Last autumn, we took a look at online collaboration and project management tool Huddle, which billed itself as a cloud-based alternative to traditional software options such as Microsoft’s SharePoint. The service had a smattering of favorable features, especially for the needs, sizes, and budgets of enterprises, but didn’t seem like the ideal answer to less organized, smaller collaboration needs. Competent functionality and a respectable interface made a positive impression, and there was a sense that while Huddle wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t a poor choice for getting organized and improving efficiency, either.
Today, it’s clear that Huddle has come a long way from its level of development and sophistication just last year. Comparisons with SharePoint have blossomed into an all-out war between the two offerings, with significant numbers of clients –and big-name brands– making the switch from Microsoft’s formerly dominant program. Huddle has been updated with a significant collection of new features, many of which make using the service a new experience as compared to a year ago. With a wide range of updates and notable move towards becoming the market leader in this crowded niche, Huddle is making some big promises.
Listening to the needs and preferences of users seems to be a driving force behind Huddle’s recent success, and indeed the developers seem adept and delivering on what’s promised in terms of functionality updates and fixes. But whether the online software has been and will be able to keep up with the complexity of an exponentially growing user base isn’t crystal clear. While offering what is doubtless one of the field’s most powerful and feature-packed collaboration SaaS products, Huddle may have shed a little of its startup charm –meaning users after more innovation and less dedication to constant uptime and other big-service perks may be left wanting more.
Getting a Feel for Huddle’s Fresh Face
One of the most notable changes in the Huddle experience since our initial review is the complete overhaul of the service’s interface. While the original navigation was pleasant and didn’t leave much room for cryptic processes, confusing menus, or other typical SaaS navigation issues, the overall look and feel was a little less than ideal. The modern incarnation is a minimalist’s dream come true, with an especially clean design and ultra-intuitive movement through modules.
The central navigational element is the tab, allowing for swift identification of workspaces and the various elements that make them tick. Switching from a project overview to a whiteboard, or from viewing files to editing scheduled meetings, couldn’t be more simple. Huddle’s designers have opted for a thoroughly bare visual environment, using subtle color in use-driven ways, such as to highlight active windows. The majority of what users see on-screen remains unembellished and easy to identify.
A sense of smoothness and synchronicity prevails throughout the Huddle user experience. From opening documents and media files to uploading items and viewing logs, the visual interface is united in its apparent mission to make Huddle’s dizzying number of features fit neatly into a package that any screen can contain. In fact, the developers recently introduced a window standardization feature to force Huddle’s on-screen size to stay uniform for optimized appearance.
Starting Out with Huddle’s New Style
A key advantage of Huddle’s service has always been its nearly effortless usability, which helps attract and retain users across a wide variety of backgrounds and software familiarity levels. Getting started is one of the most important steps in usability, and despite Huddle’s many changes over the past year, it has managed to retain its essential ease of use when signing up and getting acclimated.
As if clicking around and testing out various functions wasn’t simple enough, Huddle has developed a new module to serve as a getting started guide, which quickly yet helpfully outlines the different functionality areas and explains basic processes. Unfortunately, this feature has been set to activate whenever a user enters a new workspace, so it may become a nuisance in time. Still, whether a user is just getting into Huddle or has sent out an invitation for a colleague or friend and wants them to have a positive first-time experience, this guide is exemplary of Huddle’s simple and effective usability approach.
Support is available even for trial accounts, but is especially impressive for paid annual contracts. Huddle’s use of one-on-one training sessions, quick ticket responses, and an extensive knowledge base were attractive since the service’s release, and it seems an appropriate focus has been kept on making sure that users are comfortable in the Huddle environment and can connect with someone courteous and genuinely helpful without jumping through hoops.
There’s plenty of evidence that Huddle is hunkering down on usability, perhaps as much because of the awareness of its competitors’ related issues as because of the intrinsic importance of successful adoption. Claiming an “industry first,” Huddle has developed an Adoption Guarantee, which boasts that certain users (namely, annual contract buyers who also opt for a specific support package) can expect 100% adoption in 90 days or less. As getting all the members of a team –much less an entire organization– to successfully start using new software is one of the biggest challenges in technology deployment, this guarantee stands to make some pretty big waves among Huddle’s enterprise clients.
With smart moves being made to please potentially important purchasers, Huddle has implemented several positive changes in style and usability over the past year. Some of these changes may not seem especially positive to users whose needs don’t span an entire company, as Huddle has clearly decided to cater to the preferences of the masses rather than the individual in its attempt to flourish in the business world.
