The Rockefeller Foundation recently launched a new website, Capacity to Innovate.org, which examines lessons from a number of organizations including Ushahidi and Internews, and encapsulates them in three short reports which are well worth a read. FrontlineSMS is featured in the 'Learning From Experimentation' report, available from the website. Here's an excerpt, but we really recommend the whole report as a very readable and thought-provoking set of examples.
“In many ways, it’s about the power of narrative,” said Sean McDonald, CEO of FrontlineSMS. “People understand the benefits of technology through stories about how it changes the things that they know. FrontlineSMS is a powerful, general tool that you can use to accomplish everything from keeping in touch with your kids to monitoring fair election practices. With so many ‘stories,’ we needed to give people a rubric to understand how the technology related to their specific industry and the impact they were trying to make.”
This insight sparked FrontlineSMS to create sector-specific projects focused on credit, education, radio, and legal services. FrontlineSMS’s modular approach allows the core team to focus on business operations and developing a lean, user-friendly, and adaptable base platform, while the sector-specific products have the ability to engage a niche user base and create sector-specific relationships and partnerships that a general product would not attract.
Each division is experimenting with new features and strategies for applying the software to industry-specific challenges. For instance, FrontlineSMS:Credit has launched a new payment system configured with Kenya’s M-Pesa that allows microfinance organizations to use mobile money to manage short-term credit. FrontlineSMS:Radio, the organization’s most recent division, is testing polling features that support community radio stations in Africa.
Sector-specific products are an on-going experiment at FrontlineSMS, and the team continues to weigh their risks and benefits. If unsuccessful, a separate division could deplete precious operating capital and human resources from the core organization.
“Reputationally, there are risks as well,” said McDonald. “Every new space is a new intellectual challenge, and some things may be harder to deliver on than others. Opening a new branch and offering a whole new range of services is an enormous organizational pivot. But it’s one that we’ve found is really necessary and has allowed us to grow.”
Thus far, the niche products have successfully created active communities of users who ask questions, report bugs, and request new features through vibrant online forums. This insight into user needs and behaviors directly boosts FrontlineSMS’s software development capabilities. “Having closer relationships with users has been immensely helpful for us to learn about their habits and behaviors, and how to improve the user experience down the line,” said McDonald. “It accelerates our feedback loop substantially.” As a result of understanding the needs of community health workers like Verona, FrontlineSMS: Medic developed a new plugin called PatientView, which allows for patient records to be managed in the field via SMS.
With a suite of sector-specific products as well as a newly revamped base platform, FrontlineSMS’s ever-present challenge is deciding where to experiment next and how to balance the demand for a wide range of sector-specific features with the need to continually improve—but not overcomplicate—a robust, customizable product.
“Looking at the next year, I’m thinking, ‘What do we do first?’, said Laura Hudson, CEO of FrontlineSMS’s nonprofit branch and leader of its software development. “There are lots of options and lots of ideas that we’ve had. But one of the things we have learned is that rather than adding lots of frills that only a small subset of people will find useful, there’s potentially more value in lean, functional products and focusing on a forward drive.”
Read the full report and others on the Capacity to Innovate website.