About Ag Connections
Ag Connections develops and continuously updates crop management software solutions that make our clients’ lives easier and their farms more efficient and compliant. Our experienced crop management specialists help farmers get these systems up and running with a mix of on-site training, web-based training, video tutorials, and friendly, knowledgeable phone support.
An Overview of Our Program
At Ag Connections we work hard to earn your business year after year. The talent and commitment of our support staff go a long way toward making that happen, but our products are constantly improving as well. Several factors contribute to this improvement:
- Institutional Commitment: Our R&D group has 10 people; that’s a lot of development horsepower for a small company.
- Domain Knowledge: several of our developers have agricultural backgrounds. We also constantly translate the feedback from our Sales and Support groups into new features. In fact, Sales and Support personnel are key members of all our development teams.
- Latest Tools: We work with Microsoft’s latest .NET technology. This ensures our products won’t be obsolete any time soon. We also use the .NET framework on all our platforms: desktop, handheld, and web. This lets our developers stay focused on implementing features and not on working across many languages and operating systems. Adopting .NET was a huge expense for us, but we’re sure it’s valuable for our customers long-term (see Institutional Commitment above!)
- Professional Development: We encourage our developers to constantly get better. We want them to spend time studying, learning new skills, going to seminars, and so on. We also arrange for them to go out, meet our customers, and get to know their needs better.
- Academic outreach: We collaborate closely with our neighbor, Murray State University. This includes mentoring graduate students, participating in graduate and undergraduate research experiences, guest-lecturing in several courses and departments, and also teaching a course on agricultural information management at MSU’s School of Agriculture. This activity is important to us. First, we’re grateful: most of our employees are MSU graduates. We foresee our investment returning with the next generation of professionals, whether they’re future employees or information-aware farm managers, agricultural retailers, and other agricultural professionals we can do business with. Another good reason to collaborate is that MSU has great faculty members it’s a pleasure to do joint research with. We learn a lot from them!
- Integrations: We’re very aware we can’t do it all, and that reinventing the wheel is bad for our customers and bad for business. Instead, over the years we’ve developed a powerful information-exchange platform that we use to integrate Land.db with products from other market-leading companies. We’re well aware that our customers have to deal with data coming from a lot of sources, and that there’s a lot of value in helping our customers pull the data together in ways that are valuable to them but simple to do. Some examples of our integration:
- John Deere’s GreenStar 2 series of controllers: We can exchange data with the GS2 controllers. This makes it a lot easier for our customers to connect what they see on the PC screen with what they see and do on their tractor, sprayer, and combine.
- Agrian: an agricultural product label search company. Integrating with Agrian helps growers in jurisdictions that have certain strong pesticide-use-reporting regulations. California, for example, mandates that growers and pest control companies must file formal recommendations and notices of intent before spraying restricted-use pesticides. Our integration connects the recommendations made by the growers’ certified pest-control advisors to the growers’ production records.
- QuickBooks, the accounting software package used by a large fraction of our customers.
- eCotton, a market-leading integrator of cotton-ginning and cotton quality information: Our growers can track cotton yields and quality information back to specific fields and cropzones.
- We’re working on an integration in the irrigation equipment industry. We’re looking to integrate center pivot irrigation telemetry data with Land.db. We’re also working with another large accounting package, more hardware controllers, and so on. It’s a process that never stops!
- Science-based methods: When we identify an opportunity to make improvements, we try to tackle it using state-of-the-art science. And we contribute to that state of the art too, with our research program, collaborative research, and refereed journal articles. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is harness principled, science-based methods to make our software systems as acceptable as possible to our users (More on this later). Some of our ongoing research and development priorities include:
- Complex combinatorial optimization problems
- Knowledge representation
- Knowledge-based systems
Making our products easy to use is very important to us; it helps our customers focus on their business instead of wasting time figuring out how to use our software.
Someone once said that “Easy to Use” is easy to say. And that is painfully true; we invest heavily in making our products as usable as possible. We certainly have a way to go still, but we pay close attention to how our customers use the software, and the problems they solve with it. We try to keep it all as simple and straightforward as possible, using technology to fill in the blanks wherever we can.
As we design user interactions in many parts of our software, we use several usability engineering methods, among them some pioneered by Jakob Nielsen, a Danish usability consultant. Nielsen pioneered low-cost usability engineering methods, including several powerful heuristics, that suit us well. Below I include a figure adapted from Jakob Nielsen’s classic book, Usability Engineering.
We want users to accept (and use) our software (system acceptability). This will happen if the software does socially acceptable things (and keeping records is becoming more and more important / acceptable) and practically acceptable (in other words, is worth it in practical terms). Practical acceptability depends on many factors, such as cost, compatibility with other tools, reliability, and especially, if the software is useful. This last idea in turn depends on two things: utility (i.e., value: “does it help me run my business better?” and usability. And, finally, usability has several aspects, such as ease of learning, efficiency of use, and so on.
I wrote earlier that our R&D group is constantly working to improve our product. The diagram above shows a way to interpret this, and if you ask me what parts of the diagram we’re trying to improve on, the answer is “All of them!”
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Joe Ben Bogle has been a part of the Ag Connections team since 2004. He…