Friday, October 31, 2008

Feedback for a startup

Every web service needs some kind of feedback mechanism. When working on a startup, feedback is probably even more valuable than when the product is mature. Here are some thoughts regarding the feedback for Teamness and how we're trying to make it easy for our users to make themselves heard.

Image by Orange_Beard

Why is feedback important for a startup?

It keeps you on the right track. You'll focus on the things that users actually demand, beside the ones that you think are desired. This doesn't mean that the features you're thinking about are useless, but it may imply they're less important than you think. Then it comes to prioritizing in an efficient way.

It increases the motivation. When people start using your application, this will constitute a good incentive for you to keep up the work. Getting feedback from them is a way of knowing that they're actually using it.

Situations you didn't consider show up. The diversity of the users generates context you probably didn't think about before.

How do we get feedback for Teamness?

Right from the beginning, we asked ourselves how we can make it easy for the users to send us feedback. As I pointed out in a previous post about support, it's hard to obtain feedback in the beginning stage of a product, because most users just walk away if something doesn't work.

We cannot change this behavior. After all we are all users and act in the same way, but we can make sure there are a lot of options for people to contact us. Here is a list of current choices Teamness users have for that:

1. Direct feedback from any page in Teamness
The user must get in the situation of searching for how to contact us. The method to do it should be right there and this is why we added a link called "Send feedback" in the header of every page. The link sends the user to a page with a simple contact form. Since we added this feature, we received more messages this way than through email.

2. Email
This is how we used to get most of the feedback, before implementing the option above. The emails usually consist in bug reports or feature requests, but we also receive business proposals.

3. Blog
A blog is a good place to improvise in all directions regarding the project. Using a blog you may conduct polls, invite users to participate in discussions and so on. We started blogging here after we launched, but I think that if we would've started before, like these guys did, it would've helped collecting more feedback and in an earlier stage of the product.

4. Forum
We have set up a message forum as an environment for users to provide feedback. However, we observed that most of them prefer the private way of a direct message, like email or the contact form. In any case, a forum is good in the long run, because it's a way of allowing users to engage in conversations about your product amongst themselves.

Don't get carried away

Users want the products they’re using to fit their needs as a glove. However, this is very difficult to achieve, due to the diversity of the necessities out there. We're trying to balance the options we have and to refrain from plunging into implementing a feature that will make life easier for a user, unless it's obvious it will make life easier for many users.

One of the most common advices for small web startups from experienced entrepreneurs is to launch early. A strong reason for that is feedback accumulation for the reasons described in the beginning of this post. Of course, you cannot launch a product that does pretty much nothing and expect users to come and tell you what to do, but providing a single solution for a single problem may be a good start.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Monitor your web presence

Image by fazen

A celebrity is used to being talked about. A known business is mentioned in too many places to bother keeping track of them. But with a small startup like Teamness we cannot afford not being aware of the places on the web where we’re mentioned.

Why is it important to know where you're mentioned?

We want to know what's being said about Teamness for the following reasons:
  • Start new relationships. Relationships, even web ones, are good for the business. People are more likely to use your product if they know you. And they’re more likely to recommend your product.
  • Participate in conversations about your product. People comment on reviews of your product and sometimes they ask questions about it. Other people make various assumptions, which may be wrong and if left unclear or unanswered, they might create a false perspective over the product. It's a good thing if conversations about your product on other websites are not left undone.
  • Get notice about critical opinions. Some critiques may be wrong and it could be good to correct the perception. You may also come upon nasty comments about your product, perhaps in the forums of the competitors. This is unpleasant, but it's something we don't want to ignore.
  • Find out mentions of your blog posts. If you have a blog in which you promote the product, it's good to know if some of the posts are mentioned. This way you may also track successful posts of your own.

How do we know where Teamness is mentioned?