Flipping Through the Newest Features
A central component of any good cloud collaboration service seems to be the offering of as many features as possible, and while Huddle has added more than a few since last fall, it thankfully hasn’t cluttered the service with superfluous odds and ends. Many of the new features focus on rounding out the functionality of Huddle to ensure that users won’t need to download extra applications, plugins, or add-ons in order to have an enjoyable experience. As this effort adds to the overall simplicity of using Huddle, companies and groups who want to escape over-complex work processes are likely to appreciate the latest feature crop.
A Frenzy of File Handling
Document and media support have both gotten a major boost in Huddle’s recent feature releases. An increasingly important aspect of delivering a usable suite for collaboration is the ability to open, edit, and otherwise interact with files of a wide variety of formats, and Huddle’s developers seem to have taken note. Among the most prominent changes in document support include the ability to work with Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010 files, a feature that’s sure to simplify use of the service for a large number of groups. A native PDF viewer function has also been added so users won’t have to open other programs (which may not even be available if they’re working remotely or on a foreign system) to work effectively within Huddle.
Alongside new document format support, Huddle’s media viewer has gotten big billing as a feature capable of making the service especially attractive for users with visual files to handle. With a clean, sleek look that easily complements the overall design of the service, the media player allows for quick access to pictures, video, and music, with full support for MPEG-14 formats. This feature should delight any teams that have had to incorporate standalone media players into their collaboration tools in the past, and while a large number of users may never find a need for the module, it doesn’t hurt to have it available just in case.
Streamlined Tasks and Considerations of Time
Another major feature to be introduced to Huddle in the past year is its task manager, which is aimed at improving ease of collaboration and delivering a wider variety and depth of options to administrative users. The many different aspects of handling a task from its creation through its completion are covered, with the ability to notify other users of tasks without having to assign them. A useful task audit trail has been added, which lets users view the full history of actions on a given task to make remembering and tracking progress much easier. Huddle claims it has made over 30 tweaks to the tasks interface to ensure its ease of use and essential benefit, and while identifying each of these may not be so straightforward, it’s clear the company has made an honest effort to turn task problems into parceled, efficient, solvable units.
Tasks can also now be given start dates, which is a useful feature for pre-planners and other users who want to incorporate more extensive time-based options into their work. A monthly calendar view is another new feature tailored to the time-conscious, and while it’s not clear why this basic idea wasn’t implemented earlier, it’s a welcome addition to the suite. From planning time to saving time, Huddle has made internal upgrades to achieve faster overall operation throughout the service. Though basic functionality didn’t seem to stall in our initial review, it’s good to see that the developers are responding to the company’s growth with a keen eye on expanding resources.
Easier Admin and No Ads
Previously, project and workspace administrators on Huddle may have encountered some frustration in the limited ability to control access and editing ability to different project aspects. Such issues have largely been put to rest in recent months, as controls for administrators have become more finely tuned. Permissions on various functions including document editing, scheduling, and status changing have been introduced, making it easier to prevent unwanted usage. Admins are also likely to appreciate the improvement of the invitation system, which lets users assign tasks and set up an invitee’s work environment before they’ve accepted.
An especially notable change in Huddle may not technically be a feature, but moreover a lack of one: ads, which were once displayed unobtrusively yet nevertheless detracted from the user experience as ads are wont to do, have been entirely eliminated. A breath of fresh air for users fed up with frequent advertising or those who are easily distracted, this bonus is sure to win Huddle some serious points.
A Feature-Rich Future
Throughout the development of Huddle’s new features, attention seems to have been paid to user feedback, an element that makes the service attractive to a wide audience and suggests that even if Huddle doesn’t fit like a glove, it may in time learn to take on the shape of what its users desire most. The company makes sure to point out which features have been developed in response to user requests, resulting in a sense of community and accessibility to the product’s creators. The ongoing attitude of embracing connections with users and taking the time to fully support and explain the service’s changes makes Huddle a hopeful contender in the race to meet a rapidly growing –and rapidly diversifying– selection of needs.
Prestigious Clients and a Plan for Domination
In the time that Huddle has developed a number of updates and useful new features, it has also taken on a lot more clients, some of whom represent the biggest names in their fields. As scores of businesses are looking for ways to minimize their costs in the wake of international economic struggles, turning to a streamlined solution in the cloud is apparently a popular idea, even for Fortune 500 organizations. Developed and released in the UK, Huddle has retained much of its dominance in its home country, but its presence in the United States and abroad has grown considerably.
