SIMS Labs – shaping the future of our products

By James Randall

In the first of a series of technical blogs, James Randall, SIMS Chief Architect, introduces SIMS Labs and reveals how customer feedback plays an important role in shaping product development.

As we continue to enhance our software, the feedback that we receive from customers about our products plays a significant role in shaping future development. Whether it’s suggesting a completely new feature or an idea to tweak a certain function, having that valuable customer insight helps us to ensure SIMS is the best it can be for its users.

But what if users could have the opportunity to do this before the software is even fully developed? This brings me on to our new concept of SIMS Labs. It was an idea myself and a colleague came up with, which we introduced last year to make our software more readily available to customers early on. It then allows us to use their feedback to deliver an end product that better meets their needs.

For large-scale projects, such as the SIMS Core Suite, product development will always be an intensive and time-consuming process as our developers test and refine a multitude of functionalities to ensure we deliver the best product. It’s why we decided to focus SIMS Labs on our range of modules, which tend to be smaller projects that are targeted more towards enhancing a specific area for schools and academies.

Traditionally, a SIMS product launch for our modules would be a year-long process, which includes both designing and building the product. SIMS Labs allows us to dramatically shorten this development cycle to three months before piloting the new product with schools. This process is also described as a ‘lean startup’, a popular model which favours customer feedback during the development stage to ensure that time isn’t heavily spent on certain features or functionality that might not be needed.

By getting the product into our customers’ hands more quickly, we benefit from their feedback straightaway – they tell us what’s working, what’s not and what other features and functionality they need. It’s a process that allows us to iron out any bugs and glitches early on, so that when we’re ready for full launch, we have a product we believe will satisfy our customers.

We’ve already used the SIMS Labs process to develop two of our most recent products – SIMS Activities and SIMS SchoolView. Here’s how we used SIMS Labs to develop the latest products that we’re taking to market.

Building the product

In preparation for building a new product, we’ll assign a maximum team of three people to spend two weeks working on the early designs. We’ll then run the product past the SIMS Board for approval and if given the green light, the exciting product development begins.

Although the short timeframe means we won’t be able to build something too big, there is still plenty of scope for us to draw on the simplicity of bringing data together. Once the product is complete, we’ll move straight on to the crucial step of piloting the product with a number of schools for 12 weeks. Even though the timescales are short, the product will run through a range of tests and challenges to ensure it meets the same high standards for privacy, data protection and security as we’d expect from any of our products.

We never underestimate the importance of customer feedback – in fact, the very idea for SIMS Activities came from direct conversations with our customers who told us that their school would benefit from a product focused around extra-curricular activities.

Going to pilot

When we go to pilot with our schools, these 12 weeks are a busy period of making changes and enhancements to shape the product. Throughout this period we ask for structured feedback, so if a school tells us that a certain feature isn’t working, we can look to remove it, or if they tell us the product would benefit from a different feature, we can look at implementing this. We always anticipate a few phone calls during this stage!

We’ll also monitor the system in our offices and that shows us which parts of the product are most used and which parts of the system might be proving difficult to use. We then use that in conjunction with direct feedback to help us gauge whether people like or dislike certain features.

I love hearing customer feedback and we use this to help us devise a roadmap to outline the next steps and make a decision on whether to launch the product or spend more time enhancing the functionality.

SIMS SchoolView

The most recent product we’ve developed through SIMS Labs is SIMS SchoolView. The product is launching soon, and we’ve been showcasing a number of interactive wireframes since the early stages of the development.

SIMS SchoolView is a unique product specifically designed for academy groups, so we wanted to give them an overview of the functionality and how it works as soon as possible. The main feature of the product is a series of ready-to-use dashboards which will give academy groups a breakdown of key performance measures across their schools.

The interactive wireframes were the ideal way to give our customers a mock-up of this functionality and you can see below in these before and after screenshots how the feedback that we received played an important role in shaping the final design before we bring the product to market in 2017.

Before – SIMS SchoolView dashboard

After – SIMS SchoolView dashboard

We also look forward to showcasing this new product at Bett 2017, so if you’re planning on attending, make sure you visit our stand to see SIMS SchoolView in action.

For more information on SIMS SchoolView, please visit our web page or view our product guide.

Are you interested in piloting one of our new products? Do get in touch or leave a comment in the box below if you would like to take part.

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