My favorite method to watch for Teamness on the web is by using RSS feeds. I created a folder called "About Teamness" in Google Reader, which is the RSS aggregator I'm using. Here I added a couple of feeds to let me know where Teamness pops up, by using various features from a few web services, as following:

Technorati watchlist
Technorati allows you to watch various items by using keywords or URLs. In the watchlist page I inserted the “Teamness” keyword and I obtained a RSS feed which I then added in the “About Teamness” in Google Reader. If you don't like RSS (and I noticed there are still a lot of people who don't), you have the possibility to access your Technorati watching list in the page itself, without using the RSS feed.

Type the search term in either Google News or Google Blog Search and along with the search results, you'll get a RSS or Atom feed. I typed “Teamness”, of course, and I then used the two RSS feeds offered by Google.

Using you may input search terms for tweets and you can get a RSS feed. They even offer advanced search capabilities, so you may get only tweets with "positive attitude :)", for instance.

Delicious offers a feature called Subscriptions, through which you may subscribe to certain tags used by all the users. I created a subscription for the tag "Teamness" and I also got a RSS feed for it, which went into the "About Teamness" folder. Here is a nice post explaining how to use Delicious subscriptions.

Other ways of monitoring your presence

Using Google Alerts is another way of staying up to date with your presence on the web. Google Alerts are "email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your choice of query or topic". You may track keywords through various media like news, blogs, web, groups and video.

Other services like TechRepublic or Magnolia offer similar capabilities which may be used in the same way to keep track of your startup.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The five seconds test

The other day, one of our Twitter contacts pointed out the 5-Second Test for measuring your site's content pages. It took about 5 seconds to set up a 5-seconds test with a screenshot of the Teamness web page here.

What's the test about?

As the test page itself states, it consists in showing an image of the front page of the Teamness website for 5 seconds. Then the visitor is asked to fill in 5 of the things she/he remembers. It's a quick technique for evaluation the impact of your web pages. And it's also fun.

The results of the test

1: easy
2: online
3: project
4: collaboration
5: teams

1: teamness
2: easy collaboration

1: online
2: application
3: easy
4: team
5: orange colour

1: screenshot to right
2: how to get started
3: teamness logo with small dots
4: layout breakdown - 2 upper half

1: a project management application
2: collaboration

1: toolbar
2: top menu
3: two columns design
4: some pictures and text

1: teamness logo upper left made of tiles
2: screenshot of a web interface upper right
3: sign up button, big - suggestive
4: the word 'easy' in a title
5: pleasant color scheme, good use of nonintrusive fonts

1: teamness

1: easy online colaboration for teams

1: easy project collaboration tools
2: teamness
3: screenshots
4: blue, red

What do the results say?

The test doesn't tell much, but if in 5 seconds you manage to transmit your site's message to the viewer, then it's more probable you'll have the user for longer on your website. The longer it takes a visitor to understand what your site is about, the higher the chance of leaving the page.

Some of the conclusions are:
  • The word Easy stands out.
  • Collaboration is also observed, but it's not always put together with Easy, as desired.
  • The term Project is not noticeable, meaning that the idea of Easy online project collaboration needs more than 5 seconds to get into the mind of the user.
  • The name of the service, Teamness, is easy to remember and to make note of it.
  • The colors are noticeable in connection with the service.
If you have a website, try making this 5 seconds test and see how you may analyze the results. To get more relevant responses, try to send it to people who are not aware of your site or to persons from a different business than the one depicted in the page.

Monday, October 6, 2008

How do you collaborate on your projects?

Recently I made a short inquiry among some of my contacts on LinkedIn, asking about the way they collaborate on the projects they're working on.

The things I was interested in were the size of the teams and the tools my contacts were using, plus some thoughts about these tools, how useful they are for the daily work and what they bring in, in order to make the collaboration more productive.

