How IRIS Elements grew from adversity, ingenuity and lessons learnt

Copy of DJ | How IRIS Elements grew from adversity, ingenuity and lessons learnt
By Conrad Emmett | 6th April 2023 | 8 min read

The key to success in business is easy to sum up but hard to live by – you must be prepared to try and come back fighting.

IRIS Elements is the biggest project in the company’s history.

It brought together a new 300-strong team to create revolutionary accountancy software, the likes of which hadn’t been seen before.

But why embark on a major project when existing software, like IRIS Accountancy Suite, has proven popular for so long?

IRIS wanted to take on a specific challenge with IRIS Elements: helping users get to the cloud.

The rise of cloud

Accountants had their sights set on flexible working long before the pandemic, and cloud technology unlocks this capability.

However, accountancy practices typically don’t leap headfirst into cloud solutions, replacing everything all at once; they have other software that, for now at least, they might not want to leave behind.

To truly deliver, IRIS Elements could not be a re-packaging of existing apps, nor could it lock people into a new ecosystem.

Instead, IRIS Elements had to be a natively built cloud platform that enabled firms to transition at their own pace while integrating with other solutions.

But delivering this solution would not be easy.

Cloud integration: the future of accountancy

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Forged in the fires of experience

You can’t make something like IRIS Elements without real experience in cloud software development, and that takes time, dedication and sacrifice.

Paul Onions, Director of Product at IRIS, reflects on the development landscape of the past 25 years.

There were a lot of major software businesses developing cloud applications. Some spent millions on projects that were never even released,” he says.

IRIS was the first in the UK to bring a cloud-based solution to accountants; OpenTax focused on smaller practices that wanted an easy-to-use, value-for-money solution that enabled them to prepare and file client tax returns in the cloud.

While OpenTax was a confident stride forward, designed to take UK accountancy to a new frontier, four years later, IRIS made the decision to retire the software.

At the time, IRIS Accountancy Suite was simply faster and more comprehensive.

IRIS had to learn from this experience and devise a new solution.

The spark that created IRIS Elements

As painful as it was for the teams involved, the end of OpenTax paved the way for the future.

“We learnt some really strong lessons to add to our 40 years of working with accountants,” Paul recalls.

A priority for what would become IRIS Elements was to ensure customers didn’t feel trapped inside a walled-off ecosystem of cloud products.

“We realised we didn't want to build a set of individual products in the cloud,” Paul remarks. “We didn't want to lift the products that we already had and put them in the cloud either.”

Repurposing tried-and-tested software is the recipe for a poor customer experience.

You bring all the old code, its quirks and limitations onto the cloud, repeating old issues, creating new ones and delivering something not purposely built for the job.

“What we wanted to do is to build a platform: a myriad of products that share data through an API-led process,” Paul continues.

“That would mean our customers could transition to the cloud at a pace that suited them, their practice and – importantly – the level of sophistication of the clients that they deal with.”

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Making lovable software

“In the software space, there is a term called ‘minimum viable product’, which is where a developer goes out to the market with the bare minimum you can get away with,” Paul explains.

"We wanted to develop a minimum lovable product. People have to love what we are creating. Then that product gets incrementally improved, enhanced and refined based on feedback from the customers using it.”

So, how do you know if a new feature is loveable?

The solution was to build a design community of 300 accountancy practices, which would be consulted from the start and before any major coding tasks were assigned. This would be bolstered by Agile Customer Groups of 8 to 12 professionals, who would help development teams as they focus on specific features.

With these clear goals in mind, the developers assembled in London, Manchester, Sheffield and other international locations.

Then, COVID-19 happened.

News: IRIS propels accounting tech to the next level with largest IRIS Elements release

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Adversity and waterfalls

The pandemic changed everything.

“There were some incredible logistical challenges. I mean, there are still people working on the IRIS Elements programme today that I have never met in person,” Paul remarks.

So, what was the pandemic-proof answer to delivering Elements? Agile development.

Work on the platform was channelled into tightly-focused online RAID meetings (which anticipate issues) and sprints (where teams develop one specific thing at a time).

Agile development is different from the traditional “waterfall” approach to building software, where you meticulously document everything in a set of requirements at the beginning and disappear behind closed doors until the job is done.

With agile development, you constantly reveal progress to the stakeholders, take feedback and build  in any changes.

Doing so ensures any new industry needs are not missed.

The Agile Customer Group played a major role in this process.

 “During development, we had customers actively using the system and giving us feedback. We would then tweak and enhance things, which worked really well. A lot of those customers have continued to help us to this day,” Paul explains.

The future: discovering the next Elements

In May 2021, IRIS Elements went live.

For the hundreds of developers responsible, it felt more like a brand-new beginning than a launch.

Fired up over future possibilities, the team let no time go to waste and immediately began work on what would be the software’s next iteration.

They did this with a roadmap built from experience and, of course, help from the customer groups.

The community feedback and support have been so helpful, a new version of Elements was made possible less than a year after the platform’s initial release date.

IRIS Elements, it seems, is not a destination but a constantly evolving journey to new solutions that make accountants’ lives easier, with developers and customers working together to make this cloud-powered future happen for everyone.

Coming soon: in an upcoming article, we’ll learn more about how IRIS Elements is evolving and uncover the team’s ambitious plans for its future.

Learn more about IRIS Elements

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