Predictable profitability – part 3

This is the fifth article in a series examining how we are transitioning our architecture studio from a lean startup to a more mature business methodology.

In the last article, I shared my research into twenty six different resource scheduling apps, and the approach I used to whittle them down to a shortlist of four: Coincraft, Harvest + Forecast, Streamtime and Workflow Max. I trialled each app in the first half of last year, with the intention of making our selection by the start of this financial year.[1] Here are my detailed reviews of each:

Coincraft; Logo

Coincraft
www.coincraft.co

What is the onboarding process like?

Uploading project data is unreliable. It is easy to make mistakes and difficult to spot them.

I found support from Coincraft’s founder, Ryan King, to be readily accessible. I was able to get in touch with him pretty much at any time, and he generously visited our studio on two occasions to help me get used to the interface.

Is it customisable?

Coincraft provides a fixed operating environment with a closed API and limited customisation.[2] Its reporting tools are somewhat reconfigurable, allowing some filtering of timesheet information.

King was keen to receive my feedback, for example adding a few reporting filters when I requested them. Whenever I offered feedback, he advised whether my suggestion was already on his roadmap and how soon he expected to make the relevant changes.

How sexy is its user interface?

Coincraft is not the prettiest, but nor is it the ugliest. The layout of its menus and pages are consistent, though the data is not always where it needs to be. Data visualisations are somewhat useful, but not modifiable.

I found the precision of data to be a real problem. Time, money and percentages were somehow both too detailed and not detailed enough. This made it harder for me to get an at-a-glance understanding of our projects.

How functional is it?

The strength of Coincraft is the birds-eye overview it provides of business health. It facilitates analysis of every project across its forecast timeline, and a long range understanding of projected income and human resourcing.

I discovered that the workflow required to edit a project timeline was seriously flawed. Pushing back a deadline of one project phase meant I had to manually and tediously adjust every subsequent phase. Considering the unpredictable nature of architectural projects, I envisaged that this was a task I would have to do to most projects most months.

I found Coincraft to be unacceptably buggy.

Is it suitable for architects?

Coincraft is first and foremost an app for architects. It understands that we work for many hundreds of hours across many months on many projects. It paints a clear picture of what our business will look like in six months or a year, a task that is otherwise very hard to do.

It falls short in being unable to modify the fee for a project mid-stream (which happens to us often), or shift its timeframe (which happens to us constantly).

What’s my final verdict?

When I first started trialling Coincraft, I hoped that getting on board early would allow me to influence the direction of its development. While this was true to an extent, I found that the bugginess of the software and inflexibility of its forecasting were deal breakers. With another year of development, I’m sure Coincraft will be a killer app.

Onboarding: 6/10
Customisation: 7/10
Interface: 5/10
Functionality: 3/10
For architects: 8/10
Final verdict: 29/50

Harvest; Forecast; Logo

Harvest + Forecast
www.getharvest.com

What’s the onboarding process like?

Uploading project data is straightforward, Harvest has nailed the balance between too much and too little detail. It is more intuitive than Coincraft, meaning very little assistance is required to get started.

Harvest is based in the United States, and doesn’t have an Australian presence. These factors made the rare times I needed support a pain. I was able to access online video tutorials and a help widget, but neither were as useful as being able to speak directly to a human being.

Is it customisable?

Like Coincraft, Harvest provides a fixed operating environment and a closed API. It’s eleven years old though, so runs like a well-oiled machine. Its reporting tools are somewhat reconfigurable, with reasonable timesheet filters.

I discovered little opportunity for user feedback, or at least the sense that feedback will be taken on board. Headquarters are just too far away.

How sexy is its user interface?

Harvest looks great and is intuitive to use. Page layouts and menus are consistent, with a clear and beautiful interface design. Zooming in and out of project data is easy. Data visualisations are pretty but not that useful.

How functional is it?

Though the Harvest and Forecast halves of the app share all the same design cues, I found having to constantly switch between them tedious. This lack of connectivity is a fundamental flaw in the thinking behind the product and means unnecessary double data entry.

