All companies love listening to their customers, or so the marketing men would have you believe. They welcome all forms of feedback and positively encourage any kind of constructive criticism. Behind the scenes, away from prying eyes, it’s often a very different story – letters are discarded, emails ignored and phone calls are dumped within the bowels of an automated voicemail system.
No-one could accuse National Instruments of such a cynical deception. It has long since recognised that customer feedback can transform the functionality and ease-of-use of the products it offers. This led it to launch what is now a hugely successful online community for its LabView graphical programming system, which is used by scientists and engineers for the development of measurement, test, and control applications. Members of the community are encouraged to work together to submit ideas, collaborate on their development and vote for the suggestions they like best. National Instruments takes this information and uses it to enhance the next version of LabView.
The ideas exchange has proved a phenomenal success. More than 200 ideas were suggested over the past 12 months and about 15,000 votes have been cast. The feedback had a discernible effect on the development of LabView 2010 and included 14 user-suggested improvements. Additional enhancements are working their way through the development process and will be included in LabView 2011.
“The idea exchange is a fabulous capability,” says Jeff Kodosky, co-founder of National Instruments and widely regarded as the father of LabView. “It allows the community to vet ideas among themselves and vote on them. What bubbles to the top is the stuff that’s going to have the biggest impact and it’s the most efficient thing for us to be working on. It’s a great tool.
“In addition, the user groups and the online support forums are incredibly valuable. I’m impressed by the quality and the quantity of the content that’s posted there and the enthusiasm and camaraderie of all the participants.”
So what happens when an engineer has an idea for an improvement? The first stage is to browse by label or search to see if the idea has previously been submitted. If it has been, users are encouraged to vote for the idea to indicate approval. If it has not been previously submitted the user uploads the suggestion and the community begins to rate it and add their input. Then as interest in the suggestion builds and the votes start to add up, National Instrument’s research and development team start to consider the idea and its on-screen status changes. It can then be tracked as it moves through the development process.
What it does
LabView was introduced in 1986 as a means of reducing the complexity of programming by giving users drag-and-drop, graphical function blocks and wires that resemble a flowchart to enable them to develop measurement, test, and control applications. The platform offers integration with thousands of hardware devices, providing built-in libraries for advanced analysis and data visualisation, and is scalable across multiple operating systems.
LabView 2010 attempts to deliver time savings with new features such as off-the-shelf compiler technologies that execute code an average of 20% faster than previously. The compiler summarises tasks such as memory allocation and thread management. With LabView 2010, the compiler data flow intermediate representation has been further optimised, and low-level virtual machine, an open source compiler infrastructure, has been added to the software’s compiler flow to accelerate code execution. National Instruments says it has conducted benchmarks ranging from real-world customer applications to low-level functions, and the new compiler delivers an average improvement of 20% across these benchmarks.
LabView 2010 also includes the add-on developer program which establishes an online marketplace as part of the updated tools network for developers to offer their free and paid toolkits and a location for users to browse, download, evaluate and purchase the add-ons. More than 50 add-ons from National Instruments and third-party developers are available, including code reuse libraries, templates, UI controls and connectors to other software packages.
For more advanced users and development groups, LabView 2010 includes new features that improve interfaces to reusable code, group VIs and their hierarchy for faster build times and separate the VI source code from the compiled version to aid in source code management. These capabilities are ideal for large group development where code maintenance across many users, software versions and computer platforms is critical.