Here are some of the answers I got:

My department has 14 people and we collaborate on a daily basis with approximately 5 departments, located in: England, India or Romania. We're using:
  • email (sometimes too many emails for a clear understanding of the issues)
  • phone (sometimes lost of time because people tend to discuss other issues and one call that should last 2 minutes extends to 2 hours)
  • meetings (probably the most "productive ones", but difficult to achieve, when people are located in different countries)
  • internal communication program based on Jabber
  • OFO (Oracle Files Online), where these departments have access to information, some people have access to change data, etc
  • OPN Portal, where some people have access to update information
One of the most valuable is probably OFO because I need certain data on a daily basis and it would be time consuming to keep asking people to send me that info, when I can simply access OFO.
Project and Reporting Specialist at Oracle

I've worked in teams from 3 to 15 people. We've been using:
  • Microsoft Word
  • Outlook
  • Visual Source Safe
  • SharePoint
  • Microsoft Project
  • Rational Requisite Pro
  • Rose from IBM
Task precedence, duration, assignment are the most valuable to me. Also track changes in MS Word. Reporting on project/task progress is also very good on large projects, but not essential on small ones. In the setup of a project I would like to have the following options:
  • project name, description, cost, deadline
  • resources (name, description, cost) + invite if necessary (automatic would be nice)
  • milestones (with ordering)
Project manager

Depending of the project's size, we are between 7 and 20 persons. We use:
  • email, network folders
  • calendar sharing, document versions, notifications
  • team chat rooms combined with email client embedded
Senior System Integrator at Vodafone

On my current project, an international road-show, I am working with over 100 people in over 40 countries worldwide. It is therefore very challenging sharing documents and planning tasks. In my core team there are 4 colleagues but we collaborate with more teams internally to create all the road-show assets and contents. We use the in-house CRM for exchanging planning and budgeting data, and also an on-line repository for posting dates and assets and for exchanging best practices. The features that I would like to add for the future (most probably, based on the current repository and system we use) are collaborative planning, empowering the users to use a joint planning tool and faster posting and sharing of relevant documents. Also, I am looking into adding more interesting functionality so people would see the increased value of the tool and use it more extensively. For example: - on-line project management - creating an event agenda on-line - sharing assets and result reports via one single tool
SAP World Tour Manager at Matchcode

We are 6 members in my team at the moment. We're using:
  • plain old email
  • Wiki pages
  • meetings
I find the wiki pages to be the most valuable, because it's easier to write down information and to share knowledge through them. Verba volent, scripta manent.

Senior Software Engineer at Oracle

At this moment our team is formed of 20 persons, 14 working from Romania and 6 from US. Our communication mediums are: email, phone and live meetings. For development, we're using the following tools:
  • Perforce - to keep track of the product changes
  • Microsoft Project - to manage the project resources
  • IxTracker - a custom made application for ticketing, which features a nice configurable dashboard and highly customizable reports
I find IxTracker extremely useful for a realistic view over the progress of our work. It integrates flawlessly with Perforce, offering build management in correlation with requests and actual code changes. It's also able to make a graph following the history of a ticket.
Sr. Software Engineer & Team Lead at IXIA

It's normal that the tools and procedures mentioned by each of the persons above differ, according to the type of job, the context in which the job is performed and the projects themselves.

However, there are some common needs that come about from the answers:
  • dashboard for a broad view of the recent activity
  • notification and staying up to date with the changes in the project
  • common document pool with file versions
  • issue tracking

These show that proper centralization of data, with a decent level of integration with various project specific tools, lead to a greater awareness over the internal aspects of a project, making the team more productive.

Teamness case study -Training the students of the Faculty of Medicine

This post is the first one in a future series covering Teamness case studies with our users.

We plan to have these interviews with different people from various industries to get insights on how Teamness may be used to help with all kinds of projects.

Our first guest in these series is Cosmin Moldovan, Medical Doctor and General Surgery Resident at Witing University Hospital and Assistant to the General Surgery Department in Titu Maiorescu University, Faculty of Medicine, Bucharest.

To get started, please introduce us to your work.

My work has basically tree sides:
  • One is related to my practice as a general surgery resident at Witing University Hospital.
  • A more academic one, involving the training of the Students of the Faculty of Medicine and the preparation of the medical nurses.
  • Last but not least, I'm currently involved in a few governmental-funded research projects that involve tight collaboration between my University and other highly appreciated research centers in Romania.
We take care of students training from the 3rd year - Surgical Semiology, and from 4th and 5th year - General Surgery. At the end of the studies, we conduct the thesis of the students related to general surgery. We're using Teamness to collaborate with some of these students on their diploma theses.

