Cloud Communications Without Complexity
CTO, James Passingham explains what it takes to keep things simple
Over the past twenty years, James Passingham has steered Foehn from its origins as a pioneering start-up in the early days of hosted telephony to one of the most successful UK providers of cloud-based phone, collaboration and contact centre systems.
Fiercely independent, Passingham has consistently maintained an in-house team of software developers, working to a philosophy focused on removing complexity from communications systems and making life simple for the end user.
So, what is it about Foehn’s keep-it-simple approach that resonates so strongly with customers today? We asked James Passingham, CTO. Testament to Foehn’s success with this approach has culminated in a succession of achievements over the past three years. These include the launch of Foehn’s Voxivo cloud phone and contact centre systems, an award from the ITSPA for ‘Best VoIP Software of 2018’, the Genesys award for ‘EMEA Cloud Partner of the Year 2019’, accreditation for ISO/IEC 27001 and inclusion on the Government’s G-Cloud procurement platform for the sixth year running. With a headcount and turnover having doubled since 2016, Foehn has come a long way.
Why is ease of use so important to the design of your communication?
“Empathy with the customer runs through the core of every successful business. It’s the basis of good product design and it focuses on the user of that product. There’s no denying that, under the hood, cloud communications are technically complex. For us, empathy starts by making that complexity invisible to the user. That gives the user control over configuration and administration that would normally incur the time and cost of a technical specialist. For the employer, it also means faster adoption, less training and a more responsive approach to working, generally.”
How does ease-of-use present itself in your systems?
“Take a dial plan or a routing map, for example. These can be a challenge, so the design of the user interface is critical. Intuitive controls, drag-and-drop configuration, visually elegant presentation – we bring all these things together to create a user experience that’s a pleasure aesthetically and a joy to use. That’s when you get real user engagement. When you can empower users to do it themselves, they gain a sense of achievement that motivates to do more, so you actually get more out of your system as well.”
How do you judge your competitors when it comes to ease of use?
“There are some good systems out there, but too many of them have evolved over time without a consistent design objective. Mergers and acquisitions amongst vendors often results in solutions that are a collection of inherited, stand-alone tools. Sometimes, these are just crudely stitched together, presenting the user with multiple logins, multiple screens and a very clunky approach to managing communications. Other systems are simply old and have evolved through a series of plugins and bolt-ons that just make life difficult for the user.”
How do you motivate your developers to make the complex simple?
“There’s no magic secret. I guess we’re just good at keeping a disciplined, single-minded approach to our quest for simple, beautiful, easy to use applications. That discipline is supported by a strong DevOps process that ensures software is designed, developed, tested and delivered to plan. On top of that, we employ an agile development model that means we react quickly to things that change. That’s essential when managing a large multi-tenanted system that is supporting millions of communications and has to respond to changing business conditions with optimal performance. Ultimately, we’re working in a cloud environment and that makes everything more agile and easier manage.”
You pioneered the use of open source in the development of communications. Is that still a benefit to the design of your systems?
“We’ve built our Voxivo intellectual property on top of open-source foundations of Asterisk and other open-source building blocks, so this gives us important advantages. For example, unlike other systems that are built around proprietary systems, such as Cisco or Mitel, we have the freedom to develop whatever we like. With an open source engine, we can innovate and remove complexity for the user without being limited by the constraints of another vendor’s system. This helps us build tightly integrated product sets that work together easily and provide the user with a seamless transition between tasks.”
As future generations get more tech savvy and consumer tech gets more sophisticated, isn’t the complexity of the user experience going to be less important?
“Not at all. There’s widespread consensus amongst IT managers that complexity is a systemic problem in IT management at the moment. Businesses are driving employee productivity ever higher and that means they cannot afford to deploy clumsy technology that can slow things down.”
“Machine learning and AI promise greater simplicity but, so long as we still need communication via the human voice, these technologies are unlikely to contribute greatly to the battle with complexity”
See Foehn’s Voxivo systems in action and take a test drive to find out what a simple user experience really means.