Wild Apricot Software News August 2013

Dmitriy Buterin 28 August 2013 17 comments

Wishlists and other black holes

Every month we receive and process 200–300 annual surveys from Wild Apricot users (account administrators). I love this exercise, and now I love it even more because I don't have to read and reply to them all by myself! This task is now distributed between 6 people from our product design, support, and marketing teams. There are always great gems of insight, very nice comments – and a fair share of criticism. One of the most painful types of feedback we receive is related to our Wishlist, and it usually goes something like this:

“What sucks about Wild Apricot is that you guys never address our wishlist requests.  Our suggestion XXX has been on your wishlist since 2009 and you just don't care.”

What makes this most painful to bear is that I know there is a very large degree of truth in these comments. (And I know that for my colleague, Evgeny, who is in charge of our product design team, this feedback is especially hard to read.)

Here’s the real puzzle: We do care – a lot! And we have a very substantial development team – over 40 people in total involved in product design, development, testing, and deployment.

So, how come we are doing so seemingly poorly at addressing the requests on our Wishlist?

Version 5.0 sinkhole

The last big release which addressed lots of user requests was back in July 2012 – Version 4.4.

We did release a bunch of new payment systems in Version 4.5 in April 2013, and we have just released Version 4.6, which finally makes the first step to enable Wild Apricot integration with other systems – our first API.

But frankly these last two releases haven’t made even a small dent in that huge mountain of user requests on our wishlist.

So have we been sitting twiddling our thumbs since the last summer?

What has happened to us is Version 5.0.

I’ve now been in the software industry for over 18 years, and I am not excited to admit that we have made at least half of all those mistakes you read about in software development books.

  • For starters, we have totally underestimated the work involved to overhaul our CMS (and automatically convert all client sites). The work on Version 5.0 actually started in the summer 2011 – only now, 2 years later, are we entering the final stretch.
  • We have applied project planning and development management approaches which worked fine for individual features and smaller versions, but were totally inappropriate for something bigger.
  • We have utilized a whole bunch of new "bleeding edge" technologies – and they all turned out to be much funkier in real life than the stuff you read about them in blog posts.

I can go on and list a whole bunch of other reasons why I want to curl up and cry about Version 5.0 – but I think you get the gist. :-)

The last few months have been especially trying. Ever since June, we have been in this state where most of the development is complete, but all the time these new unexpected problems and bugs pop up, and we delay our expectations by 2 weeks. Then 2 weeks more. Then another 3 weeks...

Inefficient development process

Our development process was originally designed to batch, design, develop, test, and release new versions one after another every few months. This meant the scope of each version had to be decided well in advance, and then frozen so that we could design and develop, and release the selected batch of changes.

Version 5.0 is like a big ship slowly moving forward in a narrow channel, with all other small ships aka requests stuck behind it. Until we release it, we cannot tackle outstanding user requests. 

Hidden part of the iceberg

As you know, the part of the iceberg you can see above water is much smaller than the rest hidden below the water.

For Wild Apricot, user requests discussed on our wishlist forum is that small visible part of the iceberg. Here is a (partial) list of other things we have to work on:

  • System performance as our userbase and usage keeps growing, we periodically have to upgrade and redesign parts of the system to provide the same or better response speed
  • System security – something very few users bring up but critically important to monitor and maintain
  • Something called "refactoring" – basically rewriting parts of the system code which were written a long time ago and now every little change takes too much time as we have to tiptoe around old routines
  • User requests we receive via surveys and in support tickets – only a small proportion of them makes it to the wishlist forum so we have an internal system which tracks them
  • Needs of our billing team and support teams – so they can have an efficient interface to handle billing and customer service tasks
  • Reports and other functions for our marketing team

Non–transparent prioritization of requests

Our wishlist forum is in fact just that – a discussion forum. It works pretty well, but it is not a specialized tool to collect and manage product requests. Over the years we have tweaked it and found the workarounds to use it pretty efficiently, but it still has many weak points:

  • Requires a separate registration to comment
  • Its not obvious for people how to "vote" for a specific request (the best way is to comment on a particular thread)
  • Requests cannot be easily ranked by their relative interest from our users (the closest approximation is the number of comments in each thread – but it is easily skewed as the same user or WA team member might have multiple comments on the same thread)

The silver lining

With all the whining behind me, is there anything exciting and positive at all about Wild Apricot plans to address your wishlist requests? Actually, tons!

