How and Why Software Evolves: Next Steps for Silicon Connector

We have been working hard on our Silicon Connector product, and as it grows exponentially in popularity, its value versus any alternative connecting Adobe InDesign to DAMs and cloud-based storage systems is being confirmed again and again based on the feedback of thousands of users around the world. Here are both the specifics of the roadmap and the general software product development lessons learned from product feedback over the past 3 years, especially during the past 6 months.

Silicon Connector links Adobe InDesign to cloud-based assets

If you don't know what Silicon Connector is, you can find out about it here. In a nutshell, it's a plugin for Adobe InDesign that lets InDesign connect directly to DAMs (Digital Asset Management systems) and other cloud-based assets. For a variety of reasons, Connector does this far better than any other technology. In the words of a Fortune 500 company that has used it the past 3 years with 150 authors creating a popular magazine, "it just works" and "we wouldn't be using this DAM without it." Truly, it's an InDesign feature that Adobe started but we have delivered, one that makes modern-day publishing workflows possible.

With great power comes great responsibility

We have delivered five connectors (Adobe Experience Manager, MediaBeacon, Box, Widen, and Entermedia)  and are in discussion with many vendors worldwide about taking on new DAMs. We want to remain agnostic and thereby open to every DAM company, but we are carefully deciding the sequence. It's not practical to build 20 solutions at once, so we are proceeding cautiously in our quest to connect InDesign to all of the forms of storage in use today, while laying the groundwork for the future. The diversity of DAMs is stunning, with a new one announced almost every week.  We keep discovering DAMs that may not be new in the sense of just coming to market, but that are new to us, even though they may be long-established in other geographical regions around the globe or in niche vertical markets. There doesn't seem to be a single, comprehensive list available, but there are certainly hundreds of DAMs out there. To make it more complicated, organizations are starting to use storage platforms like Box as DAMs, despite incomplete true DAM functionality.

More important than choosing the next DAM/storage platform that Connector will serve, is identifying the next features it will offer, as well as the DAM-specific variants. Here the feedback from our users has proven invaluable, lending insight into the specific sense of "what do we do next with Connector?" as well as "how should software companies evolve a product?"

Generally, how do software products evolve?

If getting to Carnegie Hall is a matter of "practice, practice, practice", evolving a software product is all about "listen, listen, listen." As Aaron Levie put it:

"You'll learn more in a day talking to customers than a week of brainstorming, a month of watching competitors, or a year of market research."

Get outside your comfortable world

Listening turns out to be more difficult than many of us realize. When your product is finally in front of a wide audience, there is a gold mine of information available, but you often have to read between the lines or think outside the box to glean the meaning of this information. Often, feedback will fundamentally challenge your basic assumptions, and you may have to hear the same thing repeatedly for it to register at last.

Very few have asked us to connect Box to Adobe InDesign

In our case with Connector, we come from a rather InDesign-centric world, as did our first clients. Initially, we were asked the simple question "how do we connect InDesign to our DAM so the link is direct?" This came from a large photobook company not so far from a large database company on the SF Peninsula, not to name any names. We connected InDesign to a DAM better than anyone had ever done before, and that's what we thought would be meaningful.

But now, four years later, we have found that when we got 100+ companies trying Silicon Connector for Box, almost none of them think in such simple terms. We showed them the brutally simple benefits of using Connector vs. not using Connector, and to us it first appeared like such a slam dunk in terms of pure ROI that they would buy without hesitation. Please look at the last 30 seconds of this video:

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Isn't it obvious? Without Connector, you suffer trying to use InDesign and Box. You spend hours downloading everything, or create duplicate non-linked assets using Box Sync, resulting in error-prone extra hours of time for authors or designers. It should be obvious that InDesign and Box with and without Connector is night and day, right?

What they did ask...

It wasn't so obvious, and Box Connector prospects have tended to be evaluating the software rather than having already committed to using Box. They tend to be large enterprises with the time and energy to kick the tires. Most come to us because InDesign is one of the few pain points in Box workflows, with its old-school file-system-centric default behaviors.

But they are looking at the whole picture, and we find that InDesign isn't quite the entire story. When enterprises enquire about Silicon Connector for Box, the questions turn out to be:

 "How does the Adobe Creative Cloud work with Box? What is the ideal publishing workflow with Adobe and Box?"

Photoshop and Illustrator are typically as important as InDesign, and those using InCopy care just as much about that: it is not sufficient for us to simply solve the InDesign challenge. In the holistic sense of "what is the most effective content creation workflow with the Creative Cloud and Box?", there is much more required.

