As someone who makes much of his living helping people use Microsoft Project effectively and as a longtime user of the software who understands the value of the tool I hate to see any impediment to its use, but lately I’ve found myself wondering if Microsoft isn’t shooting itself in the proverbial foot with the way they’ve introduced the latest version of the product, Microsoft Project 2013, and all of its various configurations.

Why the complexity of the offering and the barriers to trying the product? And, what’s up with the price?

Complexity–No, make that Complexity!#%@!–If there’s one word that comes to mind in thinking about this release it’s “complex,” and I’m not talking about the product itself, but rather what it takes for a prospective buyer to understand how it’s packaged and sold and the value to the user of each of its myriad flavors. In a time of one-click buying, free trials, sometimes without supplying payment information, apps simple enough to use on a smart phone, and fifteen minute provisioning of hosted software solutions, why is the delineation between Project Standard 2013, Project Professional 2013, Project Online, Project Professional for Office 365, let alone on-premise or hosted implementations of Project Server 2013 and the combinations of the preceding products so maddeningly unclear? And I’m “in the business!”

I’ve attended all of the Microsoft Project conferences over the last ten years, have watched the Ignite training for Project 2013, and have spent more time than I should have on Project blogs and other pages trying to sort through it all. And yet, I’ll wager I’m not the only person who has put together a spreadsheet (complete with colors!) of the various offerings and their features in an effort to clarify for myself and to communicate to our customers the benefits of each variation of the software.

The complexity of the configurations is worsened by the dearth of clear communications from Microsoft regarding the product. Feature comparisons are high-level and often include features that aren’t new in the 2013 release, there’s a lack of use cases illustrating how the product(s) can be used and add value to the various types of users, and little use of today’s tools like animation, graphics and videos to educate the potential user.

And once you decide to buy the complexity really kicks in because you’ve got to understand how the product is licensed. That’s not unique to Project 2013, but it’s an issue.

There’s a company down the coast a bit from Redmond, name starts with an “A” I believe, whose entire value proposition is built on simplicity. It seems to have served them and their customers and shareholders pretty well. And more of their products are showing up in the business as opposed to consumer world.

Barriers to Trying the Product—Just this week I was with a customer who wanted to try Project 2013. After some Googling he and a colleague hit upon the right combination of search terms that brought him to a page from which the download could be initiated. He then had to enter a lot of personal information; at least it was clear he felt it was a lot.  The download was initiated and ran for a period of time.  He clicked on the file to initiate installation. Whoops, it’s an img file. Quick, name the last time that you tried software and got an image file with which to do it. Yeah, I couldn’t think of a time either. Not having an application to virtually mount the image he goes off and gets a DVD, returns and burns the image to that. Finally, ready to install! Whoa! What’s this, an error message? Project couldn’t be installed because a 32-bit application lurking somewhere on the machine needs to be removed. He throws his hands up in disgust and doesn’t bother. Ten minutes and all that’s left is a bad taste in the mouth. And this is a productivity application?

This scenario took place at a growing company who had purchased a few copies of Project Professional 2013 and was assessing its value and considering expanding its use. Exactly the type of organization for which Microsoft should want trying and buying the software to be easy.

If you want to try out Project Online, as opposed to Project Professional, it’ll take some additional work to figure out how to do so. You’ll learn that you first need an Office 365 account. What flavor—Office 365 Small Business Premium, Office 365 Midsize Business, Office 365 Enterprise, maybe Office 365 University or Office 365 Home Premium? Don’t look for guidance in the list of applications that are included with each because Project and Project Online aren’t listed as a part of any of them. At this point you’re screaming out the Jimmy Buffet song lyrics “I don’t want that much organization in my life…I don’t want a twelve pound Nestle Crunch for 25 dollars! I want Junior Mints.”

If I’ve got this wrong, that proves the point. It’s too complicated and hard!

I’m not talking about an enterprise-wide implementation of Project Server 2013 here. Those installs are and should be complex. Organizational readiness needs to be assessed, associated workflows need to be defined, and so on, but why should it be so hard for a single user who has control over their desktop or laptop to try out a piece of software, particularly one whose retail price exceeds $1,000 US? Jeesh.

