Over the last year, I’ve seen first hand a lot of teams attempt to migrate to Airtable (and other user generated software). Some successfully, others not so much. I’ve also sized up the real world workarounds where user generated software falls short of its twitter hype. I thought I’d start the year with jotting down the pros and cons of using user generated software.
No two workflows are identical – so why use opinionated software?
There is no such thing as the ideal project framework. Projects are not something you can go out and touch. Projects are about accomplishing something—running a great campaign, putting on a fantastic event. Project management writ large is the optimal process by which those goals become reality. What project management means to you varies wildly on whether you’re optimizing for bits on a screen or trying to jab a vaccine into the arms of millions of people. Even if you zoom into two workflows in what seems like the same vertical—content marketers at two real estate companies for instance—you’ll find that their processes and requirements vary wildly. So why doesn’t their software reflect that?
I was recently invited to collaborate in a project management tool that will be left unnamed and saw that everything was organized as projects and tasks. Do your tasks need tasks? Sorry that’s a separate project. You need more dates than start and end? That’s custom, see the docs. It felt like we needed to bend our workflow to fit into what a project should look like. Some platonic view of how things should be managed.
It had opinions on how I should structure my work which once you’ve experienced the joys (and tribulations) of building your own software feels weird and unnecessary. Why tell me how I need to work?
Built by those who use it
In a previous life, I worked in travel. And the one thing you learn when entering the travel world is that everyone talks about enhancing the end user experience but actually optimizes for administrators. Administrators control the purse strings so naturally tools tend to bend over backwards to adjust to their workflows at the expense of the traveller experience. Now I haven’t worked in travel in a while so things might have changed but I’m sure this dynamic plays out across a lot of other industries where the buyer and the user are different. Think education software, expensing etc.
With user generated software, the administrator is the user! The user is also the evangelist, the builder, the maintainer, the person everyone calls when something breaks (that’s a problem! we’ll cover that soon). By giving the user primitives (instead of opinions), user generated software empowers them to wear both the administrator and user hat at the same time!
Now, user generated software isn’t the first to give its users the ability to create off the shelf custom software. Salesforce for instance is extremely flexible with different companies creating completely unique instances. The difference with today is in the name: user generated software is built and maintained (for better and worst) by its end users and not an administrator or someone else. It’s administered, maintained and enhanced by the folks most intimately knowledgeable with the process itself not by some administrator twice removed from the ins and out of the requirements.
User generated software removes an intermediary in the software selection process. An intermediary that may optimize for themselves even though they may not participate in the workflow! And instead puts all of the focus on those actually forced to use the software.
This is another manifestation of a “democratization”. With user generated software, end users can create tools accountable only to themselves and live by their own rules.
That may sound idyllic—and in fact in a lot of instances, it works out very nicely—but this lack of opinions and disintermediation comes with its own set of issues, which we’ll cover in the next issue!
Until then, keep building!
Thanks to Stephen O'Grady (@orishnal) for reviewing this newsletter every week before it reaches your inbox!
PS how do we feel about the term user generated software instead of no-code?