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Catch my continental drift

In London last week I attended an excellent lecture given by Professor Richard Dawkins, the renowned evolutionary biologist. It seems that regardless of what I’m reading or listening to, I can’t help but eventually transpose its meaning to technology. Even if it makes no sense. And sitting in the grandeur of London’s Royal Albert Hall hearing about Darwinist theories of evolution was much more than I’d usually need to set me off.

So, buckle up…!

About ten years ago I spent a day in a hotel room at London’s Heathrow Airport secretly evaluating a market leading european accounting software product to scope out the viability of bringing it to the UK. That proposed deal died a death principally because the user interface and software design workflows were so alien to my British accounting software brain that I was convinced that it would never be accepted in the UK without a lot of costly UI rework which would have fundamentally broken the application. The odd thing was that the UI of that product was deemed to be the best in class in its home country and had been copied by all its native competitors over time. I didn’t get it.

Aside from a few notable enterprise apps that are internationally oriented by design, I can’t recall many examples of successful accounting software companies going on to replicate their home success overseas. Intuit never really caught its stride outside of North America, Sage’s leading UK codebases just about managed the doggy-paddle across the Irish Sea, and MYOB conquered the new world and not much else.

Why?

My theory is that before the web shrank the planet, the first application software companies of the 1980’s were as parochial and locally focused as any traditional businesses of that era. Like, very parochial. To compound that, the design choices and decisions of the first generation of accounting apps were made in isolation by a tiny group of pioneers in each country who unwittingly formed those original design conventions and expectations which were heavily flavoured by their individual tastes or lack of, (I mean, purple, really?), their own ideas and personal preferences.

Now, if you’re still with me; take both of these factors and then combine them with the fact that the ultimate success of today’s incumbent dominant market leaders subsequently permitted them to set the local tone for UI design and culture as they and their local competitors iterated, replicated and evolved together. So, after thirty years inside these isolated evolutionary design petri dishes, it’s no surprise that I concluded that the mutant european accounting app I reviewed was too just weird for the UK, and accounting apps have generally not crossed continents for the very same reason – design and cultural incompatability.

Before this blog post collapses under the weight of its own ridiculousness I’ll stop, but I’d be happy to write up my conclusions in a follow up post about where my Evolutionary Theory of Software Design leaves the new generation of global accounting apps like Xero.

 

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6 comments

Neil Ballard
26 October 2011 #

Go on Gary, go for it. I’ve got plenty of time for a bit of subjective tech history. Even if everyone else has switched off ;)

Cheers

Neil
@SaaSitUK

Kelvin Hartnall
26 October 2011 #

Sounds like an interesting theory, but I got to the end and wanted to know how the environmental change (the web) will affect the various species of accounting app. I guess the Internet has bridged the islands and the world of accounting may no longer resemble the variation found in the Galapagos islands. There is no room for purple Iguanas on the mainline, or purple accounting software in the connected world!

A favourite quote of mine is:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change” -Darwin

To extend your Evolutionary Theory of Software Design, I see one benefit of Saas applications is that they can adapt quickly. We saw this with Xero and the quick modifications they could make when VAT and GST changed. I wonder if this adaptability will make them the superior surviving species?

I look forward to your follow up post with your conclusions for Xero!

Anja
26 October 2011 #

See this favourite IceAge quote by Manfred: The dinosaurs got cocky. They made enemies.

dave
26 October 2011 #

Hmmm, biological evolution if I understand rightly doesnt actually have intelligent design involved. One might hope that a bit more planning is going into Xero or is it a coincidence that Rod is only one letter away from God? (bigger fan or Rod than Dawkins)

Adam
26 October 2011 #

Have you been researching the Lean Startup movement, Gary. It’s not strictly tied to the metaphor, but there is a lot of existing thought put into your concept.

The proposed key to finding a successful product-market-fit (or adaptation) is failing fast; explore the evolutionary dead ends quickly enough and you can return back to the winning solution’s branch.

So anything that can help you iterate quicker is better; Wireframing, Prototyping, AB Testing, SaaS, Cont.Integration, Cont.Deployment, etc

Gary Turner
27 October 2011 #

@Adam – no, great, so someone else stole one of my ideas. ;)

@Kelvin – thanks, will write up a follow up when I’ve thunk it through. Trying to work in dinosaurs and time travel into the plot. :)

@Dave – Can. Of. Worms.

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