There are three types of people; those that have no idea what bespoke software is, those that know what it is but are convinced that it is too expensive and takes too long to deliver and finally those that truly understand the pros and cons.
This document will address some of the arguments for and against bespoke software when compared to ‘off the shelf’ or customised (i.e. an ‘off the shelf’ application that can be customised to your needs) applications.
Are we biased? Of course we’re biased. Acumen is a business dedicated solely to producing bespoke software; however, we try to maintain a balanced approach. Each of our points highlights an issue where there are differences between bespoke and ‘off the shelf’.
- Why do I need bespoke software when I can buy an off-the-shelf product that does everything that I need for a fraction of the price?
- If the statement is genuinely true that the software does everything that you need then you are correct – you don’t need bespoke software. If it’s not 100% true then read on.
- The off-the-shelf product does virtually everything that I need – why bother with bespoke?
- If being able to do virtually all of your business is acceptable then fine – go ahead. But if, as we suspect, your 'business' is 100% of your business and not part of it then bespoke software may be the solution.
- The off-the-shelf product does everything that I need; it just does things a little differently. What’s wrong with changing the way that I work?
- Nothing – if it’s for the good of your business. But if changing is simply to fall in line with the way that other people do things then that’s wrong. Your business is unique. You do things differently because your business isn’t the same as every other business. This is where bespoke software comes into its own. A bespoke system will be created to work exactly the same way that you work. It won’t be ‘tailored’ or ‘modified’ to do what you need; it will be designed from scratch to meet your exact requirements.
- What if it goes wrong?
- Everyone has heard horror stories of IT projects going wrong, not being delivered on time, not doing what they’re supposed to do. The IT industry has got a bad name and in many cases this is not without good reason. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The root cause of almost all software related problems is the software specification document or lack thereof. No software development project should ever move into the coding stage without a detailed, signed-off specification being available to both the coders and the client. When called in to rescue a project one of the first questions asked by Acumen is ‘Can we see the original specification document?’. We almost never get to see such a document because it doesn’t exist. Without a specification there is nothing to measure the software against. If a feature in the software doesn’t work the way that you would prefer, how can you determine whether the coder has made a mistake or whether your instruction was unclear without a detailed specification? This is one area where ‘off the shelf’ or customised applications may fall down. Since the ‘off the shelf’ system is already in existence it may be difficult to accurately define exactly what it does and does not do.
FREE ADVICE – Whatever company you decide to use for your next software project make sure that they agree to supply a detailed specification document.
- I need the new software as soon as possible. What is a reasonable amount of time to have to wait?
- The answer to this question depends upon the scale of the project. Whilst the design, coding and testing of a small project will be measured in weeks, a large project will have to be measured in months (2-6 for the coding and 1-2 for the testing). Obviously this is an area where an off-the-shelf product that fulfils all your requirements will win hands down. If the 'off the shelf' product doesn’t fulfil all your requirements then it could be worth the wait for the bespoke system that does.
Finally even if you absolutely, positively have to have the software by a certain date don’t expect the supplier to be able to work miracles and beware of those that say they can. Instead look for a supplier prepared to tell you the truth rather than one that will say anything in order to get your business.
- What if the software isn’t correct?
- The answer to this one should be simple. Provided that you ensured that you got a detailed, signed-off specification before any coding was started, and that you are working with a supplier that was happy to give you a warranty period then the supplier should fix any errors, omissions or bugs for free (provided that you report them within the warranty period).
FREE ADVICE – Look for a supplier that is happy to let you retain 15-20% of the development budget until the end of the warranty period. This will give you confidence that your warranty is worth the paper that it is written on.
- What about the source code?
- One of the most important issues when it comes to software is the source code. With an 'off the shelf’ or customised system you are almost certainly not going to be provided with a copy of the source code. With many bespoke software firms the situation is no different. These firms believe that by withholding the source code you will be tied to them for any future upgrades or modifications and they can charge whatever they like for support because you have no other options available to you. Acumen is different. We believe that if you pay for an application, then it is yours, and you’re entitled to the source code. We would prefer that you use Acumen for support and for upgrades because you choose to instead of because you have no choice.
- What about the Intellectual Property Rights?
- The issue of Intellectual Property Rights or IPR goes hand-in-hand with the issue of source code but is not the same thing. Make sure that as well as giving you the source code your chosen supplier is willing to transfer the IPR to you. Without this, if your application is a product that you intend to sell to other businesses, the supplier could legally demand commission for every license that you sell.