Why did you choose Teamness as your collaboration platform?

Teamness is still a startup, but it offers everything we needed, and the current plan is free.

Another big advantage was the Romanian interface and the support that we can get in Romanian. Some of the persons involved in our projects are not very comfortable with English interfaces, so this came in very handy.

Regarding my work in research projects, it is vital to have a collaboration tool that you can rely on and Teamness came very handy with its on-line all-over high availability.

How many persons are in your projects and how many projects are you managing at this time?

Regarding the preparation of the thesis, we have a project created for each thesis. One or two students may collaborate on the same thesis. At the moment we're using Teamness for 8 such projects, involving 14 persons. In each of them, the participants are:
  • the coordinator, which is one of the two professors in charge
  • the assistant, which is me, in most of the cases
  • the author or the authors, which are the students
As for the scientific researches, I currently take part in 2 major projects, both involving three major research centers and universities, besides my own. In our university there are 4 persons assigned to each project and between 10 to 15 scientists from each other partner for each project.

Although our scientific ventures started back in 2006 and are due to December 2008, we have rapidly adopted Teamness as a major – but not unique – tool for our collaboration a few weeks after the service become publicly available.

What are the roles of every participant and how do you use Teamness for them?

The author gathers material, like images, short videos, quotations from various books and she/he stores these data usually as messages in Teamness. There are also translations made by the student from different specialized sources or texts that she/he writes, which we encourage to store as whiteboards, because this type of data is more subject to changes and it's easier to monitor who changed what and when.

The assistant reviews the data entered by the students and adds comments, makes suggestions or corrects some texts. Then tasks are added for what the student must focus next, which are tied to milestones. The assistant also sets tasks for the professor to see what is needed to be further reviewed, usually a subset of the data.

The coordinator supervises the activity using the dashboard. A neat thing here is that you can easily commute between seeing the activity for all the theses or only for one. The coordinator also checks student's drafts on certain stages and sets new tasks for the student, but also for the assistant.

Every month we all have a meeting in person, which we set via a milestone, with points to be discussed established as tasks tied to that milestone.

Are there any particular features that you value the most?

We like the ability to view all the activity on the dashboard, filter it by person and also view the activity across all the projects.

It's also nice that we can tie tasks to a milestone and see what we shall do until what time.

Being able to see the differences between two versions of a whiteboard is also valuable for our work. I also use RSS feeds to be informed about the activity.

What would you improve in Teamness?

Being at the beginning, there are a lot of things that can be improved or added, which I believe will be introduced in the future.

A thing that we would like to be included is granular access permissions, to be able to provide selective access to different areas of the projects for different members.

We are, however, very satisfied to be able to use a product without any setup, just based on email invitations.

Thank you very much for your time.

Thank you.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Are you confident in SaaS tools?

Image by lumaxart

Recently I was discussing with a friend about Software as a Service (SaaS) tools. Teamness is such a tool, hosted as a service and provided to customers across the Internet.

My friend expressed the concern of storing his data in an online tool. Me, on the other hand, I feel dependent on online tools, using them for email, todo lists management, collaboration, notebooks, documents storage etc.

I tried to list a few of the advantages of this type of service for him:
  1. No upfront investments in infrastructure, server investment, training, support personnel, and installation.
  2. The provider of the service takes care of the scaling. If there are more users in the system, you don't need to buy more hardware.
  3. You only pay for how much you're using. Different plans in the SaaS are tailored for different needs.
  4. You only pay for how long you're using. If you decide to quit, you're not tied to any contract.
  5. Security might be better with SaaS. These services usually offer SSL encryption, backups, database management etc. Also, they invest in vulnerability testing from security companies. Teamness uses the McAfee Secure service.
  6. No worries about updates. The version you're using is the last one available.
  7. High availability of the data. The tool is the provider's business, so they strive making it as available as possible.
I would like to read your thoughts about SaaS tools. Also, what are the disadvantages in your opinion?