This had come up before with other DAMs but hadn't registered with me. It came in fragmentary blips, like "this prospect really really wants Illustrator connectivity?" or "these guys want to do the 'edit original' and check it back into the DAM".  Finally, a conversation with one particular Box prospect brought it all home. He said, "look, I'm evaluating the entire picture of what it means to move to Box, including all applications used in the organization, given that our InDesign users use the other Adobe apps as well."

The lesson is that you can solve one problem with a product but there are likely to be tangential problems which, if you can solve them, can exponentially improve your product's value.

Impending Connector functionality

We have decided to add the following features to our Connector base product in response to the great and diverse feedback we've received. These are listed in likely chronological sequence (no we don't have dates yet, but do let us know if any of these have particular value to you).

Availability through the Adobe add-ons exchange

We are close to making Silicon Connector for Box available through the Adobe add-ons exchange, so you can buy it right from within Creative Cloud applications. This isn't so much due to popular demand or listening to prospects, as from listening to our partners about cool new ways to distribute our software.

Greater Creative Cloud support and "Edit Original" functionality

From our user feedback, it is now obvious that we need to do a better job of talking to (at least) Photoshop and Illustrator. While our Silicon Connector for Box does enable loading and downloading assets from Box, what users really want is the ability to do this from within Illustrator and Photoshop easily, as well as navigating assets from within those applications. Supporting integration with these additional apps is not difficult for us, as the CC Extension technology allows for a single extension for multiple products, but we do need to adjust for the nuances of how these apps work. We do not find it likely that we'll support linking from Illustrator out to its referenced assets in any special way, so we are recommending single, self-contained Illustrator files as a best practice.

This functionality will be built initially for the Box Connector, yet from there it is likely to become part of the Connectors for other DAMs. While the core Connector software is a low-level C++ plugin and this feature is being built with CC Extension technology: we will probably support it for CC 2014 and later.

Single Sign On for the Silicon Connector for Box

We were surprised by how "custom" Box implementations are with the largest of organizations, and while we've done specific single sign on implementations for other Connectors, we don't anticipate it being a likely feature enhancement in a general sense. However, this is clearly needed for the largest Box customers.

Proxy support

Similar to single sign on, proxy support is becoming a product feature, not something we plan to continue implementing on a custom, organization by organization basis. This is a function of two things; growing product sales, as well as our new activation mechanism and impending availability in the store. We we want to point our prospective customers to an easy explanation of how to configure their Connector for their proxy and firewall configuration.

A unified version serving multiple DAMs

When we had two Connectors to test, we really didn't care that there were two different products to deal with and you had to uninstall one to work with the other. Well, we cared a bit but it wasn't a big pain point. With five Connectors, there are two major internal benefits in maintaining a single product that has each DAM/storage system available:

  1. Our testing will be far less time-intensive
  2. Code updates will be completely guaranteed to flow into all versions

These two things will make our development/testing life easier. We can install the same two plugins, and test among DAM variants by turning them on and off via configuration.

But it turns out that this feature is valuable for our clients as well. We have a shocking number who use multiple DAM/storage systems. Most of them are not happy using a variety of different DAMs, but we have found this to be a common situation. Most large enterprises got that big in some part by acquisition, and while there may be long-term efforts afoot to some day streamline to use one uber-system, reality is very balkanized among those large enterprises we have seen, especially the last 5 huge printers that grew by ingesting all of the small fish in the industry.

So, we have organizations using just about every permutation of our five DAMs in conjunction with other DAMs, and the new DAMs we add to the mix are likely those recommended by our existing Connector customers. "Why don't we have this for ___?" is a common question once someone experiences the efficiency of single-source assets. (Yes it still can be a single-source asset even if it's residing in one of two systems.)

An InCopy offering, as demand warrants

Finally, we are still thinking about InCopy. Thinking and doing, actually. Ole cobbled together a pretty amazing InCopy to Box Connector. Of course when he did this, the first thought wasn't, "let's take this to those 5 InCopy prospects" but rather, "let's use this approach to bring Photoshop/Illustrator to the 100+ clients/prospects that requested it." If time allows, or someone sponsors it, we'll get to InCopy.

The overall lesson

Really it all comes down to "Listen, Listen, Listen", but there are different parties to listen to, and the art of listening itself is something that can improve over time.

We listen first and foremost to those who use our technology. Then we listen to those who are thinking about using it. We listen to our internal developers, testers, project managers, and sales/marketing people. All have valuable perspectives and it is the resonance among multiple parties that will lead to a feature request standing out.

My ability to listen has come from the joy and pain of past successes and failures. In fact being in business fourteen years, the most valuable trait I seek to improve every day is that of empathy: put yourself in the heads of your customers, prospects, employees and partners, and all the problems will go away. Listening is the key to empathy. Hopefully our listening will make this product better and better over time.