I found the timesheet functionality of Harvest to be good but not earth-shattering. The scheduling functionality of Forecast might have been great too, but I don’t know as I wasn’t able to use it properly. During my trial, its fixed fee project tracking mode (most commonly used by architects) was bizarrely disabled. I contacted support to ask when the issue might be resolved, and was given a flaky “perhaps at some point in the future” response.

Is it suitable for architects?

The timekeeping half of Harvest is an elegant tool perfect for architects, but without full functionality for the fixed fee project mode it only does half the job. Even with fixed fee mode in full flight, it will share the inflexibility of Coincraft: it’s just not geared up to modify a fee or shift a timeline.

What’s my final verdict?

Harvest is well suited to marketing agencies, or other creative studios operating via time and materials. It’s less well suited to architects who work on bigger projects with fixed or percentage fees. The deal breaker for me was not being able to access full functionality for the fixed fee project tracking mode.

Onboarding: 8/10
Customisation: 6/10
Interface: 9/10
Functionality: 6/10
For architects: 5/10
Final verdict: 34/50

Streamtime; Logo

Streamtime
www.streamtime.net

What’s the onboarding process like?

Uploading project data is almost as straightforward as Harvest, though it has a few operating quirks that benefit from prior explanation.

Before starting our Streamtime onboarding process, I received a helping hand to learn the basics of its navigation. This came via a couple of scheduled phone conversations with Streamtime support staff. Once I had the hang of the system, onboarding was straightforward.

Is it customisable?

As with Coincraft and Harvest, Streamtime provides a fixed operating environment and a closed API. Opening up the API is however on its long range roadmap. Reporting tools in Streamtime are powerful, with a seemingly endless array of filter options and the ability to save preferred combinations.

Originally developed in New Zealand, Streamtime head offices are now in Sydney, with easy access to both sales and technical staff. I had a couple of conversations with the latter last year, who sought my and other users’ feedback on new features. It was great being a part of their customer surveys prior to rollout, and convinced me that they were interested in user-focussed validated learning.

How sexy is its user interface?

Streamtime is stunning, and surprisingly full of quirky humour (the default pre-loaded project is to paint a spaceship, because why get to the moon if you can’t look good while doing so?). Fonts, colours, page layouts, menus and shortcuts are all a joy to use.

Across my testing I found data visualisations to generally be of limited use, so I was relieved to discover Streamtime doesn’t really provide any.

How functional is it?

The true strengths of Streamtime are in the intuitive workflow between its parts, and its great data clarity. Unlike Harvest, Streamtime offers a compelling connection between its schedule and timesheet functions. Scheduling a task for a staff member automatically populates her timesheet with that task. When she finishes it, she simply moves it from “to do” to “done”.

Streamtime also strikes the perfect balance between too much and too little detail. Time scheduling and tracking jump automatically to half-hour increments, and fees are always rounded to the nearest dollar.

Is it suitable for architects?

Like Harvest, Streamtime is principally designed for creative agencies who schedule and charge their work via time and materials. This isn’t very useful for architects, and probably its biggest drawback. While it is possible to create milestones for projects, they’re inflexible and not actually tied to time tracking.

Though it lacks fixed fee project planning, I found I was able to modify a fee mid-project with minimal effort.

What’s my final verdict?

Of all the apps I tested, I found that Streamtime understands the workflow of scheduling and time tracking better than anyone. It is beautiful to look at, and has a genuinely satisfying user interface. Though it’s not ideally suited to the time tracking approach of architects, this weakness is outweighed by its strengths.

Onboarding: 8/10
Customisation: 7/10
Interface: 10/10
Functionality: 10/10
For architects: 5/10
Final verdict: 40/50

Workflow Max; Logo

Workflow Max
www.workflowmax.com

What’s the onboarding process like?

Workflow Max is owned by the same people who created Xero, and consequently looks and feels a lot like it. While this is a compelling reason to use Workflow Max, unfortunately it also means that its onboarding is equally impossible.

