• Strategy
  • CFO Magazine

Simplicity Is Golden

Heeding customer demands, sellers of planning software aim to make their products easier to use.

It’s not all fun and games in the amusement-park business.

Just ask Gary Neveras. As senior director of financial planning analysis at Universal Orlando, Neveras is responsible for tracking and forecasting the numbers on more than 1,000 different ventures and projects at the theme park. “We have tons of information,” he says. “But being able to mine that information and make business decisions — that’s a challenge.”

Like financial managers at a lot of other businesses, Neveras uses software to foretell an array of financial trends. And like financial managers at a lot of other businesses, he cringes at the effort needed to use the software. “Many modeling products just don’t offer a good mix of usability and flexibility,” he says.

You get that a lot. While makers of planning applications have come a long way with their products, they’ve tended to overlook one small item: most users of computer programming aren’t, in fact, computer programmers. Says John Hagerty, a financial software analyst at AMR Research, a technology market research firm in Boston: “The focus so far has primarily been on providing products that deliver the most analytical power.”

That’s understandable. Given the competition in the budgeting-and-planning software sector, B&P vendors have had little choice but to trick out their programs with all sorts of bells and whistles. But after prodding from customers — many of which rely on entry-level workers to input data into modeling programs — most vendors are at least beginning to address the issue of usability. In fact, upstarts like Quantrix and KCI Computing Inc. are flogging ease of use as a major selling point for their products. And such established vendors as Business Objects, Cognos, Hyperion, and Geac Computer are attempting to design modeling apps that are simpler and more straightforward. Says Lee Geishecker, a corporate performance management analyst at Gartner Inc., a technology research firm in Stamford, Connecticut: “They’ve all become quite sensitive about usability.”

Cell Hell

Of course, the most popular modeling software in the business galaxy hardly qualifies as user-friendly. While Microsoft Excel does provide a formidable amount of analytical muscle, the advantage tends to fade as models grow more complex. That’s particularly frustrating for power users.

In fact, the well-documented limitations of Excel have opened a selling opportunity for rival vendors, eager to nick their share of what’s estimated to be a $4 billion industry. “Excel is a technology that’s designed to meet the needs of the lowest common denominator,” argues Chris Houle, chief operating officer and co-founder of Quantrix, the Portland, Maine-based financial modeling software developer.

Quantrix’s flagship product is Quantrix Modeler, an application that aims to be simple to use and easy for others to understand. “With Excel, you find spreadsheet models become so complex and convoluted that it is difficult to zero in on the specific or relevant elements of a model,” says Houle. Quantrix Modeler attempts to address this problem by providing a variety of user-geared features, including plain-English formulas that make models easier to comprehend, trace, and audit. The result, insists Houle, is a structured, multidimensional modeling application offering advanced data-integration capabilities.

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