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The Long Tail

Although first coined to describe customers who purchase hard-to-find items,16 the phrase "the Long Tail" has come to have a special meaning in the world of software. Traditionally, application development dollars are directed toward those projects and enhancements demanded by the largest group of users. This practice of catering to the masses doesn't necessarily lead to an outcome with the greatest positive impact on productivity. Unfortunately, because of the huge effort involved in developing applications, it is often impractical to provide custom solutions to a lone employee or a small team, even if it would greatly increase their efficiency (Figure 1.7). Thus only the "head" of the application demand curve is ever addressed. The exact cutoff point isn't fixed and will vary by organization, although the Pareto principle17 or "80-20" rule suggests that 80% of application development efforts will benefit only 20% of your users.

Figure 1.7

Figure 1.7 The Long Tail

The cumulative potential of unfulfilled Long Tail opportunities exceeds that of the "head" of the curve. Alas, fulfilling the requirements of the remaining 80% of your staff might seem an impossible goal. Most technology departments do not have enough staff to meet the needs of each individual user. Unless there is a way for developers to become drastically more productive or for end users to solve their own problems, the prospects for meeting unmet demand seem bleak.

Although the "conference call attendance" issue was experienced by almost all employees of the firm, it was never identified as a business problem. This is because developers and business users are conditioned to view their actions in discrete, isolated chunks:

  • First, I sign into Application A to locate a customer's account.
  • Second, I sign into Application B to check item inventory.
  • Third, I sign into Application C to create a purchase order for the client.

If you accept that Applications A, B, and C are immutable (perhaps because they were purchased from an external vendor), then you will never envision a solution where you can sign into Application D once and perform these three actions in a single step. The opportunity never appears on the Long Tail.

The greatest benefit of mashups may be their influence on our thought process. When we cast off our biases about the role of technology in the workplace, we discover the folly in applying IT to only the most obvious and well-understood problems. Once the blinders have been removed, you'll discover a world of missed and previously unknown challenges that you can tackle. Recognizing these opportunities is just the first stage. If you don't do something about them, then you've simply added to the tangle of unmet expectations. To achieve continuous innovation, it is essential to look outside the existing methods of measuring and meeting user demand.

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