Perhaps most interesting in the development of Huddle’s user base has been the addition of the UK Government, which has fully signed on for the suite throughout its various offices and departments. One of Huddle’s co-founders, Alastair Mitchell, notes that this makes Huddle the first cloud computing offering to boast a government as a single ICT customer, a claim that will probably continue to turn corporate heads as competition between the suite and SharePoint heats up.
Along with official operations in the UK, Huddle is now also supporting the projects, planning, and collaboration needs of groups as distinct as Boots, the University of London, and Kia, and also works with a number of charities, including Care for the Family. Huddle’s special rate structures for charities as well as governmental organizations helps users with particular budgetary needs access Huddle’s benefits without having to make painful cuts elsewhere. Even the Belgian FPS Social Security coordinator has spoken out about Huddle’s utility as an efficient and effective tool for bringing people together online and getting work done.
Competitive Considerations and Cost
The impressive list of enthusiastic Huddle clients seems to lend credibility to the company’s claim that it offers a more affordable and sensible solution to modern collaboration needs than SharePoint and other products in the field. Microsoft itself has taken issue with the idea that Huddle reigns supreme when it comes to price (some comparisons have put the SaaS competitor at 10% of SharePoint’s total cost of ownership), however; it recently suggested that its online version of SharePoint is more cost-effective than Huddle per user.
As Huddle is based entirely in the cloud, it will no doubt have more fans among those who embrace Software as a Service as well as users fed up with traditional proprietary software. Whether the suite is as affordable as some insist likely depends on the circumstances of the user. As Huddle clearly favors larger groups with several individual users and long-term contract plans, bigger companies will probably continue to be the most prominent winners in the Huddle cost equation. A package for smaller groups and for those who prefer monthly agreements exists, but its flat fee may be a turnoff for bargain hunters.
Whether Huddle can break through the final layers of its competition with Microsoft and emerge victorious remains to be seen, but with the amount of time and dedication evidently devoted to working on new developments and responding to user feedback, the odds for Huddle’s continued growth look good. Principal arguments for Huddle’s superiority continue to focus on higher adoption rates, greater ease of use, mobile access, and more responsive support, all of which ought to be major selling points to potential customers.
The Collaboration Suite that Collaborates, Itself
An important distinction between Huddle and other collaboration services in the cloud is that it aims to simplify usage through the availability of a multitude of features and comprehensive functionality. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t certain applications users are bound to want to use alongside Huddle. The company has taken a fairly open approach to collaborating with other developers and creating strategic partnerships to deliver integrative options for various popular tools and utilities.
Most recently, Huddle has joined forces with Xobni, which is a popular Microsoft Outlook add-on. Though a recurring theme among Huddle users seems to be an appreciation for the suite’s ability to totally replace email with whiteboard messages, meetings, and other forms of contact, users nevertheless are sure to have separate email accounts, and through this recent partnership, they can now integrate Huddle into their email inboxes for better data access and more efficient organizing.
So long as Huddle continues to identify in-demand tools, gadgets, and services with which to associate its software, the creation of a more diverse and more fully satisfied membership is likely. Several cloud computing offerings boast about their widespread integration with outside apps and services, but few are able to achieve Huddle’s apparent balance of in-suite inclusivity and smart collaboration.
A Year’s Progress, a Year’s Potential
The many months since our original interaction with Huddle have seen the company grow impressively both in terms of its developmental and design maturity, and in terms of its customer base. An admirable renovation of the service’s look and feel has made the suite more pleasant to work with and helps Huddle provide better usability, building on service elements that had already been strong.
Several fixes and features were added, some of which were released in response to the demands and desires of clients, and some of which show continuing innovation on the part of the developers themselves. The suite is now fairly comprehensive in functionality, and has eliminated the need for supplementing Huddle with other programs and utilities in many areas.
Through working with other service providers and software companies to create desirable collaborations and by earning considerable prestige through the accolades of national governments and major corporations, Huddle is certainly attracting a lot of attention. Huddle’s plans for the future seem set on establishing dominance over its main competitor, and as the company continues to experience substantial growth, some may wonder whether the firm’s ability to stay in touch with its smaller customers will suffer. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the support department is a serious part of the overall service offering and at least intends to listen to suggestions for features and fixes.
Huddle may still require some close investigation by smaller groups such as families or tiny startup companies before implementation, but it’s also still the case that when groups are being overwhelmed by project data and need organization and communication tools that get things cleaned up quickly and easily, Huddle presents an attractive option.
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