Why we think TextIt sets the new standard for SMS

We launched TextIt last week and the response has been overwhelmingly positive, people are just giddy with how easily they can build systems that were previously impossible. But not all feedback has been positive, some say that maybe the world doesn't need another solution, that what exists is good enough and people should just use those solutions instead.

It is certainly true that the ICT4D space is filled with hype, filled with solutions built simply for the sake of being built. But I think we can make a strong case that TextIt not only provides a brand new solution, but also a brand new approach.

Before we get into it, I do want to stress that we have a huge amount of respect for what others like FrontlineSMS have done before us. They set the stage, proved what was possible and were pioneers in the space. But we think they've sat on their laurels a bit, become a bit complacent, failing to improve and adapt as conditions have evolved.

Deployment

How an SMS application is deployed is paradoxically both the hardest and least important aspect to its success. In most developing countries, like Rwanda where TextIt was born, it is both expensive and time consuming to connect straight to the carrier in order to send and receive SMS messages. FrontlineSMS solved this years ago by building on top of simple phones which you plug into a laptop running their software.  As messages come in, the laptop processes them and sends back the appropriate response.

That's a workable solution, but it does have some drawbacks. Most importantly, your Frontline deployment is really only available to those in your office, you have to sit down in front of the laptop to send messages or see responses. That means coworkers in different offices can't use the system themselves and it makes sharing results and learnings harder than it should be.

TextIt takes a different approach, instead of having you host the software on a laptop in your office, we host it for you in the cloud. Instead of a modem, we use an inexpensive Android phone and have you install our TextIt application on it. From that point forward, SMS messages on the Android phone will be synchronized with the cloud. It is an incredibly easy system to set up and has proven to be reliable in even the most challenging environments.

But really the biggest advantage to TextIt being cloud-based is how quickly it can continue improving. Just like Gmail gets constant updates and bug fixes, so does TextIt. We add new features and make improvements on a daily basis, all without our users having to do anything.  And all the while we get to learn from them, seeing how we can improve further. That simple difference of having TextIt be hosted and improving daily is what enables it to be so much better.

Flows

There are two main camps current SMS platforms fall in, those that are geared at end users but have limited functionality, and those aimed at developers but which have steep learning curves. Flows give you the best of both worlds, incredible flexibility and power, while remaining simple to understand.

Flows represent a completely different approach to building SMS applications. Virtually every system built today is stateless, each incoming SMS message is dealt with independently from previous ones, without any context of what came before. As someone who programs, I can tell you why, keeping state is really hard to do right.  But the thing is, your users understand state, they remember the conversation, they know their message history, so why force them to interact with you differently than they are used to?

TextIt changes that. A flow lets you leverage SMS in the most natural way possible, as a conversation where you know what the user said before, adapting as necessary. That makes a big difference because suddenly you can build complex systems which require no user training, just like any conversation.

The incredible thing is, flows not only give you this inherit ease of use for your end users, they also give you far more power than you had before. You don't need to understand what "skip logic" is when building a complex survey, you just drag a few arrows around and you've done it, no PHD required. With custom actions like sending emails, forwarding messages and adding contact variables you have the ability to build incredibly powerful workflows, all through the same simple interface.

TextIt adapts to you, gives you the power to build the interaction that best suits your needs, to be creative, to innovate, test, refine and repeat until you've built the best solution possible.

Obsessed about User Experience

Hopefully it shows when you use TextIt, but we are obsessed about having an unmatched user experience. That's no small commitment, it requires a lot of time and effort to constantly be posing to ourselves "is this the best way?" and making the hard decision to change course and do something better. As an example, look at how we display results as they pass through flows. Instead of showing a list of every message that has come in, leaving you to guess how the system responded, we show the messages in the exact same view you use to build the flow. Building interfaces like that isn't easy, it requires a lot of experimentation and more than few false starts, but we think the results are worth it.

That's why being a hosted cloud solution is so important to us, because we can't stand the thought of not being able to make things better for our users every single day.

That kind of polish isn't just for looks, it makes TextIt more accessible to the users we want the most: small and medium sized organizations that aren't reaping the benefits of using SMS in their programs. Anybody can start building sophisticated interactions in a few minutes and start sending messages a few minutes later.

Built with Heart

TextIt comes from our experience of living and working in Rwanda, of building a team here and of wanting to build something that really makes a difference, that raises the bar for what software in the development sector can look like. We may succeed in making a dent, or we may fail completely, but hopefully we do our part in showing what is possible, in making people reconsider the status quo a bit. 

We'd love to hear your thoughts, give TextIt a try and let us know what you think.

4 responses
Very nice post outlining the strengths of your platform. Just to be clear, my comment on Twitter last week wasn't directed at your platform, but was a generic comment that in ICT4D wheels continue to be reinvented for little reason. SMS platforms and data collection tools just happen to be two of the favourites. I guess the way to look at it would be this. Given the effort you've clearly put into TextIt, how would you feel if in a months time you read that a big donor had just given someone $500k to build an SMS platform? Sadly, it almost certainly will happen, but maybe not quite so quickly. My call was simply for more control in the tech space. But while that stuff is all figured out, best of luck with everything. Your solution does look great. Ken
I think that's a fair point, we've worked in the ICT4D space for three years now, and we've seen how much investment goes into solutions which frankly aren't that great. To be perfectly frank I find it depressing. But honestly, I think any kind of 'top down' approach to where investment should go would only make things worse. What incentive is there for the 'winners' of such an arrangement to continue to innovate, to continue to improve? Competition is good, it's healthy and it means better solutions will come out. And I think more and more we have to realize that the best solutions are ones that apply not only to the development sector, but to commercial interests as well. Just as I would argue that Excel is the most effect piece of software built for development (for better or worse), we're finding that TextIt appeals to commercial interests as well. Hopefully that means that long term we'll be supported by both the public and private sectors and be able to build something better because of it.
Thanks for the reply. As you can imagine, this is a small part of a larger conversation I've seen had, and contributed to, for the best part of ten years. The argument for a while was one of 'let a thousand flowers bloom', centred on a belief that a few good tools would emerge. You might argue that some did, but many turned to weeds and died, and huge amounts of money was spent helping them. The saddest part is that very little seems to have been learnt out of all of this, and after a decade or so of 'mobiles-for-development' we still hear the same questions being asked. That was what my recent blog post was looking at. In your defence you're building this in-country, which puts you into a (good) minority immediately. You also have an idea of how to sustain your enterprise, also putting you into a (good) minority. Much of my focus these days is on the sector as a whole - I tend not to get involved in discussions about specific tools (history tells me it often doesn't turn out well). I look forward to following your progress, and will do so with interest. :) Ken
Thanks Ken, Appreciate the comments (and cautious encouragement!). I'm not sure what the solution is across the board, we're just hoping to be a small part of the solution on the SMS front. I think the sector as a whole suffers a bit because it is largely an 'Enterprise Software' game. Big big contracts are the rule, and that means long sales cycles, rigid requirements and very little agile development, even when just the opposite is the party line. In that regard I prefer the 'bazaar' model of many players trying their best and a winner emerging. But ya, sustainability is still a real problem, one that seems to have been largely solved by big grants or big contracts, neither of which I think have done the industry much good. Only time will tell which model works best. -Nic