Composing the Perfect User Experience: Three Steps for IT Leaders

To deliver the perfect experience – to customers, employees, and partners – you must provide the best tools for the job.

Meeting this requirement demands agile transformation, an approach that stresses the decomposition of monolithic IT systems and a modular, platform-based approach. By combining modular IT with the right services, companies can speed time to innovation while delivering value to stakeholders and providing a great customer experience.

SAP has launched its new thought leadership journal Horizons by SAP, which brings together global tech leaders from various companies to share their perspective on the future of IT. In the coming weeks, one article from the journal will appear on the SAP News Center per week. Here, John Thimsen, chief technology officer and global head of Engineering at Qualtrics, elaborates on how modularization can help companies move toward creating a perfect experience to customers, employees, and partners.

For IT leaders, however, this can seem overwhelming. After all, CIOs have built their technology stack over decades. It may be inflexible and outdated. Pulling it apart and reassembling the IT landscape in a more effective way sounds like a tall order.

So where should technology leaders begin?

Start with the Easy Efforts

When I first joined Qualtrics three years ago, we had a legacy monolith that was appropriate for the time our company was founded. It became clear that if we wanted to delight our customers and reduce our operational complexity, we needed to break apart the monolith.

Before beginning, CIOs must lay the groundwork. Think about building new capabilities using a services orientation. Consider how to reduce or eliminate the time it takes engineers to acquire resources they can deploy. Review the services lifecycle and determine how services might evolve independently.

It’s best to begin with something easy. We began by splitting components from the monolith that were relatively decoupled from the application layer. That helped us prove we could decouple, operate services, and put in place the necessary operational models and organizational components.

Next, look for the areas of the business experiencing scale and growth. We were experiencing triple-digit growth on our directory product and in the number of survey responses being generated. That was a key signal that these areas were ripe for splitting away from the system monolith.

Another task is to focus on features. Consider which features create the most requests from customers. Where is the most entropy and change in the monolith? Which parts of the monolith are changing most?

At Qualtrics, we had library capabilities that remained unchanged for 10 years. Demand for these features was predictably low, but we saw rapidly rising demand for analytics capabilities. Customers were asking how they could use our solutions for dashboards, reports, and visualization. They wanted to know about analytics capabilities they could layer on top. It was imperative for us to move those capabilities out of the monolith as quickly as possible.

Anticipate Scale

After assessing these preliminary concerns, it’s important to consider the potential of the business. As enterprises change from industrial automation to digital enablement, the magnitude of change is massive. Successful companies won’t see linear change – it will be exponential.

For this reason, every leader should think about what the infrastructure should look like at 10 times the scale. It can be difficult to pinpoint what needs to be optimized for 20 or 30 percent increases in scale. But thinking about systems growing by 10 times tends to make the necessary changes clear.

Let’s be realistic. Not every facet of your platform or architecture will be subject to 10-fold growth. But, there are certain inputs that inform your choices and directly affect how your architecture needs to scale. For example, a company with a strategic initiative to drive mass use of mobile technology might build a new mobile-first infrastructure. That firm will see its mobile infrastructure scale out at a different factor than its Web or legacy infrastructure.

For Qualtrics, our strategic imperative was to make it easier to gather and bring operational data (O-data) and experience data (X-data) into our platform. That way, we could combine and analyze data in ways that help customers affect change. If we met those goals, the two subsystems of our platform would very easily grow by 10 times within the next two years.

We focused our “10 times” question on those areas: What if we saw survey taking increase by 10 times? Or IT directory services? What if we had a 10-times increase in the ingest of X-data into the system? We extracted those three capabilities from the monolith and built them in a services fashion, so they could scale in a linear manner.

Modularization can help companies move toward creating a perfect experience – for customers, employees, and partners.

Pursue Innovation

For companies that have monolithic IT infrastructures, not everything can change at once. Yet, there are some prerequisites CIOs can take to create a foundation for innovation.

Focus on agile operating models and an agile infrastructure.
Think about how engineers get resources to do their jobs. What do they need to be able to deploy code in seconds rather than days? How can they be encouraged to think about a services orientation? How do they leverage platform-as-a-service offerings?

Deploy agile technology. Which systems will drive continuous delivery?
How can a service mesh or service orchestration help? What is the best way to empower teams to choose the framework that makes sense for the problems they are solving?

Develop a consistent, agile methodology and approach.
An agile approach to research and development (R&D) requires a transition from a project-based organizational structure to a functional organizational structure. Companies should create long-lived, small teams that are empowered to quickly iterate on system components that they “own.” Rapid iterations allow teams to fail quickly and learn from experience.

Now Available: Horizons by SAP

Horizons by SAP is a future-focused IT journal. Thought leaders from the global tech ecosystem share their thinking about how new technologies and major business trends will impact our customers’ landscapes in the fast-arriving future. The first issue, available at, revolves around the implications and opportunities of modular IT.

In addition, it’s important to ensure that engineers have a direct line of sight to customers and that they can talk to customers. We also encourage bottom-up planning, because it enables teams that are closest to both the mission and the solution to provide input into the overall planning process.

At Qualtrics, we did all of these things over the last four years. We transitioned from a project-based to a functional organization. Our project teams became long-lived, functional teams. And we reoriented the engineering team to focus on innovation rather than 10-month project cycles.

Although we were able to anticipate many issues, we were surprised by the impact of our agile operating model on certain costs. Unblocking engineers and allowing them to access system resources quickly helped us create an empowerment culture. But, our cloud costs grew quickly. In hindsight, we should have created an overlay for cost accounting and cost controls to prevent costs from spiraling out of control. We layered those controls onto our platform later, but it would have been easier to include them in the beginning.

Get Closer to Customers

After tackling the infrastructure challenges, it’s always valuable to find out what customers think of the changes. We have an internal tool that provides real-time comments from critical customers. Many times, customers have given us feedback that kicked off big changes in how we think about our platform and our products.

For example, we previously helped customers ingest O-data primarily through custom engineering solutions and contributions from our partner ecosystem. But customers let us know they preferred to have some of these capabilities built into products. As a result of this feedback, we recently developed features that allow customers to directly ingest O-data into the platform.

The power of our platform is a huge enabler for this change. I’ve never had better visibility into what our customers thought about our solution, implementation, delivery, and support than I do today. A technology platform that enables real-time feedback and allows us to tighten the feedback loop helped us connect with our customers.

Create Trust Among Teams

In addition to empowering people to make decisions and tightening the feedback loop, it’s important to architect the organization to support efficient teamwork. In our reorganization, we considered how to not only decompose our organization but also create standard interfaces that would offer trust among teams.

For example, we thought extensively about the various tasks that occur during the customer journey once a deal is signed. How do teams decide who makes contact with the customer at any point? What is the contract between internal teams? How does each team know when their work for a customer is complete so they can transition the customer to the next team?

We also instrument our touchpoints so we understand where a customer is in our processes. We know when a client has begun or completed implementation, is receiving engineering services, or is working with a partner. Feedback from each of those experiences is routed directly to the associated team. The team manager can log directly into a dashboard each day and see how well the group is doing. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that allows us to understand customer experiences relative to our organizational design, system interfaces, and product capabilities.

Modularization can help companies move toward creating a perfect experience – for customers, employees, and partners. Prioritizing the IT stack will enable the flexibility that customers demand and the scale needed for innovation and growth. Feedback loops help teams get closer to customers, and instrumenting the organization helps IT leaders identify dependencies and touch points. By considering each of these pieces and how they work together, CIOs can be well prepared to create a modern technology organization.

John Thimsen is chief technology officer at Qualtrics, now part of SAP.

This article also appeared on LinkedIn.
Top image via Shutterstock.