Choosing a Software

By: Christiene Villanueva

How do you choose software that's just right for your company's use? What are the things that you should include in your checklist? Take a closer look at these guidelines:

Key Selection Criteria in Detail:
1) Company History & Experience

How Long Have They Been Around?

Company background is essential because unlike brick and mortar companies, software companies are often small, and even beyond national boundaries. Since often these companies will be handling sensitive data related to your company, one needs to be doubly sure. Law hasn't quite been able to pin down the particularities of the software industry, and in case of misdemeanor, it would be harder to hold such a company accountable.

One can safely assume that past records are a good indicator of future performance. Therefore it is a must that some time be put in researching the company before one even goes on to consider the software itself.

There are a few things that need to be checked. How long have they been around? Are they registered? How long have they been in the field? For example if they're offering business communication software, have they been in this industry long enough to know it well? How long have they been in their current business? Even if the software is new, do they have experience developing related softwares?

What is Their Niche?

Another very important factor about the company's history is the niche it has experience in serving. Does the company know your niche well enough to know your needs? If you are a small to mid sized business, it is unlikely a company serving the Fortune 500 will offer you the best solution. If you work from home, it is unlikely a solution serving large offices will meet your needs.

The Ultimate Testament - The Customer

The ultimate judge of a software are its users. To get a true picture of a software's workings, it is important to look at how customers are using it and what their comments are. It may entail looking at the site to see if they include a client's list or page. If the list exists, is extensive and includes recognizable names, that is usually a good sign. Customer testimonials on the site are a good indicator of its performance, and one could also take the initiative of getting in touch with the customers oneself and seeking comments.


There are certain things with the software industry that a buyer should be wary of. Because of the lower entry and exit costs, software startups are known to have shorter live spans than traditional companies. Lots of these companies are known to ride high on the success wave when the industry is doing well and go "pop" when the industry bubble bursts. This was well exemplified by the .com bubble burst of 2000, when many software companies disappeared without a trace.

It is debatable whether the current spate of "web 2.0" companies also constitute another expanding buddle which will inevitably burst, but it makes sense that the buyer be wary and bet their money with dependable companies with proven track records.

2) Cost

There's no denying the importance of cost in buying decisions across the board. Yet the issue of cost should be seen in a broad perspective, because low entry costs may result in higher costs along the product's life or higher overall costs for the company.

Features vs. Price

A cost benefit analysis makes sense, as opposed to only considering costs. The costs need to be seen in light of the range of features and functionalities the product provides. An online document management system may not be the lowest priced in the market, but it may also allow you the capabilities of setting up a virtual office.

A decision point is whether one wants to keep the budget down and buy a product with most of the main features, or willing to shell out extra money for the entire feature set. As costs go down, one will have to make some compromises on the features, but good research can reveal products which offer a very good cost to feature ratio.

Needs vs. Price

Another question which arises is whether there is an overlap between features and needs at all. Many of the features may not relate to needs which were sought to be addressed at all.

To retain objectivity one can clearly define ones needs, and accordingly classify features as "needed features" and "features not needed". It is possible that all features may not fit nicely into this scheme as certain features may not be absolutely essential, but would be valuable still. Another possible scheme of classifying features could be "must have", "nice to have", and "future requirements" (relating to features that do not serve an immediate need but would in the future)

Armed with this objective information, one would be in a better position to assess various software solutions priced differently & offering different feature sets. A word of caution, purchasers often tend to go for products with loads of features, but never get around to using half of them. This represents wasted expenditure, so it is important to analyze all features in light of needs.

3) Ease of Use/Adoption

A learning and adoption curve is involved with every new software purchase as it needs to be integrated with current systems or other softwares and the end users have to be brought up to speed using it. If the software is chunky and too complex, one can be sure of adoption resistance.

Ease of Use

The software should have an intuitive interface, and use of features should be pretty much self evident. The shorter the learning curve training a new user, the better. Solutions which are too complex or have crudely designed interfaces are major turnoffs for users.

The software should have the ability to easily fit into the existing workflow and IT systems. It may often be necessary for the new software to communicate with established systems. Web-based softwares are a good example of softwares which nicely fit into diverse systems with minimum friction, because they need no elaborate implementation at the customers end and can be run from simply a web browser.


To get a measure of "shelfware", i.e., softwares which are purchased but never used, one just needs to look at the statistics. Some studies peg the number of content management solutions which are shelved at 20-25%. At around a million dollars an implementation, this is really pretty expensive shelfware! According to another study, 22% of purchased ERP licenses are not being used, in U.S.-based companies.

No doubt, "Shelfware" is a result of ill thought to purchase decisions. These studies merely underline the importance of making an educated purchase lest the money is not spent on software that does little more than cooling its heels on an office shelf. One possible way to protect against shelfware is the new concept of "pay as you go" hosted solutions. The software is hosted with company itself, and buyers merely have to pay a monthly subscription rate, which can be opted out in case the customer realizes that the software is not compatible with his business.


