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The Importance of an Active User Community

Skyward Best Practices
Skyward Best Practices - Experience, Collaboration, and Leadership

We’ve all had conversations that start off along these lines:

“How do you like that [phone/jacket/fishing pole]?”

“I like it a lot, I just wish the [touch screen/zipper/reel] worked a little better.”

“I thought the same thing! There’s actually an easy way to fix that. Here, let me show you…”

It happens every day. You see someone with the same car, same phone, or even the same pen and within minutes you are pouring your heart out to a person you’ve only just met. Mutual ownership is not only a fantastic ice breaker, it can also provide enduring benefits in the form of troubleshooting tips, product reviews, and innovative ideas.

When it comes to enterprise administrative technologies like student information systems or ERP solutions, the benefit of a second opinion (or several thousand of them) can be measured in money saved and goals achieved. What better reason do you need to search out a solution that boasts a large, active user community for you to collaborate with, bounce ideas off, and ultimately create a better experience from the inside out?

Here are five questions to help you identify whether an edtech firm and their user community will be a good fit for you and your district:


1) Is the product well-established?

It should go without saying that a user community can only exist if people have been using the software in question. If you take the bold step of choosing a new arrival on the scene, be prepared to lean heavily on the vendor’s support staff for the life of your contract. Solutions that have existed and evolved over years (or even decades) will come with a built-in community of experts that can offer up best practices, clever workarounds, and even customized forms or reports to enhance your experience.


2) Does the firm facilitate user communication?

There is a stark contrast between existing and engaging. The most successful technology companies know that they have a genuine business interest in helping their user community thrive. When evaluating your options, you can get some good inside information by browsing a variety of social media platforms (LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are a good starting point) to see what users are talking about and whether or not the company is actively encouraging the conversation and jumping in when appropriate. We also recommend asking about any customer forums that may be hosted by the firm to see whether the general tone is collaborative on both sides of the fence.


3) What do user group conferences look like?

Find out how often user group conferences are held in your area, who runs them (the independent users or the tech firm), and how many people attended the last one. You might even ask for a copy of the previous year’s agenda to see just how much value these conferences hold. This should give you a good picture of how active your regional user community is and what level of partnership you can expect.


4) Does the customer’s voice have an impact?

Users know what users need. Sometimes, the most experienced voices in the crowd will have an even better understanding of the technology’s strengths and weaknesses than the company’s own employees. One of the unique benefits of an active community is the ideas that they can produce. From bug fixes to major enhancements, software updates should be largely driven by input from the existing customer base.

Most prospective clients ask us whether we have a process in place for users to request enhancements (we do), but rarely do they take the opportunity to delve even deeper. Ask for specific examples of recent updates that have stemmed from customer requests. Has the firm ever developed a major extension to its product’s functionality in direct response to a demonstrated need? It’s not enough for your district’s voice to be heard; make sure it will actually count for something.


5) Does the firm share information with users?

Transparency is quietly beginning to win the war against secrecy among successful technology firms. In an ultra-competitive landscape, there has long been a tendency for companies to avoid revealing any information that might give competitors even the smallest advantage. In the social media age, it makes more business sense to widely disseminate release notes, ensure clarity and understanding of new features, and share roadmap plans with the user community. Paying customers are an exclusive group and should be treated as such, not cut off from the flow of information.

You can learn a lot about an edtech company based on how they engage with their customers and how their customers engage with each other. Don’t let the importance of an active user base fly under the radar when evaluating your options. In a thriving community, total cost of ownership decreases, internal efficiencies increase, and all stakeholders end up in a better place. 



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