  • Version 5.0 – its been a very long time coming (and we are still dealing with a huge number of remaining bugs – the best case for release is end of November. If we can't make it, we would have to delay until mid-January, as we don't want to launch during the holiday season. But, I am very excited about the changes it brings to Wild Apricot webmasters – check out the 5.0 preview page!
  • Faster releases – we have been tweaking our development methodology to enable parallel development of multiple small features instead of having to batch them into large releases. This has been piloted in Versions 4.5 and 4.6 and we plan to take it to the next level in 2014.
  • New tool to interact with our users about their requests. We have been looking around for several years and finally are about to settle on a new tool to replace our discussion forums called Uservoice, key benefits being:
    • Very simple and transparent prioritization – all requests can be easily ranked by the number of votes and voting can be done in one click, and can be done without registration!
    • Each user will get a certain number of votes – this helps to not overweight certain requests just because one particular person has been very insistent and posted 5 comments about it.
    • Easy to see requests that have progressed to design and development stages.
    • Ability to see past, completed and released requests.

Wishlist Stats

I want to conclude with some statistics from our current Wishlist forum:
  • Current number of Wishlist Threads: 704
  • #1 poster on the discussion forums by number of posts: Yours truly, with 4,566 posts!
  • #1 poster not affiliated with Wild Apricot: gypse, with 223 posts
  • Top five threads by replies:
    • Online store – 94
      (Considering for 2014)
    • Badges/labels – 88
      (In analysis, but a workaround is on our help site)
    • Recurring events – 76
      (Being designed now for Version 5.1)
    • Admin notification when contact records are edited – 74
      (One of the top candidates for Version 5.1)
    • API – 71
      (First version has been released!  See Version 4.6 and this blog post)

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Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot] Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot]

Posted by Dmitriy Buterin [Chief Apricot]

Published Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 2:53 PM

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Comments

  • Luchia said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 3:54 PM
    I appreciate everything you guys have done. Nothing is perfect, but you guys are always trying to improve and are always responsive to any issues I've had, including potential work-arounds when a solution isn't readily available in the existing software. I've moved our neighborhood organization over to WA and am trying to convince an international membership organization to make the switch. Keep up the good work and try not to beat yourself up too much!

    Luchia Brown
    City Club of Denver
  • Jane Bonvillain said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 4:14 PM
    Great newsletter and appreciate your forthrightness. Constantly changing and improvements in technology as well as your growing client-base will cause some hiccups along the way, but you all do a great job. Absolutely LOVE your technical support. Each time I have had to call I always get prompt responses and extremely courteous people on the other end of the line. Keep doing what you're doing!
  • John C. said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 4:16 PM
    Hey Apricots,

    How about some props for a change? You guys are doing a great job! I love Wild Apricot! Looking forward to all the future advancements!

    John
  • bkp said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 4:32 PM
    Even with all that has been going on behind the scenes you and your team have been really responsive to every inquiry made by our organization. We really appreciate your support and product. I hope your next endeavors will be easier now that this learning experience is nearing its end.
  • Chief Apricot said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 4:54 PM
    Thank you so much to all of you for your kind words!
  • Jack Turnbull said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 4:55 PM
    Love the site. Of course there are many things we wish for, but this site solved many of my member problems right off the bat, so I'm greatful!

    All the best,

    Jack Turnbull
  • Evgeny said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 5:17 PM
    Dmitri mentioned that "Admin notification when contact records are edited" is one of the top candidates for Version 5.1.

    Actually, I just closed the wishlist thread - I believe that the changes we introduced in 4.6 release (Profile last updated date field with support of advanced search and API) resolve the key issue.

    See my detailed explanation about the reasons at http://community.wildapricot.com/permalink/27878/27973/ShowThread.aspx#27973
  • JohnGunr said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 5:43 PM
    Take heart; you guys are doing a great job! Remember, that there's no guaranteed recipe for success. The guaranteed recipe for failure, however, is to try and please everyone:-)
  • Desiree Baylin said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 6:36 PM
    I think all of you are doing a great job and many users of your membership software should know "You Cannot and Will Not Please Everyone!" What I don't get is the online store issue? I have an online store I created myself at http://www.pomaa.net/Store, so I'm really clueless that others are not able to do this? Granted I have a computer background, however it's really not all that hard to create a basic store. Keep up the great work! I appreciate all that you do and you have made my life a lot easier than before I started using WA. Just an FYI we have 16 membership websites through WA with another 10 or more being launched in the near future!

    GO APRICOTS...

    Physician Office Managers Association of America
  • Liz Gibson said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 8:33 PM
    Dmitri, it took guts to come out and say all that you have said here. Kudos. I have worked in the IT industry, as a manager, for many years. At least 10 of those were managing the development of a Learning Mgmt System (LMS). There is nothing here that surprises me - everyone in this line of work experiences exactly what you have, from promised "new" technologies that don't deliver, to underestimating the workload despite all the allowances for things to go wrong... Welcome to the IT world... No-one ever knows what it is really going to take to do something - even the best project managers will say it's a shot in the dark - because you never know when a technology is going to let you down.

