How to build a modern SaaS application: A product manager’s quick guide to delivering software your customers will love
By Manjunath D.N, Industry Lead, Director- Product Management, Aurigo Software
Legacy products have outlived their usefulness. Usability, flexibility, and other user experience-enhancing features were not considered when legacy applications were developed. The distinction between modern and legacy applications is stark, particularly for product managers (like myself) who have seen the rise of microservices and lightweight mobile applications in the aftermath of monolithic legacy dominance. If your applications provide inconsistent, non-standard experiences and behave differently across different platforms or devices, you have your work cut out. It’s time to up your game and take it to the next level.
Certain characteristics are must-haves for any software today. It must be agile and responsive to changes in the business environment and cloud-based to enable scale and accessibility. DevOps and microservices should allow the application to pivot rapidly for continuous cycles of upgrades and releases. All applications should use APIs and analytics to reduce complexity and improve user experience, and the interface should be adaptive and responsive to deliver a consistent user experience across devices.
Usability, flexibility, scalability, efficiency, maintainability, portability, and future readiness take a back seat when application development focuses solely on managing customer requirements’ primary business processes and lifecycles. I have witnessed numerous applications in various phases of the above journey in the last two decades. Some are ahead, while others are still catching up. There are innumerable options for re-engineering and rejuvenating a feature-rich massive SaaS application for the digital era.
The number of choices available to us is so enormous and exciting that one would be tempted to pursue them all. The key is to resist the temptation to choose 100 good options rather than the ten that truly matter. We must prioritize what’s essential and eliminate what’s not.
Here are a few pointers to consider when developing a modern SaaS application:
Build a mobile application that thinks: Enterprise SaaS applications should be intuitive. We have near-pervasive access to wireless broadband in the infrastructure industry. Your app should be able to identify projects (via user personas, GPS, and image recognition) and automatically sync with the enterprise server to display a contextual interface and relevant data. Similarly, it should also be able to record and automatically sync site data with it. Offline apps made sense a decade ago when remote project sites lacked connectivity, but today, we can work in real time.
Enable user-centric designs: Enterprise SaaS applications can become complex from a user experience perspective, given the nature of business processes and the stakeholder ecosystem. It’s easy to get lost in the processes and ignore the user. The design team needs to take a user-centric approach and design the application with the end-user in mind. It should have a minimalist design so that users can access, create, and monitor what is relevant to them at the time. Navigation and data creation should be accomplished through simple and intuitive steps that require little training. The system should provide launching pads within the application to reach whichever data object they are looking for rather than making them take a long journey toward the destination. The system should take as little time as possible so that the user can focus on the tasks at hand rather than spending time trying to understand the application. The application design should also be responsive to the site conditions and the nature of the device being used. It should adjust itself accordingly to provide a perfect user experience.
Simplify information retrieval: Legacy enterprise applications’ search functionality expects users to enter specific and near-accurate search parameters for the results to be fetched, making the information retrieval process quite complex. In my opinion, search functionality should instead be the easiest of all operations. It should be predictive, intuitive, and elastic. A single parameter Elasticsearch should be able to decipher what the user is looking for and retrieve records and documents faster than the blink of an eye.
Enhance reporting and dashboard management: the metrics that an enterprise SaaS product can provide to multi-level personas determine its success. Each persona should be able to access relevant dashboards and reports to help them better monitor projects and do their jobs. The generated visualizations should be unique to each persona and cater to their needs. The application system should provide a set of out-of-the-box widgets and matrices that are relevant and continuously evolving based on the user journey. It should also allow users to modify existing widgets and reports and create entirely new ones. Moreover, this process should be so simple that it is more akin to a guided tour than a complex puzzle. A seamless, simple, and consistent experience when managing reports and dashboards is crucial.
Liberate the product: Applications should be easily configurable. Out-of-the-box features should be configured in ways to allow infrastructure owners of various sub-domains within the industry to start using the application right away because complex business processes make enterprise SaaS applications resistant to ease of configuration. Even a customer or a non-technical team should be able to configure any required modifications easily and quickly. Configuring an enterprise system’s business process generally involves the creation of form, workflow, validations, constraints, and calculations. If all of these can be easily put together by a non-technical person (such as a business analyst or the customer) with low-code/no-code features, the turnaround time for this feature to go live on the dashboard will be drastically reduced. It avoids dependency on the development team and gives customers the freedom and flexibility to configure their own system. Customers will seamlessly relate to and connect with the product, and ownership will be absolute.
Don’t just manage data; harness it: An enterprise system’s data is a treasure trove. Large enterprises will generally have multiple applications/systems managing their business. The data residing in these dispersed application systems are sometimes loosely integrated and disconnected. An organization could greatly benefit from organizing and structuring these inter-related multi-system data into a data lake that can provide insights into an organization’s overall health. Properly harnessing such data can provide information on the roadblocks impeding an organization’s growth, which will help organizations revisit their business modus operandi and run them efficiently.
Implement data usage analytics: The time it takes to travel from point A to point B depicts the transportation medium’s efficiency. Similarly, the data usage of any application demonstrates the efficiency of the system being used. This data helps product managers analyze the application’s efficacy, thereby improving it and making it future-ready.
Director- Product Management, Aurigo Software
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