, usable, and simple as you claim, isn’t there a freemium opportunity for you or a low-cost version that could get schools hooked before upgrading to a “full version”?

    Let schools roll out your software without some of the features that you believe may be most valuable for the school itself (but don’t really impact the student experience at all)… maybe it’s statistics / metrics, certain modes of contacting students, etc. Once you’re doing business with them, I’m sure it’s much easier to get them to spend more money with you for additional value.

    You’re definitely not the only vendor out there that wishes the purchasing process at higher education institutions was faster and simpler. In fact, I’m sure you’d have more than a few folks on the purchasing side that would echo your sentiments.

    In the end, the hard truth is that it’s probably easier to change what you do to adapt to how schools operate than the other way around.

    Reply

    • Avatar image
      Mark Rothbaum Says:

      And by “disbursed decision-making”… I mean “dispersed decision-making”.

      Reply

    • Avatar image
      Michael Staton Says:

      Hi Mark,

      This is an interesting idea on a disruptive path to market. Sounds like we should have a beer sometime.

      One nuance to consider is that we are trying, like you, to invent a new category, and the product and services requirements are still quite unknown. My company and your company are literally making it up as we listen to the visionary individuals in the market who have taken the risk to become our customer.

      I do like where you’re going. In the end, you and I are on the same team and our competition is indifference, ignorance, and a slow-to-adopt customer base.

      This blog post isn’t an advertisement on our company a la your company or any other, it’s simply a way to start a conversation about something I think needs to be talked about: that the consumer internet is going to be changing what people expect of software, and that those that buy enterprise software need to understand what this means for them.

      Best Regards,

      Michael

      Reply

  4. Avatar image
    Dan Says:

    Nice post, Michael. It reminds me of an article I saw recently that states quite simply, “Most RFPs focus on requirements, but fail to focus on the reasons behind those requirements.”

    The reason most institutions issue RFPs is because they are looking to solve strategic business challenges. Unfortunately, rather than issue RFPs that look for vendors to propose solutions those challenges, they issue RFPs looking for exhaustive lists of tactical features that may or may not be relevant.

    Reply

    • Avatar image
      Michael Staton Says:

      Dan,

      Couldn’t agree more. I have a designer, our Product Architect Howard Kao, that has to battle my feature requests all the time. He takes my feature ideas and asks “What’s the problem? What are people trying to accomplish?” Then we move on from there.

      Does that mean I’m the problem? Probably….

      Cheers,

      Michael

      Reply

  5. Avatar image
    Bee Says:

    Case in point Sharepoint 2007 doesn’t do any of these for me…

    So, forget your old RFP, here’s the new RFP:

    Don’t suck.
    Keep your software simple, usable, and sticky.
    Solve at least one problem for me really, really well.
    Don’t complicate my life. It’s already complicated.
    Don’t stress me out. I’m already stressed.
    Be human. Give me a level of service that makes me like you.
    Surprise me with something elegant.

    Hopefully Sharepoint 2010 will be better.

    Reply

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  1. links for 2011-04-11 « innovations in higher education says:

    [...] The New RFP | .eduGuru RT @nickdenardis: "In Higher Education today, the RFP process kills good products, and committee driven purchasing kills great design." … (tags: via:packrati.us) [...]

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