Thursday, May 23, 2019

Email is the portal

Aberdeen is a Market Intelligence company. We provide market data (Firmographic, Technographic, Leads, and Intent) as well as quantitative and qualitative insights based on those data. My primary role as Chief Technology Officer is to develop and improve products that deliver and maximize the value of these data and insights. This is really the same "right content, right context, right time" problem that I have been working on for years as a content management professional.

Our strategy for detail data is to push them directly to the systems where they are actionable. For example, our Aberdeen Intent for Salesforce app creates Salesforce opportunities out of companies that are showing intent. The Salesforce app also includes some charts to visualize summaries and trends. We also have other apps to help Salesforce users interact with our firmographic and technographic data. But Salesforce accounts are often rationed and not everyone spends their time there. The conventional answer to reach other users is a customer portal.

But does the world really need yet another portal?

Technical and non-technical roles are forced to work in so many different platforms. I feel especially bad for marketers (queue the scary Brinker SuperGraphic). But every office job today seems to involve logging into different systems to check in on various dashboards or consoles.

Yes, single sign-on can make authentication easier. But SSO is rarely configured because so few of these systems are owned by Corp IT. Plus, you need to remember where to go.

Yes, an email alert can suggest when it may be worthwhile to check in on a dashboard. But establishing the right threshold for notification involves time consuming trial and error that few have the patience for. It only takes a few "false alarm" notifications to make you hesitate before following a link.

Corporate portal technologies tried to solve this problem by assembling views (portlets) into one interface but the result was both unwieldy and incomplete. There is a constant flow of BI initiatives that try to solve this problem by bringing the data together into a unified place. Too complicated. Too cumbersome. And yet another place to go.

So most users are doomed to flit from portal to portal like a bee looking for nectar.

I am starting to believe that we already have the unified, integrated portal we have been looking for. It is the email client where we spend hours of every work day. Rather than develop a dashboard or portal that people need to go to, deliver simple glance-able email reports that highlight what is new/different and needs attention.

Longtime readers of this blog may be aware of my contempt for email as a collaboration and information management tool. However, even in the age of Slack, there is no more reliable way to notify business users than email. Decision makers live in their email clients. If you want to get information in front of someone, the best place to put it is in their inbox.

Designing email-friendly business intelligence is not trivial. Beyond the technical limitations of email clients' HTML rendering capabilities, you also have to consider the context. People are already overloaded with email so the reports need to minimize cognitive load. They need to quickly convey what is important within a couple distracted seconds. Perhaps even on a mobile phone in between meetings. Less is more - just a few Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to make the user feel like he is in the loop and can answer questions about the status of the program or take action if necessary.

Frequency is also an important factor. The cadence should align with the decision making cycle. These emails are not for catching daily anomalies. Those types of warnings are better handled by system alerts that only go out when thresholds are met (behind schedule, over budget, no data detected...).

As I think about a portal to deliver Aberdeen's market intelligence insight, I keep going back to the question, what if our BI portal wasn't a portal at all? Wouldn't it be better to put our data into user interfaces that our clients are already looking at?