Over recent years, companies across Europe have seen IT budgets squeezed, teams cut and resources stretched. This has meant that for many businesses, the focus has been on simply making sure existing customers are happy, less on attracting new ones.
Things are beginning to change. The headlines are changing from doom and gloom to cautious optimism as economies stabilise and consumers once again begin to loosen their purse strings. Now companies are looking at once again at broadening their market reach, and investing in systems to address new customers after years of neglect.
So what steps can be taken to rapidly take advantage of growing markets? In particular, what systems do companies need to think about, and what is technology's role in supporting these first signs of growth?
Luckily, the team over at Outbox Group are here to help with this handy three-part series.
Next, we'll look at how companies' cloud strategy and user interface development will change as we move out of the recession.
Cloud – Stop floating around and consider costs
Cloud has had a revolutionary impact on the world of enterprise and consumer technology. Many CIOs, CTOs and CEOs have given the go-ahead to invest in software as a service (SaaS), expecting to see rapid cost savings in return. For many during the recession, cloud seemed to offer a cheaper alternative to large, expensive enterprise systems, but now as the pressure to cut costs lessens, CIOs need to step back and weigh up what exactly is being spent on the cloud and whether to 'double down' or change strategy.
Cloud's advantages go beyond the recession - but what are the downsides?
One of the undeniable benefits of cloud is its ability to remove expensive hardware and on-premise storage costs, which for many businesses during the recession was a blessing. Suddenly IT teams had access to enterprise-grade software at affordable prices just-in-time and only what they needed, gone were costly enterprise software, installation times, and support contracts. On top of this cloud offered scalability, able to rapidly grow alongside a team at the cost of just buying a license and not having to worry about capacity, admins or hardware.
However as the dust settles after the initial wave of SaaS adoption, IT teams have been left to clear up the mess left by other departments which were quick to sign up but have since failed to ensure adoption or moved onto other products.
On top of this, due to fears around security, several companies still keep an on-site backup of all their data, limiting the potential cost saving benefits of cloud and requiring them to continue suffering the financial burdens of maintaining expensive in-house resources.
Weighing up the costs versus the benefits
Now IT teams need to objectively weigh up the cost of on-premise vs. cloud, considering the total cost of ownership (TCO), which is not just the license costs but also the cost of hardware (servers and storage), cost of maintenance (administrators), cost of upgrades, and cost of electricity to run the servers.
On top of this, the ease of access to SaaS products has meant many employees have bought systems independently of IT, causing budget allocations to shift and taking power out of the hands of IT. As companies move into growth mode IT needs to take a full audit of its systems, weeding out any unused apps, making sure users are aware of their options and ensuring that anything which will be attributed to IT's budget is approved by them pre-purchase.
During recession, many viewed cloud as a "try and see" option, offering IT teams the ability to set up an entire organisation with cutting edge software at relatively low cost. So while there is still plenty to be gained from cloud, now is the time for IT teams to stand back, take stock and truly assess what is needed to support future growth.
User Interfaces – Sometimes it is what's on the surface that counts
Once considered unimportant and a waste of time, User Interfaces (UI) have moved quickly up the agenda for users, businesses and developers. We no longer settle for chunky grey buttons, terrible clip art or the much maligned 'comic sans' approach to font. Yet still, when times are tough, many struggle to get budget approval to invest in UIs with companies preferring to invest in product development or marketing.
As we now move out of recession and teams are given access to greater budgets, it is important UI improvement does not get written off once again as a luxury. In fact it is a quick win for IT teams, requiring little investment compared to other IT projects, and can have an immediate impact on customers and employees alike.
Your customers have become design experts
Your customers have likely turned into "design experts" themselves – expecting anything they interact with to be simple, yet elegant in design, with pictures which look like they have been run through an Instagram filter or two and of course to function flawlessly. This means any company that fails to invest in UI suffers in comparison to the rest – despite the cost to you.
The key is to make sure that all of your UI design is in sync – a difficult task with different teams working on mobile, web and product. Make sure everything ties together and ensure the same level of design across all platforms. Do not shove valuable users off to an ugly splash page or poorly designed form if you value their custom - think about the entire user journey.
And users does not just mean your existing customers - many companies fall down by making the external facing systems look fantastic and provide internal teams with basic and poor looking software creating a 'two-tier' system. This can have a huge impact on adoption and productivity levels, often causing employees to be less 'in tune' with your brand. Aim to have the same look and feel internally as you would externally.
What kind of design is right for you?
So with hard-earned budget now available for UI, your next decision is what type of design is most appropriate. Many companies are now opting for responsive design, which automatically adjusts layout, image size and resolution based on the screen size of the device viewing it, guaranteeing the same standard of appearance across a multitude of devices and treating all stakeholders equally.
Others might opt for HTML5, which offers fantastic webpage design flexibility but, in our experience, still has a way to go with certain types of device in terms of mobile applications where load time, transitions, using images as triggers and touch screen gestures, can be slow and glitchy.
A well-designed native app, done well, will give you the best speed and performance and has the ability to make or break your sales call - where waiting for a video to load or for a sluggish interface could cause your lead to lose interest, costing you a sale.
However, native apps require longer development times, extensive testing and higher investment.
Outbox Group is a consultancy delivering IT solutions to boost customer experience through personalisation, social relationships empowerment and CRM.
Image: Flickr (reynermedia)