Seven must-have attributes for collaboration tech

Over the past 20 years, “collaboration” has been used to categorise a wide variety of products: instant messaging, email, chat, calendaring, document management, content management, learning management, publishing, discovery, crowdsourcing, and many others.

Even with a range of products this broad, I have repeatedly found seven attributes that separate winning collaboration products (i.e., products people choose – or even demand – to use) from also-rans:

1. Intuitive: Pass the “no instructions needed” test

To foster collaboration a product needs to be truly intuitive. The best way to measure this is with the “no instructions needed” test: if you can put the product in front of any intended user (i.e., your target market) and they can understand enough to explore and use it on your own, you have passed. If not, you have failed: over time people will say your product is too hard to use (and will use it only when forced to do so).

2. Easy: Complete key activities in three clicks or fewer

Collaboration and convenience go “hand in hand.” If your product takes too much effort to use, people will not use it to collaborate. Based on lots of user feedback the hurdle for convenience is three clicks. If something takes more than three clicks to do, it is too complicated. If you can get to what you need in three clicks or less, you have a winner. If your product cannot, one of your competitors will find a way to do and take your market.

3. Convenient: Eliminate work; do not add to it

This is one I am seeing many people forget lately. To make work easier, and drive organic demand, your product needs to eliminate work. It needs to align with the work activities people do as part of their everyday job and remove time, activities and/or systems. If it just “adds another system people have to use (and cut-and-paste from)” it is adding work and will (at best) be a passing fad that will fall out of use.

4. Fast: Pass the “Two x 95-p” test

One of the things that the Internet and broadband have done is raise expectations for speed and response. Watch a person click a button (a browser, a smart phone, a TV electronic programming guide, etc): if response does not take less than two seconds (95% of the time or more), the product will be considered slow and exasperating. This is even truer for enterprise systems that people are required to use to perform their job. You need to be fast—and consistently fast.

5. Ubiquitous: Operate everywhere and anywhere

The whole reason to use a collaboration product is to let people who are not sitting right next to each other collaborate with ease. This means your product must work everywhere and anywhere—passing both the “no instructions needed” and “two by 95p” tests. This is not a trivial demand. However, it is essential. If you do not believe me go to one your international offices or mobile team members and try to collaborate using main office-oriented products.

6. Timely: Collaborate from the same data, at the same point in time

There is an old joke about asking six blindfolded people to touch different parts of an elephant and tell you what it is: one thinks it is a tree trunk, one a fire hose, etc. The same is true for collaboration products: if you are working from out-of-date data you are wasting your time. (If you don’t believe me, think about the last time you responded to an email in a chain only to find out minutes later that your response was out-of-date or irrelevant). Winning collaboration products let everyone work from the same data, at the same point in time.

7. Trusted: Provide utility-class reliability

Collaboration occurs all the time (often at unpredictable times). Collaboration is not “down for maintenance.” If people cannot count on a collaboration product to be there, they will not use it (because they cannot trust it). They will find other tools: saving documents to local disk, writing things down on paper to enter them later, sending them via email, etc. Winning collaboration products are “always-on.” Always-on does not equal 99% reliability; it requires 99.99% reliability or more (Would you use your credit card in public if it failed one percent of the time?)

Why did I pick seven attributes (and not ten)? Ten would be artificial. These truly are the attributes I have seen over and over trip up otherwise good collaboration products and set the winners apart from others (regardless of market or industry).