Cost—One of the beautiful and exciting aspects of Project Online, or Project Web App, is the ability to share project-related information widely among stakeholders, and to collect input from team members about task progress or how time was spent during the time period. Want to kill that? Put a price of $33 per user per month ($45 per user per month without an annual subscription) on the product for those who need to do nothing more than view reports, enter task progress or how they spent their time.

Our business evaluates and subscribes to many hosted software applications. As one reference, we use a hosted implementation of SharePoint that costs a whopping $9 per month regardless of how many users we give access. While that’s the low end of what we pay for software-as-a-service, it does provide a benchmark.

Costs to access projects’ SharePoint sites and the necessary licenses add yet another dimension to the evolving polygon of Microsoft Project 2013 configuration and pricing. I find simply getting users to understand the difference between the project’s SharePoint site and Project Web Access after Project has been purchased and implemented takes some doing. I can only imagine what the uninitiated must feel trying to get a handle on this in order to make a purchase decision.

Finally, outright purchase, subscribe, monthly or annually? Arrgh! The slide down the complexity rabbit hole that is Project 2013 continues.

Take the Test!—Let’s take this beyond an internet rant to some objective testing. Try this test. Have someone outside of the Microsoft ecosystem see if they can do the following in 15 minutes (in 30 minutes?, 45?):

  • Find an official listing of the functionality differences between Microsoft Project Standard 2013 and Project Professional 2013,
  • Understand what it would cost them to procure, either through purchase or subscription, the appropriate Microsoft Project 2013 functionality for four project managers who will be actively planning and managing projects, two executives with a desire to access reports about projects underway in the enterprise, and twenty team members who need to know for what tasks they’re responsible and to be able to progress those tasks through the web,
  • Understand and describe the differences between Project Server 2013 and Project Online,
  • Understand and explain the differences between Project Online and Project Professional 2013 via Office 365.

Hello! There are alternatives to Microsoft Project! With today’s growth in project management and the fast-paced distributed environment that we all work in any non-enterprise-wide product that requires a sales channel to explain it to prospects is DOA. I’m hearing more and more from customers about web-based products that offer similar functionality to Microsoft Project that are easier and cheaper to start using. Ironically, the very part of the Microsoft Project 2013 offering that is so exciting, the web-based collaborative share-with-everyone nature of it, is also making attractive alternatives available that may ultimately mean Microsoft Project’s halcyon days are in its past.

Recommendations—There’ve been some good things done in launching the product and in providing sales collateral to go along with it. A customer recently commented that the discount for an annual subscription to Project Online versus the monthly charge was noteworthy. The use of Facebook to share some of the benefits of the offering and the online chat available for pre-sales assistance on some of the Microsoft pages are all great. Training was made available for Microsoft partners.

However, (You knew it was coming!) if the following things were done as a part of the product’s launch it doesn’t show:

  • Customer Focus Groups—Not IT professionals, those steeped in Microsoft products or licensing! Instead, gather a group of uninitiated folks and ask them to do something similar to the test I’ve outlined above. Ask for feedback and make adjustments accordingly. At the Microsoft Project conference preceding the launch of Project 2010 Microsoft management said that Microsoft Project was now more “approachable.” Great, but not if you can’t understand how to buy it!
  • Launch Team Makeup–Insure subsequent launches are run by non-technical people who can easily take the vantage point of the prospect who is relatively unacquainted with Project, but instead simply wants a tool to better manage their projects.
  • Technical Writers and/or Information Architects—Get somebody who specializes in translating complex topics into understandable communications to help those interested in trying or buying the product understand how to do so. Include plenty of graphics, animation, videos and use cases in this effort.
  • Pricing–Consider pricing based on permissions for Project Online. (but make it simple to understand the pricing structure!)
  • Quality Assurance and Usability–Apply QA and usability thinking to the product sales and marketing process. A good product with a lousy marketing and sales strategy and implementation might as well be a lousy product.

There is no doubt in my mind that the offering’s complexity, the barriers to trying the software, and its price are hurting Microsoft Project 2013 sales. Make it easier to share the love!