SAN FRANCISCO — Financial-planning software doesn’t need to be unwieldy. In fact, it can run with a few taps on Anaplan chief executive Fred Laluyaux’s iPad.
While meeting with VentureBeat in a little room at his company’s headquarters here recently, Laluyaux pulled up apps for forecasting sales, planning budgets, and seeing the effects of consolidations of two businesses. With big customers such as Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark, Nokia, and Pandora, the company needs to provide sophisticated tools. But Anaplan doesn’t want to get so advanced that only a few people in each company are able to use it.
“The No. 1 criteria: It has to be slick, easy to use and navigate, but immediate,” Laluyaux said.
In the past year, Anaplan has made progress toward that end. And in the coming months, it will tweak the cloud-based software so that it can capture data and show how long it takes people to perform certain functions. Anaplan will thereby become more aware of how useful its software is, and that in turn could help the firm make its software even better.
Anaplan isn’t the only enterprise-grade software company trying to balance power with simplicity. Vendors like SiSense and Birst are doing it for business intelligence. For good old email, the startup Acompli wants to make people far more productive on smartphones.
We will discuss the importance of design to mobile enterprise software at VentureBeat’s upcoming Mobile Summit, April 14 and April 15. –Ed.
But as Anaplan gets into the habit of measuring effectiveness and ease of use — a common practice among webscale companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest — it could be on the leading edge among enterprise-focused software makers.
The shift could be especially significant because Anaplan doesn’t intend to be a standalone app. It’s already got bunches of apps available, for determining the best prices to offer prospective customers, understanding the potential impact of workforce changes, predicting compensation, and more. But that ecosystem will grow.
Anaplan is working with expert consulting firms to build applications for specific industries, like telecommunications, Laluyaux said. And people would be able to access them from the central menu inside Anaplan.
User, user, user, user
The company’s software has already undergone shifts with an eye toward boosting user experience and engagement.
As recently as a year ago, Anaplan didn’t keep track of when people logged on to the service. But that has changed.
The company can now show its corporate customers when and where their employees log in to Anaplan, and how long they used it, on a dashboard. “We’re expecting FP&A [financial planning and analysis analysts] to log in once a month,” Laluyaux said. “If they’re not, there’s a problem.”
Anaplan also rethought its login screen.
Take this recent update to the software: Instead of having a generic username and password box, along with some release notes, Laluyaux called for something more interactive and forward-looking. Now people can see right on the login screen what’s coming up for Anaplan, and they can comment, too.
“It was interesting because it was a rewiring,” Laluyaux said. “It’s a login screen. Who cares? Well, no one. … [But] in our world, it’s a touchpoint that’s critical, that needs to be leveraged, that gives us in real time the ability to communicate to our users, without stepping on the toes so to speak of the customers.”
Most importantly, Laluyaux had a major moment of insight last year.
He realized that the number of companies that pay for Anaplan’s software isn’t the most meaningful indicator of how good the software is. A better metric is how many people actually use the software, he said. It’s sort of like how Mark Zuckerberg wants to grow Facebook’s monthly active user count from its already enormous base of more than 1 billion.
Except that this is financial planning we’re talking about, not a social network. It’s different from releasing software and then not even knowing — much less caring — if people use it.
Looking at your peers
And now Anaplan is planning to get even more hip to usage.
Currently, Anaplan gives people a workspace for preloading data. They can then build dashboards, or “models,” to show the results of complex calculations based on essentially a bunch of spreadsheets. They can also make assumptions to understand the effects of changes — like what would happen to travel expenses if airfares hit record highs this summer. Customers can do what they want in these dashboards.
“We don’t really know what you built,” Laluyaux said. But now Anaplan’s engineers are constructing and gradually implementing templates for models. As a result, “we can provide analytics on it, because we’ve designed it,” Laluyaux said.
For instance, people using Anaplan will be able to see how long it takes to perform calculations.
It’s more than a matter of saying how long it takes to perform a task. In the future, Anaplan could also pull together aggregated information from different companies in the same industry and show that the average company in that peer group performs a certain calculation in a certain amount of time. That way, people will be able to compare their performance to what’s typical.
Anaplan would only serve up such information if companies opt in, Laluyaux said.
“Now I can say to them not so much that users are spending 25 minutes in an application,” Laluyaux said. “What they care about is your peers in your class are able to run a process in that many days or hours after a common deadline.”
And what’s more, Anaplan will get to see the efficiency of its software. That could be the best perk of all. It could create an automated — and more accurate — feedback loop, instead of relying on occasional human feedback.
And that could be quite useful if Anaplan intends to pose a serious threat to incumbent tech vendors like IBM, Oracle, and SAP.
To do so, Laluyaux said, “we have to take a radically different approach and focus on the business user. That’s my personal conviction.”