Perhaps given false hope by the intuitive interfaces of Harvest and Streamtime, I tried to onboard a couple of projects in Workflow Max by myself. I found the experience so frustrating that I gave up, tried again some months later, and gave up again. I later realised that the only way to do it properly would have been to engage a consultant to help guide me.

Workflow Max did not provide great customer support for my onboarding process, but I discovered a number of consultants who (for a fee) were happy to.

Is it customisable?

Workflow Max is a more complex tool than Coincraft, Harvest or Streamtime, which makes it harder to use but also more powerful. While reporting is inherently strong, it has an open API that makes it possible to develop custom widgets for even better reporting. This is probably not an option for very small architecture studios, but a compelling prospect for larger organisations able to afford the development fee.

Though developed (sort-of) locally in New Zealand, feedback feels more like Harvest than Streamtime, with little opportunity for user feedback.

How sexy is its user interface?

Workflow Max is the least pretty of this bunch, feeling more like a stolid accounting package than a sexy cloud-based app. As an experienced Xero user, I found its layout to be intuitive at least, with consistency from page to page and back to its parent app.

I can’t really comment on data entry as I never got far enough into my trials to enter any.

How functional is it?

The characteristics that make Workflow Max feel like an accounting package also give it the backend muscle for more complex tracking and reporting. It is celebrating its tenth year of existence, so has had plenty of time to iron out any bugs. Data entry and recording are strong, and I felt that the app would scale well to larger studio sizes.

While Coincraft, Harvest and Streamtime all incorporate Xero integration, Workflow Max is much more thoroughly integrated. If the former are distant cousins, the latter is a baby sister.

Is it suitable for architects?

The architecture profession is one of the key targets of Workflow Max, with better fee setting options than Harvest or Streamtime. It still provides the same time and materials approach, but milestone percentages as well.

What’s my final verdict?

I have heard from colleagues who have successfully jumped the initial onboarding hurdle that Workflow Max is a great business management tool, but I found the counterintuitive user interface too off-putting. Even the option of engaging a consultant to help guide me was an unattractive investment into a product I wasn’t even sure I liked.

Onboarding: 2/10
Customisation: 9/10
Interface: 4/10
Functionality: 7/10
For architects: 8/10
Final verdict: 30/50

After a long and weary road examining what felt like countless apps, then spending months trialling the above four, in the end we subscribed to Streamtime. We rolled it out across the whole studio for further feedback and received the thumbs up from our team. It’s an elegant piece of software that for the most part is very intuitive to use. It’s not perfect, especially for architects, but with some elastic thinking over the past 9 months we got it working in a way that’s sustainable.

The next article in this series will be the last. In it, I’ll share our plans for step three of our business systems renovation.


Footnotes:

  1. I should make two disclaimers: 1) I didn’t spend an equal amount of time with each app: I trialled Coincraft for four months, Harvest + Forecast for two weeks, and Streamtime and Workflow Max for a month a piece, and 2) my trials were between six and twelve months ago, meaning various problems I identified with each app may have since been rectified.
  2. For the non tech-junkies, API means application programming interface, or the code of one app that allows other apps to integrate with it. For instance, Xero has an open API that enables integration with all four of my shortlisted apps.

Image sources:

  1. Coincraft logo, courtesy of Coincraft.
  2. Harvest logo, courtesy of Harvest.
  3. Streamtime logo, courtesy of Streamtime.
  4. Workflow Max logo, courtesy of Workflow Max.

2 thoughts on “Predictable profitability – part 3

Add yours

  1. Been meaning to have a look at your insights for ages, and finally got around to it this morning while the kids were still asleep 🙂 Thanks for sharing all that, beautifully written and informative at the same time, love your insights ! We’ve been going through similar processes on very comparable scale wiht our Melbourne Design Studios, but nowhere near as logic and researched as you’ve done it.
    Thanks Warwick !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: