Zoho, which provides a bevy of business applications on demand, is getting design religion as it plans to gussy up its portfolio starting with its customer relationship management offering.
The privately held company is making a bet that user interface will be the ultimate differentiator in cloud computing. Sridhar Vembu, CEO of Zoho, for the last year has been trying to change the DNA of his company to incorporate better user interface designs. Zoho is a key cloud company to watch given that it is one of the few players focused on small businesses. NetSuite recently made it official that it was going to focus on larger companies.
Given Zoho's SMB focus, aesthetics could be a big deal. After all, most of Zoho's users function as CEO, CFO and CIO all rolled into one. "The enterprise landscape will depend partly on design," said Vembu. "The IT person is also using the iPhone and Twitter and expects that ease of use."
According to Vembu and Raju Vegesna, evangelist at Zoho, the company will roll out the redesign of CRM this week and then follow up with its other applications, which are integrated together throughout the portfolio.
Vembu's approach to this design mission was to retool is current workforce---mostly engineers and developers in India---to become more design savvy. "Internally, I challenged all engineers to focus on design," said Vembu. "I didn't want to hire a design firm that would just leave, but instill a passion for design into the culture."
"We're starting to see the fruits of this effort now, but at first there was friction with product managers," said Vembu. "Some thought I was acting funny."
Apple's iPhone and the user interface of apps provided a bit of a eureka moment for Vembu. "I said, 'frankly we suck at this and we shouldn't suck,'" said Vembu, referring to site design.
One strategy that Vembu considered was to hire a bunch of Web designers, but without changing Zoho's culture the move wouldn't work. As anyone in the Web business knows, designers are from Venus and engineers are from Mars and the hardest thing is to resist kitchen sink approach that includes too many features.
Now that Vembu has made some progress, Zoho is actively ramping up its Austin, Texas office with U.S. workers that get code and design. Given the inflation in India, Zoho is basically offshoring to Austin, said Vembu, who added that the company is taking in grads and training them to understand application development and design equally. "There's nothing unique about design. It's just something you have to pay attention to," said Vembu.
Here's a look at the before and after of Zoho's CRM app: