I have a commercial software company background, and the first thing on my mind was always innovating and developing more features to keep our product ahead of the pack. I think most software company executives still think like this today. But is it time instead to simplify software and not keep deluging users with new features that they probably won’t use?

The 80-20 rule still holds in business: 80% of your users will end up using only 20% of a new software package. The rest sits on the shelf, and business customers are beginning to notice.

These lessons were brought home to me this week as I spent some time looking at medical imaging software.

There was a time when hospitals and clinics relied on PACS (picture archiving and communications systems) imaging systems that could be manipulated by highly specialized cardiologists, radiologists, and technicians who knew both their disciplines and CAD 2D/3D technology. Each department acquired its own PACS system and developed its own experts. The result was a collection of separate PACS image silos within each healthcare organization that didn’t talk to each other.

Now the healthcare industry is engaged in mergers and acquisitions, requiring collaborative medical information across multiple disciplines that’s easy to use and manage–and it needs to find a way to pull all the PACS systems together into a single data repository.

At the same time, the industry wants more of its practitioners to engage with its systems, so these systems will have to be simplified for use.

Finally, as more healthcare organizations come onboard because of mergers and acquisitions, their acquiring organizations need to find easy ways to develop processes that don’t require extensive training so they can quickly get people up to speed on systems.

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The takeaway for companies that develop commercial software

Business customers increasingly want plug-and-play systems that can be readily integrated with other systems and that are easy to use–even if it means sacrificing some features and functions. This is an emerging trend that holds true not only in healthcare but also in other industries that are faced with rapid change and a growing number of mergers and acquisitions–such as the retail, food and beverage, banking, logistics, pharmaceutical, insurance, and aerospace industries.

What approaches should commercial software companies consider?

1: Give system usability a top billing

Software developers have a hard time putting usability first, especially if it means sacrificing features and bells and whistles. But usability and lower “ramp” times into systems are exactly what business users want–and more are assigning a higher value to usability in their software RFPs.

2: Check your downstream processes

If your product is great, but your implementation services, your training, and your technical support aren’t, customers are going to be disappointed. How well a company stands by and supports its product matters to customers. Companies want a business partner, not a vendor.

3: Limit the number of software versions that you support

It should be an easy process for your customers to migrate from one version of your software to another. If it isn’t, you need to spend some time to ensure a seamless process. This relaxes customers’ minds when it is time to upgrade. It also helps you avoid having to support too many concurrent versions of your software.

4: Use industry-standard open architectures

In an era of mergers and acquisitions, companies are looking for plug-and-play systems.

5: Scale cost with capability

Companies want to pay for only what they use. Systems that are designed modularly (customers pay for what they pick and use) or that have keys that open up certain areas of a monolithic software for expanded use if the user wants to pay, are models that work well in commercial software.


Some years ago, when I was working in manufacturing, we determined that we were seeing many defects in our assembly operations. We decided to drop the written work orders and instead go with pictorial diagrams that showed workers how to put together assemblies.

I must confess that part of me objected to the idea because we were eliminating the more detailed instruction sets that also showed technicians how to troubleshoot assemblies. It was difficult for me to let go of that engineering expertise–but the tradeoff was that technicians on the floor did better when they followed pictures–and defects went down.

Commercial software vendors should ponder this, because their customers want them to simplify their products. The software vendor that can simplify and deliver new capabilities will leap to the head of the class.