It’s never pleasant to tell a client no. It’s even less fun to tell them they need to spend money on something they hadn’t anticipated and maybe don’t quite understand. It’s also the job of any good technology partner.
Table XI is a custom software company, and some of our clients have been with us for 15 years or more. Many don’t have much of a technical staff of their own. Our clients don’t just need us to build the products they ask for. They need us to understand both their businesses and the available technologies, so we can make recommendations about how the two should fit together.
As new technology is released, we have to make sure we understand it and what it could mean for our customers. It helps that a lot of designers and developers are early adopters — we’re naturally curious about new tech and generally end up being the first consumers of it. Over the years we’ve been in business, we’ve seen the proliferation of Wi-Fi, the launch of the iPhone and the rise of security threats.
Each time we find technology that looks promising for our clients, we wait. For every technology that really did change the landscape, there are dozens that didn’t go anywhere. We need to see tech get adopted at scale before we can recommend it, otherwise we run the risk of pushing something that isn’t going to last.
We’re always balancing the risk clients are willing to take on against the potential ROI. To help them say yes, we use a few methods of teaching new technology.
Don’t just tell clients — show them
By showing instead of just telling, we were able to get the executives on board.
When Dickson — which has been making instruments to monitor temperature and humidity since 1923 — hired Table XI back in 2002, the management team was really just looking for help selling their products online. They didn’t immediately come to us in 2009, when they were starting to figure out how to develop a line of wireless instruments. At the time, Dickson’s team was leaning towards developing instruments that leveraged RF signals similar to the cordless telephones of 1990s, complete with a base station. Their team was putting a lot of research and development time toward building out that proprietary technology.
From the outside, we were watching Wi-Fi and other wireless IP standards like Cellular 3G and LTE become ubiquitous. We started to realize that if Dickson moved to an IP-based approach, the team would save a lot of time on RF development. Instead of focusing on the pipe that took their data from one point to another, they could spend their R&D cycles improving the instruments they’re already great at building. And with Wi-Fi’s functionality and growth rate, it was likely they’d end up with a better product that was better-suited to the future. After all, adding a device to your Wi-Fi or wired network and having it seamlessly work without doing anything else is a pretty attractive user experience — as is accessing your data anywhere.
To help Dickson realize the potential — and prove that the hardware wouldn’t be a hurdle to making this happen — we built a proof of concept with Arduino. We hooked it up to a temperature sensor and had it communicate with a cloud server, so we could demonstrate how the data could be collected and displayed. By showing instead of just telling, we were able to get the Dickson executives on board. Over time, that product line became what’s now called Dickson One, Dickson’s most important strategic initiative.
Position clients in front of the competition
Competitors are at a disadvantage, because they have to play catch-up.
The term “Internet of Things” wasn’t really in use when we encouraged Dickson to add internet connectivity to its hardware. We were just looking at what Dickson had in place and where the world was going; adding Wi-Fi was a direct shot.
Now connectivity is table stakes for Dickson’s market, a standard we helped set. Making the switch to IP-enabled Wi-Fi from raw RF enabled Dickson to add features like alerting customers when conditions change — something that’s only possible with real-time data. It’s also given Dickson insight into how customers are using the sensors, so the company can focus its improvements around those use cases. Competitors are at a disadvantage, because they have to play catch-up building a feature set Dickson already has.
If you asked Dickson five years ago whether they wanted to be an innovative IoT company, they probably would have said no. They’ve evolved in this direction by virtue of market forces, and we’ve been able to help them be one of the earliest companies in their industry to get there.
Help clients go deep enough to understand what tech can do for them
Most companies are aware that they need to have a mobile strategy, but that doesn’t mean they do.
Some clients come to us already knowing what they need, just not how. The Wabash Lights team wanted to use the Internet of Things to light up the underside of the L tracks in Chicago’s Loop — they just weren’t sure what that would look like. We were able to take them through a two-day Inception to explain what the technology would allow and figure out what approach would be best considering the team’s goals.
Mobile is probably the most common example of this. Most companies are aware that they need to have a mobile strategy, but that doesn’t mean they do. We’re continually working with clients to figure out what mobile can actually do for their businesses and their users. Introducing them to concepts like cross-platform apps and mobile usability testing helps them narrow down to the products that are going to be most effective for them. Being on mobile isn’t about just one device; it’s hundreds. And we’re able to explain the perks and differences between them.
Push for the tech clients need — even when it’s not exciting
Ultimately, it’s not about whether you did a good job building what you were told to build.
The hardest thing we have to do is persuade clients to spend money on the things they can’t see. Security isn’t an exciting new feature; it’s a risk mitigation investment. We have to spend a lot more time educating clients about security than we do mobile or IoT, because it’s not visible and therefore harder to get a good handle on.
Fortunately, recent changes have made it easier to tie security back to ROI. Browsers are now flashing warnings on unencrypted sites, and search engines are prioritizing encrypted pages. Security is now actively affecting user experience and SEO, instead of just passively protecting company data. It helps clients understand why they need to invest in it.
The publicity around big security breaches like Yahoo and Target has helped too. Our clients are asking more questions than they used to, and we’re able to discuss security in the planning stage. It’s only been relatively recently that we can get clients to discuss early on what types of data they want to hold and whether they need two-factor authentication.
At Table XI, our motto is “Tech Done Right.” For that to be true, we have to be willing to give our clients real advice — even when they don’t want it, and especially when they don’t know to ask for it. That strategic input is why clients hire us, though they may not know it at the time, because it’s what gives them the edge against their competitors.
Ultimately, it’s not about whether you did a good job building what you were told to build. It’s about whether the product is successful. The more we can push clients to understand what will make their product successful, the happier they’re going to be in the long term. As more developers graduate from colleges, bootcamps, or high school each day, you’ll be able to find the best technology partners by looking for the shops out there teaching clients new technologies.
Table XI is a UX design and custom software company based in Chicago. For 15 years, we’ve been solving tough problems for clients like Northwestern University, the Field Museum, Dickson and Everything but the House.