By Noel Ward, Executive Editor September 19, 2006 -- Madison Advisors recently completed the second edition of its study on Document Composition Software, an array of products ranging from simple to complex. The 90-page report discusses many issues in document design and composition and evaluates several of the leading products. After reviewing it I had a number of questions, so I called Kemal Carr, president of Madison. We've both been on the road a lot lately so we did this interview by email. Here's what he said Kemal Carr leads Madison Advisors, an independent analyst firm that provides project-based advisory services designed to assist clients with technology selection and business process decisions. Under his direction, Madison Advisors is establishing its market niche addressing the needs of the electronic and print customer communications marketplace . Carr also is instrumental for the formulating Madison Advisors' strategic partnerships with numerous trade associations and exhibition producers. Prior to forming Madison Advisors in 2001, Kemal held various system roles including three years with an industry analyst group and seven years in the systems company of Fidelity Investments. He can be reached at [email protected] ODJ: Kemal, how have the demands or requirements for document composition tools changed since Madison Advisors began doing the study? KC: Since our first review of this technology space back in 1999, prior to Madison Advisors, the technology has continued to incrementally improve, driven by advances in IT platforms, processing power improvements, and advancements in output options. The widespread deployment of graphical user interfaces has significantly increased usability and reduced application development efforts considerably. Interestingly other technology spaces, such as database technologies, have not seen the same extended lifecycle. Document Composition solution providers have been constantly enhancing their solutions to meet expanded customer demands. For example, embedded tables, tables within tables, dynamic messaging, and broad support for color are just a few of the capabilities driven by customer demands. In addition, there is more interest in different document types and processes today. Traditionally, document composition systems targeted high-volume, transactional documents. Now organizations want to use these systems for promotional documents, interactive processes, and on-demand web-based applications. ODJ: Where are composition tools still behind in meeting the needs of document creators? KC: Most composition tools do not provide the same design capabilities as desktop publishing solutions, such as Quark XPress and Adobe InDesign. Data management and ingestion, data quality, and strong support for color are also lagging. As organizations develop marketing-oriented documents with document composition solutions, these features will be required. ODJ: Are there instances where composition tools are ahead of the curve? That is, going beyond the present needs of the document creators? KC: Some, such as when organizations deploy new architectures that don’t require robust development environments for simple or less complicated document production, or for organizations that have distributed platforms that allow for decentralized processing, rendering, and production. Some of the tools incorporate basic CRM features for targeted messaging and response tracking, but only a few organizations have tight enough control over their customer data to take advantage of these features. ODJ: Ease of use is something all vendors like to claim. But these tools can be used for some very complex applications. How much of a concern is the learning curve when a company selects one of the tools noted in the study? KC: The organizations technical capabilities are a huge concern for organizations when looking at prospective tools. As for “ease of use,” it is elusive, much like beauty, and can be in the eyes of the beholder. This can be seen in the number of vendor-developed applications required on new accounts. For all the ease of use advancements made in the past six years, there remains a high demand for Systems Integration work around this technology. Ease of use, like beauty, and can be in the eyes of the beholder. However, one way to overcome the limitations is to manage the user experience. Vendors can balance document complexity against the ease-of-use by creating multiple interfaces, such as technical, marketing, and CSR interfaces. Alternatively, administrators can restrict functionality accessible to the user based on a user profile. ODJ: On a related note, do you see barriers to adoption for products that require designers to learn scripting and some level of programming? KC: Actually the ability to script within these tools can be a virtue, especially for complex, robust applications where GUI’s can be confining or limiting. Print service providers and very large corporate environments rely on dedicated technical designers with the skill set required to learn and use a scripting language. What you have is the 80/20 rule, where the majority of the applications can be supported and developed with no need for scripting, while the remaining applications will have requirements that require scripting. But let’s be clear, as easy as these tools have become to use, there should be no kidding one’s self into thinking non-technical staff are going to begin building robust documents. Some organizations will present part-time or distributed users with a simplified interface for handling basic document design tasks. While they can tackle simple documents, letters and notices, with such an interface, the framework will require IT support initially, and strict guidelines and protocols to keep people from hurting themselves. ODJ: These tools typically require a significant investment by a company, so they want to get it right the first time. How should a company go about defining their needs so they can make the right decision? KC: You are absolutely correct. We find the costs of an incorrect decision are 5 to 7 times just the cost of the software, once the capital, human, and IT resource tolls are calculated. Organizations need to pull together an internal team that represents all the interested departments before moving forward, do careful research, and make sure they get good council as they progress down this journey. This is so critical, that we’ve developed a witness protection program for those who cut corners the first time. We find the costs of an incorrect decision are 5 to 7 times just the cost of the software Seriously, though, when you consider the resources utilized internally in the selection and evaluation process, the time and effort devoted for proof of concept trials, the IT resources for implementation, and finally all the testing required, if you select the wrong solution and have to requeue the process, you can see the significance that you make the correct selection initially. Luckily organizations that we’ve assisted with this process have not experienced this event. We’re very proud of that. ODJ: How much vendor support and training can a company typically expect from a composition tool vendor? To what extent can any of the tools be customized to a company's requirements? KC: Support and training varies by vendor, as you’d expect. All the vendors provide installation support and product training for their solutions, but only some offer professional services to develop document applications or customized integration. The larger, more established vendors have internal resources, albeit not many, to assist new clients as they come up the learning curve. The smaller firms can offer similar support on a more limited scale. Fortunately we live in a dynamic free market, and several independent firms are now available to fill those gaps. And these firms often take the projects and support beyond what the vendor supplier is able to offer. We often are asked to recommend firms, such as DSN, to support post implementation development. Regarding customization, most of the high-end solutions are highly configurable, allowing for each enterprise to modify the experience to their specific needs. Customers can configure the composition tools to match their organizational structure. In addition, most of the tools can be integrated into the customer environment using the tool’s API set, but the tools themselves are generally not as customizable as an ERP or ECM solution. ODJ: A number of the products in the study are in use in transactional and direct mail service bureaus. If a service bureau is looking to invest in document composition tools, what are the top three characteristics you would recommend they consider (other than the obvious one of appropriateness for client applications) KC: Print service providers should evaluate the system’s underlying architecture to understand how extensible the system will be in meeting future needs. Corporate environments usually have a fixed set of documents that need to be composed, and focus more on the feature set and overall functionality. Print service providers, on the other hand, need a system that will meet the needs of many existing and future corporate clients. Print service providers should also examine the vendor’s track record for product development and version control. Too many product releases will require the service bureau to manage client applications across multiple product versions, a real issue we’re assisting some firms with today. Product releases that do not provide a smooth, forward migration to the new version will force the service bureau to redevelop client applications, always a costly situation. On a related note, print service providers should consider the vendor’s financial health and long-term investment in the document composition market. If the vendor is moving out of the document composition market, the service bureau may be left with an expensive investment in a product with no future.