Our simple guide to bespoke systems versus off-the-shelf solutions
During the fifteen years we’ve been in business, we’ve met a lot of clients who are in the market for some sort of system or application to handle their business processes. For the purposes of this article, we’re talking about web applications – any system that users will find at the end of a web address, via a browser.
Often we’re competing against established software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms, or even installed, on premise solutions. For buyers (who may be anyone from operations directors, to HR managers, to line of business managers, to entrepreneurs), the options are sometimes overwhelming.
It’s not always a clear-cut decision as to which route to take. So, grab yourself a coffee, and have a read of a few things we suggest you consider when deciding whether or not to engage a supplier to develop a bespoke digital application.
What is it you’re looking to build?
The type of system you’re looking to build will, of course, play a key role in determining the right option. What’s the reason people will visit and use the system? Is it…
– an informational site (people will read, watch and be educated)
– a transactional or commerce site (people will buy, upload or download something)
– a brochure or gallery site (for you to show off)
– secure private extranet (for you to provide a service to partners, customers and/or suppliers)
– a mobile app (be it a native, responsive or hybrid app)
The simpler the use case, the more likely it is that there’s a straightforward route to getting what you need. A secure extranet, providing a service to clients, might be a strong case for creating a bespoke solution, but so might a one-page microsite if you have very particular requirements.
Why are you building it?
Are you an established enterprise seeking to manage a business process? Is that process related to a typical core function? For example, accounting, CRM, project management or timesheeting. It’s fair to say that, if it’s to handle one of these, there will be a broad range of SaaS offerings available to you. However, if there is something unique to how you go about things, such as generating tailored quotes, then a bespoke system might better allow you to support your workflow and impress your clients.
Similarly, if you’re an ambitious startup looking to make an impact, you may quickly exhaust the limits of WordPress, Wix or Shopify, and find that you need something better that does justice to your winning idea.
What does the future hold?
Take some time to consider the probable lifespan of the system. If it’s just to meet a short term goal, maybe the figures won’t stack up. However, if you’ll need the system to grow with you over time, a bespoke application might offer greater flexibility. As and when new requirements emerge, you can develop richer functionality.
All SaaS systems will allow you to get hold of your data, so it might make sense to start with a readily available platform and then move on when you start to outgrow it.
User interface and user experience
Do you require a high level of customisation in terms of colours, branding and layout? Do you need to customise the terminology and linguistic nuances to suit your organisation? If you sign up to a CRM platform that uses the terms ‘lead’ and ‘opportunity’, but you want to change it to ‘prospect’ and ‘project’, does it let you do that? If not, can you live with it?
Perhaps, more importantly, can you tailor the workflow to match and support your processes; or are you willing to bend your processes to fit the system? This can often be a pivotal decision point.
Things to be scared of (or not)
OK, ‘scared’ is a strong term, but genuinely (and understandably) we have encountered a degree of apprehension when it comes to taking the plunge. The most common fears relate to ‘hosting anxiety’, vendor tie-in, quality of engineering, fear of re-inventing the wheel, and budget/cost…
Hosting anxiety dates back to the days when application developers – often small companies – would offer up a range of apparently suspect hosting options ranging from a server in a dusty cupboard at their premises, to hosting with a company that you’ve simply never heard of (not in itself a bad thing; just not reassuring when it comes to getting it past the CTO).
Things have changed. First came the likes of Rackspace et al, followed hot on the heels by enterprise hosting platforms like Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and IBM. Essentially, what these platforms have done is to level the playing field by allowing all businesses – right down to sole developers – to have access to the same hosting platforms as the big players. Amazon can host on Amazon. But so can we.
‘What if we have this system developed and then the company goes out of business?’ This is definitely a concern shared by many would-be buyers of bespoke applications.
Here’s the thing though. Software development has come of age and, with that, an enormous ecosystem of skills and resources. So, for example, if we were to build a system for a client, based on OpenSource technology (let’s say PHP with the Laravel framework), the number of companies or people who will be able to support that system is massive. MASSIVE!
Fear of reinventing the wheel
Or fear of paying for someone to reinvent the wheel. You don’t want to engage a supplier to be building things that you know, instinctively, must have been built at least a thousand times before.
Well, we concur. A common misunderstanding about bespoke application development is that it literally means building everything from scratch. A benefit of a steadily maturing, yet innovative, industry, is that there are frameworks, platforms and services we can use to handle routine processes. Let’s say you want to handle user accounts, registration, forgotten password procedure; all of that ‘stuff’ is common to a lot of projects, so there are established ways of setting it up, using an existing framework. We don’t have to build it all from scratch every time.
What if you want to feature mapping? Again, we’re not going to reinvent the wheel. It would be quite an onerous task. We simply choose a mapping platform, based on your requirements – maybe OpenStreetMap, Leaflet, Google Maps or Mapbox – and get on with it.
All of which means great things, including cost savings, quicker development time, few (if any) bugs and a great support community.
Fear of bugs
When you sign up to a tried and tested platform that’s out there in the marketplace, generally, bugs are few and far between and they tend to be dealt with promptly when they do surface. A bespoke solution is, by definition, new. So there is a justified concern that bugs may exist. However, a good application developer will have a range of processes and methodologies in place to minimise the likelihood of this, from test-driven development, to automated UI testing.
Furthermore, methods of setting up and accessing source code (securely) are becoming homogenised through the growth of platforms like ‘git’. This brings with it a burgeoning sense of accountability. Increasingly, developers expect that others will have to deal with their code, and it pays to do things right and with a sense of pride.
Fear of monster costs
This can be as much about perspective and cashflow, as it is about raw capital cost. One of the reasons SaaS can seem like an attractive option, is the typical ‘per-user-per-month’ pricing model. However, once you factor in the fact that the numbers soon start to add up, then you feel compelled to go up a tier in order to obtain an otherwise unavailable feature; then you need to engage with a channel partner to have some custom work done using the API anyway… Before you know it, you’re in your third year on a platform and, for the money you’ve spent, you could have commissioned a solution that does everything you need it to, and nothing that you don’t; and you would own the IP and be paying only for hosting and maintenance, not licenses. Oh, and one more thing. You would never wake one day to find that ‘they’ have changed (‘upgraded’) the platform overnight.
Take your time to assess the options. Think about the purpose and nature of the system. Is there a good reason to deviate from the system that your competitors are using? Consider how niche your needs are and get a feel for how much you’re prepared to compromise. Are you entering the market with a brand new product (bespoke may be the only choice)?
Remember also, that you don’t have to jump into a bespoke development project with both feet right from the start. Consider either a prototype or a minimum viable product (MVP) as a starting point. It’s an affordable way to test the water.
As always, we are always happy to have an informal no-pressure-or-obligation chat, if you’re still not sure what’s the best option for you – drop us a line if you need us or have any further questions!