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Transparency, Visibility, and Context
Over the last few weeks I’ve had three words floating around in my head: transparency, visibility, and context. I’ve been trying to find the best way to articulate the connection between these three concepts and why they matter so much to Percolate specifically, and more broadly to enterprise software. This is an attempt to explain those ideas and hopefully help paint a picture for how enterprise software must evolve.
To start, let’s define what we mean by all three. Again, we’re talking about these in the context of enterprise software, so the definitions are pretty specific:
The ability for users to be able to see what other users are doing/creating. This, I’d argue, is the core and oldest use case of enterprise software. Originally this transparency was focused around providing managers transparency over their people and, in recent years, has been about providing more employee-to-employee transparency with their work. Nearly every piece of enterprise software provides this sort of transparency, but for the purposes of what I’m trying to explain let’s look at Google Docs as the canonical example of transparency in software.
While visibility is similar to transparency, the differences are key to understanding what makes modern enterprise software successful. The simplest explanation is to say what’s visible is by definition transparent, but what’s transparent is not necessarily visible.
To build on that a bit, visibility is about how you take the information that you’ve made transparent/available to users in the system easily discoverable (a good synonym for visibility). Visibility starts to hit on a key weakness of classic enterprise software — design. To make information visible you have to believe in a few things:
1) Users of the system — and their time and experience — are just as important as the managers;
2) Having the information isn’t enough, thinking about how it’s presented clearly and obviously — a core tenet of good design — is essential.
Ultimately, visibility is the challenge of surfacing the information in the system in an intelligent and digestible manner. Pulling again from the Google for Work suite, the canonical example of visibility would be shared calendars. The interface we’ve all seen with multiple calendars on it gives us total visibility into the schedules of our teams and coworkers. What’s more, going back to Google Docs, you can see where things fall down from the visibility front as the private-by-default nature of docs makes it impossible to provide visibility to the organization as to what others are working on.
Finally, we have context. This is where I believe enterprise software ultimately must go and where the biggest gains are to be had. If transparency and visibility put the onus on the user to interpret the data, context puts the onus on the product to deliver information that is relevant within a user’s workflow. This is the oft-stated, but seldom-delivered promise of holding all the data in the first place, right?
It’s not just about going back and finding what you were looking for, but rather to actually use that historical data to help people make good decisions in real time. Unfortunately it’s very hard to point to a canonical example here in the enterprise — in fact it’s hard to find many good examples of classic enterprise software that even successfully deliver on visibility. Context is hard to do right because it’s both a design problem — how do I present this in an easily digestible way — and a data problem — how do I know, in real-time, what I should be presenting.
At the end of the day, I believe it’s the responsibility of all of us building the next generation of software for the enterprise to aim for this higher purpose. When you start to think in context you start to deliver real value across the organization, because you’re taking the data that right now lives in management views and reports and delivering it to the users who need it most, in the context they need it most in.
For Percolate, this opportunity is enormous. We are putting a layer of software into marketing that has literally never existed before. With that we’re actually capturing a whole host of data that hasn’t ever been captured around the planning and creation process. By tracking that all the way through to distribution and being able to tie back both operational and brand governance data with the actual performance in channel we’re able to triangulate more than just the whats, but the whys of successful marketing. That’s great, but the big step is how do we deliver that information back to our users in the context of their day-to-day planning and creation processes to help them create better, more on-brand marketing in every situation.