FREE ADVICE – don’t assume that if you choose a bespoke solution that you are automatically entitled to a copy of the source code. Under International Software Copyright law the Source Code and Intellectual Property Rights remain with the vendor unless an explicit statement of transfer of ownership is made. Acumen always does this.
- What’s the best way to pay for a project; Fixed Cost or Time and Materials?
- If you opt for an 'off the shelf’ system then this isn’t a consideration but if you choose a bespoke system or a customised system this is very important. To begin with – what’s the difference? With fixed cost the vendor sets a price and that’s what you pay – no matter how long the project takes. With time and materials the vendor gives you an idea of the total cost but charges you by the day.
Let’s start with time and materials. Never ever choose this option. It may sound tempting; the software may not take as long to develop as the vendor estimated so you’ll save money. The reality is that whilst the software may be delivered on time it will almost certainly have required more developer/days of effort to produce and WILL end up costing you more.
Now let’s consider fixed cost projects. The problem with fixed cost is that the vendor has to be certain that they can complete the project for the budgeted cost. Beware of vendors that give fixed costs from the start, before the application has been designed. Look for a vendor that will provide a budget cost based on the information that you supply (the more information you supply the more accurate the quote should be). Look for a vendor that offers to break the costs down in such a way that you don’t feel tied in from the beginning and that arrives at a total fixed cost.
At Acumen we always break an estimated budget down in a manner that is fair to both the vendor and the client. If we assume that a project was estimated to cost £10,000 then 20% of the estimated cost (£2000) would be set aside for the design/planning phase. This would include design meetings and production of a detailed specification document. The document would include screen shots of a prototype version of the application to ensure that the client can easily visualise the end product. The client pays 50% of the design budget (£1000) up front and the remainder (£1000) upon completion of the document.
During the design phase we establish in minute detail what is required. The result may be that the initial project estimate was correct, or that the project is simpler or more complex than was expected. At this point we can fix the cost for the development of the project. If the cost has increased due to the clients expectations increasing but the client is unhappy with the final figure, the client is free to walk away. The client has paid for the specification and, therefore, has the right to take it to another software development team. It should be noted that no client has ever left Acumen at this stage.
Assuming that the initial estimate of £10,000 was correct there is now a further £8000 to pay. This is usually broken down as follows
40% of £8000 (£3200) is payable prior to commencement of development
40% of £8000 (£3200) is payable upon completion of development
20% of £8000 (£1600) is payable 60 days after delivery - this should allow sufficient time for user acceptance testing
The above payment structure is merely an example and is not set in stone, and can be negotiated so that it is fair to both parties.
- How long would we have to wait if we wanted a new function implemented?
- With a bespoke system the answer is 'probably no time at all'. The only time restraints are those imposed by the time required to agree the new functionality and any changes that need to be implemented within your own business. With an 'off the shelf’ package all you can do is submit your request and hope that the vendor thinks that it is a good idea, that it will not conflict with functionality used by other users and is willing to incorporate it into the next release of the product. With a customised system the situation is slightly better than a standard 'off the shelf’ system but the vendor will still have to take other customers into consideration so you may still not get what you want. Another concern relates to modifications that might be requested by other customers. You may benefit from new functionality without incurring any cost yourselves but you may also be affected by problems introduced into the system by this new functionality; functionality which may be of no use to your business.
- How much training will I need?
- The advantage of 'off the shelf' systems (that they are designed to be suitable for a large number of businesses) can also be their downfall when it comes to training. A proficient MS Word user may only use 10% of the features available; the same may be true of an 'off the shelf’ business application. In fact there may be features that simply don’t apply to the way that you do business. With a bespoke application it will be designed to work in the same way that your business works, therefore, anyone that understands your business processes should be able to follow the way that the software works with little or no training. That said, Acumen always offers training to key personnel but can also offer group based or one-on-one training for other personnel if it is required.
- How easy is it to extract data from the database when we have one off queries that don’t warrant the creation of a report?
- With an 'off the shelf’ or customised system the tables have to be designed in such a way that they can be utilised with any business model. As a result naming conventions and the relationships between differing database entities could appear to be extremely vague and, therefore, performing your own queries could be difficult, if not impossible. A bespoke system will be designed around your business so tables and queries will be named in a manner that anyone in your business could understand and relationships between tables will be clearly defined.
