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Keys to Successful Innovation
When we conceived the Adaptable Blotter, one of our key challenges was to ensure it delivered to our potential users. But as an entirely unique product, we had nothing to compare it to. Of our hundreds of ideas about what users might find helpful, we had no real sense of what the killer features might turn out to be.
Launched in March, and now gaining traction on desktops in Tier 1 Investment Banks across the City, the biggest compliment we’ve been paid is how well the Adaptable Blotter addresses key needs many users didn’t even know they had. As beneficiaries of much helpful advice from established start-ups, we want to share what we’ve learnt and distilled as our golden rules for product development.
1. Ask the right questions, and listen
We were keen to talk to potential users. So we started with the obvious, we thought all-encompassing – question, “what features would you like your Blotters to have that they don’t currently possess?”
The answers we got were either too vague (“better than what I have”) or too specific (“let me mark currencies quickly at close of day”). Something about the question was preventing respondents from coming up with what we needed.
So we turned the question around and asked: “what don’t you like about your current blotters”. This gave us more useful material, identifying a huge number of irritations with what was available. Some of the most common frustrations had been missing from our initial feature list, particularly those regarding repetitive keystrokes, having to repeat actions on each start-up, and a lack of configurability. It is no accident that the functions we have created to rectify these problems – keyboard shortcuts, multiple layouts, blotter options – are some of the most popular in the Adaptable Blotter.
Yet we were still missing clues for features that were truly new. By grouping repeated complaints, primarily around lack of speed and configurability, inadequate searching and filtering, inefficient editing, and absence of support for auditing features, we started to develop ideas to take the technology to new levels. We narrowed our questions down further, making them far more specific, and asking respondents to concentrate on particular aspects of day to day work, or areas of responsibility. This gave us precise information about what users needed, allowing us to produce functions which could be truly transformational, dealing with frustrations which users often struggled to articulate.
From Questions To Killer Functions
- Which actions repeated each day would you like to do just once? => Column Chooser
- When you edit your data, which keystrokes are unnecessarily repeated => Smart Edit
- What do you search for and how? => Quick Search and Advanced Search
- What would make your data more accessible? => Custom Filters
- What everyday part of your world is missing from your Blotter? => Holiday Calendars
- What is the worst, avoidable, mistake you have made using a Blotter? => Cell Validation
- How would you like to set up your Blotter so it works how you want? => Blotter Dashboard
- What annoys you about how your Blotter is configured? => Function Settings
- How do you want your Blotter to interact with other systems? => Export
- Which features from previous Blotters are missing in your current one?=> Flashing Cells
2. Rethink and step up
We didn’t just want the Adaptable Blotter to be the best product on the market. We wanted to rethink what a Blotter could do, to add functionality that simply didn’t exist elsewhere.
So we listed all the functionality that a Blotter usually contains – sorting, searching, column moving, exporting etc. Then for each item on the list we asked ourselves a simple question: “how can we take this to a new level?”
Many of our most popular features resulted from this brainstorming. For example, all grids come with ascending and descending alphabet sorting but what happens if you want to sort some columns in a different order? Column Sort we decided would allow users to create custom sorted lists so they can sort currencies, sectors, counterparties etc. exactly how they want.
Many Blotters offer functionality to increase or decrease numeric cells with the plus/minus keys on the keyboard, but in a clunky, one-size-fits-all way. The Adaptable Blotter Plus/Minus function allows each user to specify the default increment value for each column that they need for their own purposes, and to create as much conditionality around that as they need (e.g. increase by 2bps if Currency = ‘USD’ and Underlying = ‘Bund10Year’). Our users who need to mark quickly love this feature and the associated Keyboard Shortcuts function.
Not every idea we came up with was practical or worthwhile - but some that made it to the final list really do achieve significant advances.
3. Something For Everyone
We wanted the Adaptable Blotter to serve multiple audiences. Traders and other end users were the prime beneficiaries, but we believed that the tool could be useful to lots of different roles within the system chain. So we made it our mission to ensure we talked to as many different types of user as possible:
Desk Heads told us they needed to keep an eye on what was changing - and we created Instant Alerts.
Managers wanted an overview of activity on Users’ Desktops, so we created Audit Viewer.
We asked support teams how the Adaptable Blotter might be able to lessen their workload, and created User Settings.
We asked Administrators how they wanted to reduce complexity and duplication across their user interfaces, and created Entitlements.
And we asked Developers how they wanted to target the API and formed the Grid Utils Library to assist them.
Often secondary users simply put up with systems which are useful to them but not designed with them in mind. In creating the Adaptable Blotter we have sought to ensure that it can meet the needs of every user without compromise.
4. Share and Flex
Seeing something in the flesh makes all the difference. Once we started to demo the Adaptable Blotter to potential users, the ideas for improved features we had been struggling to elicit came rolling in. People could see how it fitted in to their current systems – or could see what it lacked to make it a perfect fit for their team. Not all ideas were deliverable, but many were very helpful and later added to the application.
For instance, many Front Office users liked our Export to Excel function but wanted to be able also import full or partial data back from Excel into the Adaptable Blotter (e.g. if Middle Office had updated it overnight). This we later implemented through the Data Import function. Other users wanted to be able to use the rules engine from Advanced Search to colour cells or rows which matched the rule, so they can be easily identified. We added this in Release 2 via Conditional Styles function.
This meant changing our plans. We had gone live with a release schedule specifying which new functions, and which improvements to existing functions, would be added in each release. Our capacity to deliver new functionality was finite. But for us, delivering to user needs trumped our own ideas, and we felt the downsides of shifting priorities outweighed the value of providing what people wanted.
Not every idea is of course worth jeopardising others for – but we believe in co-collaboration with our user community, and treating their views with the respect they deserve. Like most businesses, we have a plan and we do try to stick with it, but we also believe in evolving that plan as we go: It’s a quality we aim to keep even as we grow up since we believe it strengthens rather than weakens our strategy and delivery.