June 2013 Feature

Designing Channel Success: Lessons From a Channel Technology Leader

by Hobart Swan

One of the prime differentiators among companies vying for channel partners is ease of use of partner tools. Everything else being equal, companies who can build the simplest, most intuitive applications stand the best chance of attracting new partners. But according to Ron Benegbi, companies would do well to look outside Easy-Key-Imagetheir own walls when designing these applications. And he should know. As founder and CEO of Accolade International, Benegbi put a great deal of effort into making sure the rewards recognition incentive program applications Accolade developed could be used by even the most novice sales people.

Now an independent consultant, Benegbi is also past president of Carleton Group and current president of the Incentive Marketing Association of Canada. He has a long track record of working in the incentive and recognition business for clients including Nissan, Campbell Soup, Bell Mobility and United Airlines. Channel Management Insights caught up with Benegbi recently to discuss his approach to enabling channel success.

Q: What made you decide to focus on user experience?

What really inspired me was looking at the incentives community in the US, Canada, and around the world. A lot of companies were racing to add great features and functionality to their incentive applications. But I just kept thinking that they were going about it the wrong way.

What usually happens is that clients ask a company to build some great new “next gen” application. So the company gets all of its developers together and creates what everyone in the company agrees is a really cool tool. The problem is that they’re assessing the application from the point of view of internal IT. One of the inherent weaknesses in the channel incentive space (and, I would argue, in application development as a whole) is that IT has been charged with not just building the application, but also creating the user experience.

Q: Isn’t that what IT departments are for—to provide technology to the business side?

To a certain extent. But because the application was designed and built by people from a coding environment, the apps don’t necessarily work for day-to-day, real-world users. So I looked at that, and I saw that this disconnect between developers and business users had become a serious problem across the industry.

Q: How do you get around this? Most business users don’t know what programmers do, and vice versa.

When you design these applications, you absolutely have to focus on the people who will be using them. And the more I thought about it, the more I started thinking about how Apple had gone about revolutionizing the world of cell phones. Steve Jobs created his empire on the notion of simplicity—on ease of use by the average consumer. So I thought, okay, if we’re going to build technology for our community, very few members of which are technology experts, we need to do the same thing. We need to look at one very simple principle when it comes to developing partner applications: Our apps must be useable right out of the box without the user needing special instruction or training. If we could achieve that, then we’d hit the mark.

So my goal was to create an application so simple and intuitive that our channel partners wouldn’t need any sort of explanation or manual. They wouldn’t need any instruction on how to use it or navigate it, and they’d be able to understand its overall architecture.

I knew that I’d still have to depend on our developers to write the code, because that’s what they do. But I thought that if I helped them get a better understanding of what an intuitive interface might look like for our average users, then we’d achieve a better outcome.

Q: How did you go about educating the programmers?

The main thing I did was to bring in people who were experts in user experience and knew how to build intuitive user interfaces for all different kinds of industries—but who had no experience whatsoever with incentive programs. I felt that if they had that knowledge, then they might be tempted to assume a certain level of knowledge among users. That, in turn, might lead the designers to skip steps or take shortcuts.

To create something that would work for our average users, the interface designers had to be beginners themselves. This meant that we only gave them a basic education in channel incentives. We felt that this was the only way we could make sure that the interface designers would put themselves in the shoes of our target audience—salespeople who would be too busy selling in retail stores to know all the intricate ins and outs of incentive programs.

So we minimally educated our team of user-experience experts and gave them the time to come up with an initial design. Then it was a matter of sharing their insight and experience with the development team.

Q: What kind of processes did the user experience experts put in place to make sure they understood the needs of your end users? Did they use focus groups?

For me, it came back to that underlying principal of whether or not a person could use the app without an instruction manual or training. That’s the brush we painted with; the lens we looked through. The approach we found worked best was to educate the user interface experts, have them share their results with the IT team, then give the IT people a chance to build wire frames based on that input. Once they had some frames built, then I and a couple of people with no knowledge of incentive programs take a look at them. Then we’d go back and forth with our IT department until we finally came up with a solution that we thought worked well.

I guess you could say that the process we followed was more iterative and subjective than scientific. But as we rolled out the application to our channel partners, we kept hearing over and over again that it was the by far the best end-user incentive program interface they’d ever seen. Since then, our approach has been validated many times by end users themselves.

Q: Is the solution to make sure IT teams and end users stay connected?

That would certainly help solve one of the biggest problems. There is a big disconnect between IT and business. The two disciplines don’t necessarily work well together. And that can result in technology that doesn’t reflect user needs—and can be way too complicated.

A few years ago I was pitching a very sophisticated channel product with rules engines, and all that. I asked my head of IT to walk me through the engines in terms of the best way to pitch our solution within the channel environment. Ten minutes into his explanation, he stopped. After a short silence I asked, “What’s the problem?” “I don’t know how to do this next step,” he told me. “Weren’t you the chief architect of the system,” I asked? “Yes,” he said, “but another guy built this specific part.”

That didn’t make any sense to me—that our products were so confusing, so unintuitive that not even the people who designed them could understand them. And I knew right then that there had to be a better way, so when I left that company and started networking with a lot of other professionals to see how widespread this problem was.

I think that the way we went about addressing this problem could serve as a good model for other companies. Yes, there are some very real limitations on how much time and resources you can put into creating technology solutions. But clearly, companies need to find ways to make ease of use and simplicity central goals of the application development process.

Q: Do you think that other companies are at least starting to get this message?

It’s getting better. But it’s still not the lens that the industry as a whole uses. It’s funny in our business. Everyone will tell you, “Oh, we have such a simple and intuitive system.” But it tends to be people inside the companies—and not end users—who say that. The reality is that few companies are stepping outside their own walls to get feedback.

So, yes, I do think things are changing. And the companies that change the fastest will have the best chance of attracting prospective channel partners in the future.