Bad SaaS nearly killed my fantasy football league

My fantasy football league has survived an NFL strike, pre-Internet scorekeeping, and 30 years of trash talk. But we were nearly sacked this season by lousy software.

A few years ago our league moved away from manually tabulating results. We got tired of checking the newspaper on Monday, Tuesday and sometimes Friday mornings, calculating scores with a calculator, updating the standings, adding the league Commissioner's colorful commentary, and mailing it out via U.S. Postal Service. (I did mention this league has been around for 30 years, right?)

We moved into the modern world with a software-as-a-service (SaaS) application that automatically keeps track of rosters, scoring and standings. We chose this particular web-based fantasy football league management application mostly for its simplicity. It had enough functionality for our purposes and, more important, it was easy to use. It was perfect for guys like me that spend less then 3 minutes per week on it, and only for 16 weeks per year. We've even been willing to pay an annual fee for the application to avoid the advertising clutter that comes with the “free” services.

Don't forget who you're selling to and why they buy from you

Apparently, our SaaS provider forgot about who they were selling to and why we were buying. Sometime in between last season and this one, they larded up their application with non-essential functions and a cluttered user interface. Lots of radio buttons and drop-down menus, a smattering of drag-and-drop, and an array of timers and alarms that didn't seem connected to any particular action.

Which brings me to our league's near-death experience. All these changes made it extremely difficult for us to conduct our player draft for the season. Only through extraordinary patience, an exhaustive search of the site’s FAQs, and lots of trial & error, did we finally complete the process... just moments before the start of the season.

Keep it simple and avoid surprises

Listen up, SaaS providers!

1. Don't load your application with lots of bloat-ware that most people don't use. One of the reasons people buy SaaS applications is because they're easy to learn and easy to use.

2. Keep user interfaces simple and easy to navigate. Avoid needless clutter. This is especially true for applications that are used only occasionally.

3. Avoid wholesale changes to the user interface. Make changes gradually. The SaaS delivery model makes smaller, more frequent releases practical.

4. If you are going to make major changes, provide your customers ample notice beforehand. Customers don't always like surprises.

5. Think about offering guidance to your customers on how to navigate the new interface or use the new features. Provide a short instructional video, for example.

6. Stay in touch with your customers. Listen to what they want and pay attention to what they do. The ability to monitor user behavior is one of the great advantages of SaaS.

A bad user interface is bad for business. If you make your product hard to use, you should expect lower revenues, a longer sales cycle, higher support costs, and lower retention.

An accessible user interface doesn't mean limited functionality

I'm not saying that you should omit necessary functionality. But if you think high functionality requires a complicated user interface, think again. At a Mass Innovation event earlier this month, I saw a sophisticated screen-sharing application, JoinMe, with a control panel that looks like something from an old cassette recorder. They called it “ridiculously simple,” and it was.

I’m happy to report that we did navigate our way through the SaaS provider's poor user interface and our Creep Football League lives on for another season. It’s too early to tell how my team, the Out-of-Staters, will fare, but we’re already looking at new SaaS solutions to manage the league.


A post-script to this story. A few days after I published this post, Constant Contact, a SaaS provider I work with to publish a monthly newsletter, provided an excellent example of how to notify customers in advance of changes to the user interface.

Dear Peter,

As we told you recently, we've improved the editing tool that lets you create and format your email newsletters. You should see it in your account in the next few days.

Here are some things you should know beforehand:

Check out the tutorial and FAQ about the improvements so you can get a jump on using them. Important! Be sure to read our recommendation about copying some of your campaigns in the blue box to the right.

It looks a lot like the previous editor, so it should feel familiar to you. It's now just easier to use.

Just in case, we've set up a special dedicated support line for you to call if you have questions about copying your campaigns or using the editor. That number is 800-275-3019.

Again, you will have the new editor in your account very soon. Thank you for your patience as we bring this new improvement to you, and thank you for being our customer. We're here to help you get up to speed with a better way to build your emails.

Important note: Older browsers do not support some of the technologies used in the updated editor. For the best experience, if using IE or Firefox, please upgrade your browser to the latest version.

The Constant Contact Team