One of the biggest challenges to any new, innovative product development team is which user group to target for your first product versions.  Since early users can make your product or break it, so this is no trivial decision.  There are generally two schools of thought on this subject.  One is to target a less demanding user group in hopes of learning slowly and iterating before they thrash your product to death.  The other theory is to put your product in front of the most demanding user group first, take your lumps, and if the product can hold its own, all the other user groups can be mopped up quickly.

I wish I could take credit for being a part of that decision here at Shiftboard, but I can’t.  It happened a number of years before I was even associated with the company.  The product was initially built for healthcare staffing in 2002-2004, but that product team decided the core scheduling application could be simplified to address many more markets in a simpler, more streamlined way with a very intuitive product.

Stripping a product down to its essence

So it was that in mid 2004 and early 2005 they descended on the product like Richard Petty’s pit crew – Snap On tools, pneumatic drills, the works.  The chassis was lowered, suspension tightened, a new engine tied in that made the old one look like a flywheel with a mouse.  Everything was designed around ease and speed of online scheduling.  Anything that interfered with the design principle, a protrusion or sharp angle – anything that added wind resistance, was stripped away quicker than corrosion on an F-18’s wing.  When the overhaul was completed in spring 2005, there sat a machine idling on the track with a singular purpose.  Why on earth was so thorough of an overhaul required?  To keep up, of course, but with whom?

When I first came to Shiftboard to take the sales team to the next level, I reviewed the customer list.  At first I overlooked all the non-profits, until the sheer numbers starting grabbing my attention.  There must have been 20 film festivals alone at the time, not including music concerts and other events.  “What’s with all these festivals and events?”   The response I received was quite simple – a number of the referrals we received were from the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), the largest film festival in the country by some measures.  “When did SIFF come aboard?”  I should have guessed the answer but was still surprised . . . spring 2005.  As a novice to online scheduling, I was asking myself why the volunteer scheduling market was chosen as the proving ground.

Raw speed

LewisrunHow many of y’all saw Carl Lewis run in his prime?  The man seemed to float down the track during those 100s and 200s he ran.  Ever looked closely at a volunteer?  They come in all shapes and sizes of course.  It’s hard to pick them out of a crowd.  Some are wearing t-shirts and sporting 3 days of beard growth, others skirts and heels.

But if you look closely at the bag they carry or what protrudes from their collective backpacks, you might catch a glimpse of trail running shoes, a dry-fit garment, or sprinter’s cleats.  You see, one thing ties together all volunteers: they offer up their own time to their cause, rather than someone paying them to give it.  That one little attribute puts volunteers in a class with Carl in terms of software usage.  They can’t be bought by an employer.  If they are confused or frustrated for even a minute, they run like the wind.  Because no one, no organization, can make them stay.

Back in the spring of 2005, the most demanding use case around was Seattle International Film Festival’s volunteer scheduling.  Those folks came once per year, wanted to confirm their shifts quickly, volunteer their time, and be done.  No training could be required.  If Shiftboard couldn’t be figured out immediately, they were gone.  Second chances don’t happen often in life, even less with a new user in software-as-a-service.  Luckily for me, and more importantly for our customers, that stripped down machine built in 2005 was sleek enough to chase down even the fastest and most demanding volunteers users. SIFF has been a customer for 5 years now.  This past year there were more than 4,500 event scheduling shifts confirmed by nearly a thousand volunteers during the 3 week festival.

Bona fides in volunteer scheduling software

Among many other segments, we count volunteer scheduling as a core competency.  We like working with non-profits, and it is a part of our mission to do so.  We have humane societies, hospitals, mentoring groups, convention & visitors bureaus, churches, private schools, volunteer groups staffing concessions at pro sporting events, you name it.  Thanks to the good folks at Tampa Theatre, our system was talked up as great volunteer scheduling software last week at a meting of the League of Historic American Theatres.  Today there are tens of thousands of volunteers who are registered Shiftboard users in North America.  I have come to learn that it’s not luck, but rather a lot of product development focus.

It all comes back to one thing.  The key players here early on, and especially the founder Bryan, decided that ease-of-use had to trump all other requirements.  And to test out the product design, the most demanding user group around was put in front of their favorite browser without any training, just to be very sure they could pick up shifts and print their schedules.  Those users made cheetahs look slow in terms of how quickly they were on to the next website or text message if their user experience was frustrating or complex.  They are still the ultimate test today.  Online scheduling, simplified.

— Rob E