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Why Xero doesn’t have a Hard Mode

Posted 9 years ago in Xero news by Gary Turner
Posted by Gary Turner

easyLife can get complicated sometimes, business life even more so; and that’s just the relationship side of things. And as with our personal lives, mastering the fine art of compromise in business is necessary to ensure forward motion. We learn how to compromise early, after all what is the point of a negotiation if not to enable two parties to arrive at an adequate level of mutual compromise on price in exchange for a product or service. But I think compromise – as necessary a commercial lubricant as it is – has an evil twin in software usability.

Learning to use early business apps was straightforward enough, if sometimes a little cryptic to begin with. However once you’d managed to memorise the different menus and keystrokes, away you went. Watching people use first and second-generation business apps was productivity personified, played to the accompaniment of the sound of hundreds of key clicks as they rattled through reams of order entry documents, often without even looking at the screen.

Software used to be billed as ‘Easy to use’ or ‘User friendly’ but apparently both these terms should have been banned by advertising standards councils in recent years because watching someone using most business software today is like watching an antelope trying to open a packet of cigarettes*.Why?

Two reasons.

The first is competition. The business software industry has been locked in Mortal Kombat with itself for years where ‘Bigger, better, faster more…’ has been the only battlefield directive. This is entirely understandable in the context of a capitalist economy where the short-term ability to compete determines the long-term ability to survive, but the unsightly wreckage of this functionality arms race lies strewn across the screens of every modern day business app.

In simplistic terms, software that was once simple has gotten progressively more and more complicated and moreover, we have learned to accept this as the unavoidable price of progress. In other words, we compromise. Which conveniently is the second reason software is over complicated today.

We tolerate and don’t complain. And even if we did complain, software companies probably wouldn’t do anything thing about it.

Because if you’ve just spent the last twenty years painstakingly engaged in the software development equivalent of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, (I know it only took Michelangelo four years, indulge me), and one day the Pope drops by to review the finished work, screws up his face and says ”Don’t you think it looks a bit busy? …” – it’s going to be a short conversation. And anyway, no long established software company would ever lightly entertain the prospect of a radical redesign even if it was the right thing to do, for fear of disenfranchising its entire user community should the redesign veer too far from the accepted, if dysfunctional norm.

After twenty years of using business software but after only two months of using Xero myself, one of the things I really like about Xero is that – in gamer parlance – it only has one level of difficulty; Easy – and there are no Hard or Expert settings.

I’ll readily concede that this is partly because Xero is still relatively young and fresh – just as its older software counterparts once were – but also because usability and interaction design have been foundation priorities from the start, both concepts which didn’t exist when Xero’s old world counterparts first emerged.

Why is ease of use design and user feedback so important to Xero?

Because our monthly pay-as-you-go billing model means that we effectively renegotiate with every Xero customer every month. In order words, we need to convince our customers to stick with using Xero 12,000 times a month, and the moment any customer feels like they’re being asked to compromise more than they’re comfortable with, they can drop us like a stone.

That’s putting your money where your mouth is and that’s why Xero doesn’t have a Hard Mode.

* Thanks to Stephen Fry for his awesome software usability simile.


Jared Roussel
October 10, 2009 at 4.34 am

I agree with your outlook on the extreme decrease of usability over time primarily due to feature creep. Companies with an annual release cycle always need yet another bang in order to release a convincing update to their software. And usually that update comes mired with extras, or worse, by holding back certain features and stalling innovation. The biggest reason why I prefer Xero’s monthly model is that it rewards consistency. No new features need to come out for the user to keep paying and keep happy. It simply has to work and work well. Chances are, if a user signs up for a monthly service to begin with, the attitude is that the software at minimum gets the job done. That being said, I think innovation can thrive as well because Xero is more likely than others to keep its current users in mind when launching updates, and it forces you all to really focus on adding features that work within the platform. This is as opposed to desktop accounting software which could surprise the user with a completely new interface and new methodology in a single annual release (just look at the previews for QuickBooks 2010 for Mac).

Jared Roussel
October 10, 2009 at 5.05 am

However, to be fair, let Xero not forget that there is also quite a transition to bringing data over to Xero from another platform. This creates a substantial time investment in importing data, setting up accounts, and learning how to use the platform. I would say that it’s quite ambitious to claim that a user can just drop Xero and move on within the period of a month.

My standing question is: With Xero’s current limited export capabilities, something I’ve expressed skepticism about before, how could I possibly get out of Xero if I wanted to right now in a reasonable way?

Having been a customer for over a year now with all of my income/expense categorizations, expense reports, etc., simply exporting my Chart of Accounts without any line items or balances renders my time put into accounting with Xero virtually useless and leaves me very vulnerable inside of an audit lest I keep paying for Xero well after I stop using it. Let’s face it, Xero has no backup capability yet and is a completely closed platform as of now.

I think it’s absolutely critical for Xero to improve its backup/export feature in order to create to provide data retention security and audit protection to businesses. I also believe it’s just the plain right thing to do in exchange for my time and monetary investment into Xero as a customer. And furthermore, it’ll sure make a better case for those worried about putting their data in the cloud.

All in all, I have a great degree of confidence that Xero will be a long-lasting platform, but I think you guys owe it to your users to ensure them that their data is safe even if you guys should go away or if one of us should want to.

Catherine Walker in reply to Jared Roussel Xero
October 10, 2009 at 11.17 am

Hi Jared,
Indeed we have some work to do to provide a bundled export of all your data in one go should you wish to take your own copy of the raw data. We do have some suggestions for what things you can export individually to get as much data as possible – How do I get my data out of Xero?
Regards, Catherine

Jared Roussel
October 28, 2009 at 10.47 am

You guys already have the idea with the general ledger export. I just think you need a quick Backup feature that will spew out all of the account names followed by income/expense lines with dates, credits/debits, and current balances. Even if it means losing the association with invoices, credit notes, etc. at least there is a rudimentary way of still owning your own data.

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