I have just exchanged emails with one of the directors of an online accounting vendor who effectively told me that Xero was a better looking application, but that his company's offering had more functionality. He also stated that his people were working hard to improve their user-interface and that he knew the guys at Xero were working hard to add functionality.
So, that got me to thinking - do the users of online accounting applications sign-up based on how great the application looks or on how many features it has? (and for this purpose we need to accept that ease of use is part of being "good looking"). Is beauty only skin deep?
My accountancy practice bought into the online accounting concept relatively early and initially went for Twinfield - which we saw as the most powerful system, with the most heavy duty functionality. However, ultimately, we switched to Xero because our people found the learning curve too steep and the user-interface a challenge. I must say however that Twinfield is a great product, it just wasn't for us.
The well-respected web software company 37Signals have this as their philosophy:
We believe most software is too complex. Too many features, too many promises. Instead, we build simpler web-based software with elegant interfaces and thoughtful features you’ll actually use.
Looking at 37Signals user forums it seems that they stick to their guns and refuse to add features that they don't think are necessary.
Whether, for web software, beauty is skin deep must be a crucial issue for all of the online accounting vendors, and probably for all other cloud application vendors too. Assuming that Xero and my email correspondent's company are each following their own well thought out strategy and business plan, then it seems Xero believe that users will fall for a sexy application with an easy going personality. The other company believe that it's what is "under the skin" that counts most.
Can they both be right? Is this a great example of the free market at work, with users able to choose from competing services based on what is important to them, or will getting the rules of this particular dating game wrong have a profound effect on at least the speed of growth for a vendor, and maybe its ultimate success or failure? As ever, only time will tell.