    Wild Apricot is THE most reliable hosted content management system I have ever experienced. You do not release stuff in beta, you wait until it is well tested. I never have to worry about when a new release is happening and plan to test my sites - you have no idea how big a relief that is for me.

    Yes, we *really* need an eStore incorporated into the CMS. But you were right, all of this was more important, and the API will make your lives easier as well as ours - so I can certainly understand why you went there first. It's ok - we are surviving.

    "Break-a-leg" on 5.0. Congratulations on a job well done. Keep up the great work.
  • Mark Carroll said:

    Wednesday, 28 August 2013 at 10:30 PM
    This sort of frank introspection and explanation is great. It helps customers understand where you are coming from; and the challenges involved.

    But give yourself credit where credit is due. Wild Apricot is a fantastic product. For member based organisations with limited budgets it is incredibly empowering, allowing us to create the sort of web platforms that at one time only deep-pocketed large organisations could dream of. Sure, it'd be nice to have developers on demand to make immediate tweaks to customise the system for each organisation's specific needs. But that's just not realistic for a platform that provides the essentials for the masses.

    Wild Apricot provides a great product at a very fair price. It strikes a great balance between functionality, flexibility and complexity. Keep up the good work!
  • Becky Parsons said:

    Thursday, 29 August 2013 at 9:08 AM
    The tendency for end users is to complain about what's wrong and not appreciate what's right. It's frustrating to see wishlist items that go back years, and it's easy to take the great parts for granted. We are an all-volunteer non-profit with 200 members and 1,000 email contacts. Your system and the affordable price allows us to have a very robust website and member management process - all without glitches and downtime. It's the backbone of our success and community outreach. Thank you for being frank with us - it helps a lot. I'm looking forward to 5.0.

    Sustainable Tallahassee
  • Richard Pouzar said:

    Thursday, 29 August 2013 at 11:31 AM
    Beyond agreeing with others that you are doing a great job, I am blown away that the Wild Apricot system appears to our users as so bullet-proof. It stays up forever, and any rare problem that arises is minor and fixed immediately. When you issue new releases (I hope this doesn't jinx 5.0) the transition is seamless. On a scale of 1 to 10, your team deserves a 15. Most of us understand that the wishlist is made up of suggestions, not demands or promises. You provide us a great system, and it's obvious that you all work hard to make it the best. Thank you.
  • Gary Hedman said:

    Thursday, 29 August 2013 at 1:56 PM
    I have been on your system for only a few months, but I am amazed at the thought that has gone into your systems. It does things I would not take for granted. Sure I have found a few deficiencies but there is usually a way to work around them. I do feel you need to be serious about addressing some of those issues and it sounds like your understand that.
  • Rick Kerner said:

    Friday, 30 August 2013 at 2:27 PM
    Hi Dmitry,
    I agree with all of the above. And most importantly to me, I appreciate your openness and honesty as a leader communicating with us. It's refreshing.
    Thank you, and keep up the great work,
    Rick
  • PS said:

    Wednesday, 11 September 2013 at 11:51 AM
    Becky Parsons said it well (along with the other posters). Users do complain and often show little appreciation for all that works well. Then, only when you elaborate on what it really takes to run a technology business, do people step up and pat you on the back. But, this doesn't solve the issue of listening to your customers and frankly, all of this is the pure nature of being in technology. I too have been in the software and technology industry for nearly two decades. Your product is affordable, and very well built, yes, but to ignore user feature requests for years is simply unacceptable no matter what your internal problems are. It implies you do not value the feedback from the users, which I am sure is just not the case. But, when you admit that very few requests ever make it to the development table after years of it being requested... that is not a good message to your paying customers, no matter what the price is.
    Perhaps you could start offering custom programming, where users could pool money resources to pay for features they want, and let them put their money where their mouth is. This business model may not be the best when your customer base includes nonprofit organizations, but it could help free your internal resources to focus on your business critical issues, while offering an avenue to accommodate new features.
  • Chief Apricot said:

    Wednesday, 11 September 2013 at 12:50 PM
    @PS - we have not been ignoring feature requests at all - we have been analyzing and designing changes for many of them. But actual development can only start once we publish this massive CMS redesign in version 5.0.
    If you look at Wild Apricot now and what it was when we released it seven years ago you will see a system many times more powerful and we have addressed hundreds of requests over the years.
    Pooling the resources does not seem like a feasible path - frankly, given the size and complexity of platform, even seemingly small changes would cost many thousands of dollars. Plus, we have to be very careful adding new features without making the product harder to learn and use for the majority of our users.
    Anyway, the number of wishlist forum threads with more than 10 comments is about 80 - I expect that we will address at least a few dozen of these within the next year.
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