No matter how easy to use or intuitive a software is, there are bound to be times when one can't find out how to work a particular feature or a glitch crops up. Hence quality of support services is very important.

Some software solutions may require you to hire dedicated support staff of your own, while with others company support suffices. The cost of hiring support staff needs to be factored into the buying decision

Provider support may be in the form of human help, i.e., customer care executives who promptly (or not) attend to your problems. Here also the level of quality in terms of helpfulness of solution provided, availability and conduct of support executives matters.

Support can also be in the form of an extensively documented help engine, or extensive help information on the company site, which provides solutions to almost all of the questions you could possibly have. This form of support is often more efficient than the human version.


Training is another form of support which deserves special mention. Some companies offer free training seminars (online and offline) to help customers get up to speed with using a software. This greatly helps in getting started with a new software. In other cases the software might not warrant much specialized training at all. In some cases the company might offer paid training, which might be essential and whose cost needs to be factored into the purchase decision.


Maintenance costs and efforts have a major impact on the performance and adoptability of a software, and hence should form important criteria of the buying decision. In case the software is hosted at the company's end, it is of utmost importance of the customer that the software be available online at all times, or the "uptime". Uptimes are covered under the "service level agreement" when you purchase a software and range from 98% to 99.99%. A minimum uptime of 99% is what one must look for.

It is also important how much upkeep a software requires. Will specialized staff need to be hired to maintain and run the software? Or is it low maintenance or maintenance free?

The company's upkeep is also important. Efforts to constantly improve upon the software underline a commitment to providing you quality service. Are bugs fixed promptly and on an ongoing basis? Are they just releasing a software and not updating it? One should develop a habit of keeping up with the company newsletter, new release notes or the "what's new" section on their site. Periodic newsletters and a "what's new" section (which keeps getting updated) are indicative of a dynamic company constantly looking to improve.

4) Familiarity

The "feel" of the software is another important criterion. Us software users are habituated creatures for whom changing a software is as difficult as changing our favorite coffee or newspaper. The software should keep with the basic layout and navigation schemes we are used to. This makes for quicker transition.

One good way is to compare with the OS in which we would use the software. Does it have the same basic schema as the OS environment? A software with Mac schema on Windows wouldn't sit that well. Another way could be to compare with other softwares which we are used to. If you are switching from an expensive software to a cheaper one, choosing a software with a similar "feel" would make sense. Does it retain most of the main features you are used to? Is it easy to get to those features?

5) Security

Security is a top consideration because in many cases the software company will be handling information critical to us - business, financial or personal data. We need to be triply assured that the sanctity of our data will be preserved and there are no risks of it being lost or falling into wrong hands. This factor requires some research on the client data handling systems and practices of the software provider.

What safety features does the provider have?

Data encryption is the practice followed by warring sides during WW2 to protect the secrecy of their messages. It is now used by most companies follow to protect the integrity of their clients' information. Encryption is the process of coding information so that it is unreadable by anybody but those who have the key. There are different types of encryption, each of which is associated with a different level of security. DAS is one level, which was previously used extensively but is now known to have vulnerabilities. 128 bit encryption is offered by companies offering top notch security.

Password protection is another important facet of security. What is the strength of the software to withstand manual and automated attempts to hack your password and access your information? The ability of the system to accurately detect a hacking attempt and lock up in time is important.

Data Backup

In extreme cases of system breakdown caused by a facility fire, natural disaster or technical glitch etc, it is important that your data is frequently and adequately backed up and not stored at a single facility. Good company data backup practices ensure that even if your local computer crashes, your data is safe and accessible through the software.

Certain factors are to be considered in backup practices. The first is the frequency of backups. If there is a long gap, there is a possibility of data being lost in intermittent periods. Secondly, what are the security arrangements at the facilities where your data resides? Is it manned and guarded by security personnel? What other systems are in place to protect the data? Is there a good firewall? What is the protection against virus attacks? What procedures are in place for disaster management?

All this requires research, and the extensiveness of the research depends on the sensitivity of the data we will be entrusting the software provider with. A personal mail program does not require the same kind of security as softwares handling banking or business information.

Track Record

As with company background, a little research on the security track record makes sense. Has the company ever been vulnerable to attacks before? What were the losses? How did the company react? How many years has the company had a good record. New companies will most likely have a clean record, but that isn't necessarily indicative of good security practices.

The Server System

The server system where the sensitive data actually lies is very important. This information will mostly be available in the terms of agreement. Is it state-of-the-art? Is it in step with the latest in the market?

The server infrastructure could be owned by the software provider themselves or outsourced to a dedicated national network providing hosting solutions. Outsourced hosting is a good thing because dedicated hosting companies have extensive expertise and infrastructure in protecting data, often handling critical data of Fortune 500 companies. This frees up the software provider to concentrate on the software itself.

The company might not have an elaborate setup at all, running the software and processing data through computers set up in the garage somewhere acting as servers. This should get your alarm bells ringing! The safety of your data could well depend on a baseball flying through the door.


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