This post on innovations in print software was written by Jennifer Matt, managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section.WhatTheyThink is the global printing industry’s leading independent media organization.

The source of our innovation is moving from the production floor to the customer’s mobile device. We are going from the differentiation based on speed, quality, and finishing to differentiation based on solving customer’s data challenges way upstream of the printing press.

Software is one of many tools print businesses have in order to innovate. Unfortunately, many printers have a very frustrated relationship with software because of failed implementations, wasted investments, and a general misunderstanding of the toolset.

One of my dreams for this industry is that print owners take the same amount of time and effort they do in investigating and learning about print manufacturing equipment as they do software. I overhear printers at every industry event talking for hours about new machinery, capabilities, and specifics of new printing technologies. Yet those same printers are unwilling to sit with their technical teams to be part of strategic planning around the software stack that runs their business.

In one area, you are 100% in your comfort zone, and in another area you feel like people are speaking in a foreign language. Nobody likes that contrast; yet that comfort zone of the manufacturing floor will not deliver the innovation you need to thrive in this data-driven world.

Customers are looking for printers who can deliver on solving the data-intensive challenges that start way upstream of the printed product. You can’t solve these challenges with new printing equipment – you must solve them with software. Imagine trying to compete with a competitor who has extended their value proposition to solve customer-specific data challenges way upstream of the print. Where do you even start to disrupt that relationship? If you come in quoting a lower per piece price; you’ll be laughed out of the room.

The customer needs innovation. The toolset is software. How do you create innovative customer-specific solutions with software? This is a difficult question. I don’t have all the answers; I have ideas based on real life examples of both successes and failures.

An innovative software product is the result of learning about a business process then applying the modern software tools available to solving that process for the customer. Innovation fails when everyone assumes they understand the problem and simply buys some software or hires a developer to solve it. When you fail to define the problem you’re trying to solve, you basically implement the most obvious and usually least innovative solution.

When you take some time—not weeks or months, but it could be a little as a few hours—to actually learn about the problem first, then communicate that problem (not how you think it should be solved, just the problem) to someone who understands the software toolkit. What is the software toolkit? For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to call it the idea of a user interface that talks to a relational database which stores information and applies logic to that information to solve business challenges. You should not try to solve the problem without someone who understands modern software. When non-software people try to solve software challenges, you end up with solutions based on very limited knowledge. This is where you find people saying, “I want a drag-and-drop solution” or “I need to be able to upload a spreadsheet and get an email notification when this or that happens.” The solution is based on what you are comfortable with (spreadsheets, emails, PDFs, etc). All of those tools are really popular because non-software people are solving challenges without software expertise to help them understand their options.

If you’re out to solve a challenge that is worthy of custom development (by “worthy” I mean if you solve it you could win considerable market share), then building custom software is a good route to take. Let’s be clear about what I mean by custom software: what I really mean is that you can assemble pieces of software that do the expected things, but allow you to control the user experience and the logic to solve specific challenges. One tool we have come back to time and time again is OrderCloud from Four51. It’s a tool that is hard to explain to non-technical people. It is a dream tool for solving very customer specific challenges where you require full control of the user experience. OrderCloud is 100% API (application programming interface) driven and it is headless (that means is doesn’t come with a user experience at all). You cannot get a demo of this product!

This can be confusing, but let me translate what this means. You get all the “features” of an eCommerce platform without having to conform to a specific user experience. What if you’re in a business that has a really weird workflow? We have used two different platforms when faced with these kinds of challenges: EpiServer and OrderCloud. Both platforms offer a platform approach to eCommerce, while giving you 100% control of the user experience.

You can design and implement that weird workflow on top of these platforms, so you invest in what makes you different and you get all the expected functionality of an eCommerce platform underneath. This approach isn’t for everyone; you need to be invested in custom development for the long-term. You will also control your own destiny and be able to focus on innovation and differentiation for your customers. Printers who are doing that have stepped out of their comfort zones. It doesn’t take long to get comfortable; especially when you see the impact of true differentiation in your ability to win new deals and build protective barriers to existing business relationships.

Software is one of the most powerful tools print businesses have at their disposal. The future of the industry depends on more printers embracing this toolset to keep print in the marketing mix by making it easier to personalize, easier to buy, and easier to combine with digital marketing programs.