Evaluating Software

Purchasing a new special purpose software package isn't easy.  How do you really know what you are purchasing.  Questions like "Am I buying junk?".  "Is the company any good?" or "Is the software worth what I am paying for it?" are all valid.  This web page will hopefully answer some of the questions.

Am I buying Junk?

At one time or another we all have bought something and wish we hadn't.  There is even a term for this, it's "buyers remorse".  Buyer's remorse is bad enough when we buy a steak at the store that ends up tasting like shoe leather.  However, when you are spending several hundred dollars of a charity's money on software, you really don't want buyers remorse.  So what do you look for when evaluating software.

Demo Copy

If you can't get a demonstration copy, throw it back.  Specialized software is too expensive to risk money on it not doing what you need to do.  If you are evaluating more than one package, make a checklist of what your organization is going to need before evaluating a single package.  A checklist will help you remember what you need when you are evaluating.   If one package has an option you like, add it to the checklist to remember to check and see if other packages have the same option. 

Three factors are critical when evaluating software:   Is it easy to use? Does it capture all the data elements needed?  Does it provide the reports needed easily?. 

Ease of use is critical to any software package.  Rule 1 of computers:  Computers are tools that we as humans use to assist us in our day to day jobs.  Unfortunately, there has never been a successful implementation of the DWIM (Do What I Mean) program.  The next best alternative is to find a software package that is fairly intuitive.   Are the data entry screens well laid out.  Is it easy to find information in the system.  Is there consistency of terms and procedures throughout the program. 

Ease of use also extends to the users of the program.  If you are evaluating software people that use computers constantly, then complexities in the software may be no big deal.  If, on the other hand, your users are semi-literate with computers, the software needs to be straight forward. 

Data captured is equally important, Most applications in Information Technology end up being some sort of data warehouse.  Put the data into the warehouse, and get it back as needed.  If a software package is going to be a good fit, it must able to store and retrieve the data necessary to accomplish the job.  For example, a program such as QuickBooks, arguably the best accounting software package for small businesses, isn't worth a nickel for doing genealogy work.  One needs software that captures the needs of the business.  If the software doesn't capture the data you need to store, that package is not worth buying.

Reports get the data out of the program and into a useable format is important.  Imagine having all the census data for a town in a data base, but the ability to do statistical analysis isn't available.  What good is the data base.  Reports gather the information in a useable format.  From the vendor perspective, knowing what reports will be needed is always challenging.  Vendors do their best to give the reports they think their clientele will need. If the program doesn't provide the needed report, ask the vendor.  Many vendors desire to improve their software and depend upon their users to drive modifications.  Others may have ways of providing custom reports, at additional cost. that may be unique to your site.  Before dismissing any software package for lack of reports, talk to the vendor.  It may be they are more then willing to provide that report.

Is the software worth what I am paying for it?

Software isn't cheap.  Today it's very easy to spend multiples of the hardware cost on software.  Why is software so costly?  Development of a program of any size takes months to develop. Software developers spend many hundreds of hours developing programs before the sale of their first program.  They expect to recover their expense in the development.  Specialized software, that limited to a small market, tends to cost more as each sale must recover more of the development cost per copy then say a program like Quicken which every man and his brother could use.

The question for the buyer should be "will this program pay for itself?" When a IT consultant evaluates a program for a company he looks at the payout period.  How long before the purchase of this software is saving the charity money?  An example would be a charity that uses CharityTrak onlinr.  If the software saves a clerk making $10.00 per hour 1/2 hour a day in searching for files, then the savings per day is $5.00.  For a $50.00 dollar program, the program will be saving the charity money in just 10 daysa month. One may think the charity is still paying the clerk the same amount, but now the clerk can get more done in the same amount of time.

Support

Always ask about support.  How much? How long? Can I renew it?  90 day support is too short a time for any user to really get into a program.  One year is standard for many software packages.

Check on the upgrade policy.  Are you buying today's software (with today's limitations) or are you buying a subscription also Obviously online systems are exempt from the client having to do an upgrade. However, you can ask the software company how often their software is upgraded. Five Gulf upgrades the software on a regular basis, as users request new items.

I upgrade my software based on the needs of the client.  I encourage, often beg, for my clients to tell me what they need.  Those in the trenches know what the needs are, not someone in an IT office.  Input to improving the program is accepted from everyone, client or not.  Not everything asked for is implemented, but everything is considered. 

Is the Company Any Good?

One question always asked is "Who am I buying this from?"  In the software world, there are thousands of small software vendors, such as Five Gulf, that are marketing software.  With the ubiquity of the computer, many are generating programs right and left.  One man shops are common and shouldn't be ruled out.  With the downturn of the mainframe, many seasoned professionals have started their own software vending businesses and are turning out quality work based on many years of design and development experience.  One man shops provide the opportunity to get quality technical assistance as the support tech may be the person that wrote the program.

Ask the company for client references.  Take the time to call them.  Ask about the company.  Has the vendor responded to all the needs of the client.  Is the vendor easy to work with.  Ask about the software too.  There is nothing like the opinion of people that use the software daily to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down for the software. 

One thing extremely important in any company is integrity.  There appears to be  companies around that try to  look bigger then they are.  Lots of generic email addresses may be a sign of a company that is trying to look bigger then they are.  To this author, it is disingenuous to represent a company to be larger than what it really is.

Yes, there are risks inherent in small shops.  However, software doesn't break.  If a package satisfies the needs of the charity, it will continue to satisfy those needs till the needs change.  If something does happen to the vendor, you still have the software for eternity.