- Bespoke software is expensive – isn’t it?
- This is, of course, the main reason that some people think that bespoke software has to be discounted. Yes bespoke software can be expensive on the face of it but this is not always the case. When comparing a bespoke solution with an 'off the shelf’ or customised solution you need to consider all the cost implications before deciding that the bespoke solution is the most expensive
Licensing – with an 'off the shelf’ or customised application you may have purchased an initial license or licenses but will there be any annual licensing costs. With bespoke software there are no license implications
Training – you will almost certainly need extensive training with an 'off the shelf’ or customised application. With a bespoke application it will work the way that you do so you shouldn’t need much training.
Data Analysis – how much time will be wasted trying to interrogate a flexible but unfriendly data structure in an 'off the shelf’ or customised database compared with the well defined database structure behind a bespoke solution?
Source Code – how do you measure the cost to a business of finding that you’re supplier can legally refuse to give you the source code to an application that is fundamental to your business.
- I believe that I have a realistic budget but the cost for the bespoke system that I want exceeds this – what can I do?
- If you’ve come this far then you’ve already established that an 'off the shelf’ system isn’t an option. In this situation there isn’t one simple answer – it all depends upon the discrepancy between your original budget and the proposed cost of the project.
If the discrepancy is large (Budget=£10K Project=£50K) either your budget isn’t realistic or the supplier has completely misunderstood your requirements.
If the discrepancy is small (Budget=£10K Project=£11K) you can either increase your budget or try to negotiate with the supplier.
If the discrepancy is neither large nor small (Budget=£10K Project=£15K) then you may be able to get what you want but it’s going to require a little bit more analysis from both you and the supplier.
Can you increase your budget? This is a question that only you can answer but the considerations are quite simple
Have you got the money?
Are all the features requested absolutely necessary?
Does the quoted price, although higher than you were expecting, seem fair?
Will you get a return on your extra investment in a reasonable amount of time?
Are there any features that, whilst important, could be left out of the first version of the software – the project is still going to cost £15K but you could spread the cost by having additional features added in 6 or 12 months
Are there any features that could be slightly simplified – you’ve decided that 'off the shelf’ isn’t suitable but your budget can’t be sufficiently increased. A small compromise on your part could result in a reduction in the amount of required coding that could save you hundreds or thousands of pounds.
Are there any features that are basically 'would likes’, as opposed to necessities, which could simply be omitted from the application.
- Should I be concerned about my supplier using sub-contractors?
- There’s nothing actually wrong with your supplier using sub-contractors – but it’s not ideal. Once your supplier starts using sub-contractors you, as the client, risk losing some control over the development process. You may not have met everyone involved at your chosen supplier but you probably won’t know anything about the sub-contractor – or even if the supplier uses sub-contractors – unless you ask. Acumen never uses sub-contractors for coding work. Our reasoning for this is very simple – our work is of the highest possible standard – and we’re not prepared to risk our reputation or our client’s projects.
- Why should I do business with Acumen?
- Acumen is a dedicated team of software development professionals, based in Coventry in the UK. Our mission is to provide quality software, within budget and on time. We always aim to fully understand the needs and objectives of your organisation before starting to write reams of program code.
Understanding of your needs and objectives is our primary objective, because without this we cannot write the quality software that you require. Technically, our work is of the highest possible standard, utilising the most current Microsoft development tools. We always deliver to time and to the agreed budget, and can provide the strictest, most objective available testing and quality assurance for your project. With the exception of truly objective, third-party testers, Acumen does not use subcontractors. Your code will be written here, in our offices, by people that you have met, not in a “code factory” somewhere in the Far East.
We never tie our clients in by withholding knowledge, skills or intellectual property. At the end of the project, we always deliver the full, documented source code and sign over the intellectual property that it represents to the client. Having said that, we’re happy to provide ongoing support, further enhancements, or whatever else you might want from us. We know our services are attractive enough in their own right – we never need to force a relationship.
- Should I trust a company that uses the word 'Leverage’ and 'Synergy’ in the same sentence?
- Okay so this sounds as though we’re being flippant but actually we’re being very serious. At all times during your dealings with Acumen we will do our best to communicate in plain English and without using clever words and phrases that sound very professional but that, at the end of the day, don’t really mean anything.
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