When a business has a specific need for software that cannot be addressed by off-the-shelf software, it tasks in-house developers to create its own software or hires a bespoke software development provider to do the job.
As a tech consultancy that’s been building bespoke, client-tailored software for more than 13 years now, we’d like to share some useful tips and best practices with you.
Off-the-shelf versus custom software development
Out-of-the-box software is packaged software available to a broad audience with varying, albeit fundamentally similar, needs.
For example, Hubspot is designed for a vast global audience of marketing and sales professionals who need to automate their marketing function, track and measure performance and other KPIs, better visualise sales funnel, etc. It’s now available to the mass market for free or on a subscription basis, which unfolds more robust features and capabilities.
On the other hand, custom software development implies development and release of a software product either adapted for one organisation or for a very specific group of users.
For example, some time ago, we at Evolve helped LaFarge, one of the UK’s leading construction aggregate suppliers with 140 plants across the country, build a bespoke ordering system, which was fully integrated with their ‘off-the-shelf’ optimisation solution. This ordering system was designed to manage and allocate transport based on daily customer orders and was meant to be used by the company’s procurement department. This custom system allowed LaFarge operators to procure the right amount of transport to fulfil customer demands and expectations at a cost-effective price point. As a result of bespoke software development, Lafarge could save up to £4 million per year and increase haulage utilisation to 60%.
If you’re not a technology company and don’t have an in-house software development team or have a small one, the most viable solution would be to find a reliable and experienced tech partner to help build custom software. As a rule, professional software houses specialised in bespoke solutions have an internal pool of talent and resources and own code library. They follow well-established software development and testing methodologies, know how to optimise your budget, choose the right architecture and tech stack, etc. All of these will help keep your cost down and release a high-quality and secure solution explicitly tailored to the most sophisticated needs of your business.
Read more about the Pros & Cons of bespoke software development.
7 tips for building bespoke software the right way
1. Analyse your current processes thoroughly, define bottlenecks, critical issues, and future needs
To create anything, including software, you should define your current process, your expectations, and your criteria for success. Defining these things is crucial to the overall project management process.
Make sure you know the following things:
- Your current process.
Don’t make assumptions; ask the subject matter experts who do this job on a daily basis or hire external consultants to audit your processes if you lack in-house resources.
- Why you want to make changes.
Again, don’t think that bespoke software will be better than your current legacy or an off-the-shelf solution. Test the theory, or at least get feedback and buy-in from stakeholders at all levels.
- What output you’re expecting from the change.
Draw the desired workflows and sketch out all functions and processes that your bespoke software should support.
2. Break your project down into smaller chunks
Whether it’s a small project with a few basic features or a very large project with many complex elements, you absolutely can’t do it all in one go. It’ll help if you must break your project down into smaller, more manageable pieces.
First, it will help you clearly define what you should be doing. You can split it into its most basic components and work on them one by one. Keep them separate. This will help avoid the confusion you might run into if you work with all modules at once. After you are done with all the modules and make sure they all work independently, you can move on to merging them.
3. Haste makes waste
Rushing tasks usually ends in the worst type of disaster. Writing code is a time-consuming process that often involves a number of critical subtasks that shouldn’t be confused. It takes patience to complete these tasks successfully. This is one of the basic techniques of software development.
Many developers, both seasoned and rookies, are obsessed with writing code that is perfectly optimised from the start. This could lead them to ignore the most fundamental programming best practice: writing simple and functional code.
Think of it this way: you pick some shortcut and spend half the expected time writing a piece of code that should run at super fast speed. But unfortunately, it doesn’t do what it should! You will have to go back to basics: figure out the logic again, and then rewrite the entire block of code. It doesn’t sound like fun.
Even if the coding process takes too long, writing a clear and concise code should always be your first priority. It can always be improved, optimised or accelerated later.
4. Put together a technical requirements specification and a realistic plan with milestones
Build or hire a team that will include front-end and back-end developers, QA specialists and testers, a few subject matter experts, and someone to lead the overall initiative. Create an achievable project roadmap altogether. Make sure it’s realistic; for instance, you cannot create a complex workflow and deliver it in a week.
Plan for milestones to keep the project on track. These are the different stages of development that need to be completed within a specific timeframe and on budget. You can review the work at each milestone to see if you need to make changes to the planned timeline or budget.
5. Use code repositories early on
As the project scales, it becomes more complex and difficult to manage. This is why code repositories such as Github, Bitbucket or devZing are an important part of the software development process.
Using the repository, you can upload all your code to the cloud and keep track of every single change that you (or any other member of your team) make to the code. It compares each new “version” of your project to the previous one. And here’s the best part: if a problem ever occurs with a new version, you can undo the change that caused the code to break.
6. Never treat QA and testing as an afterthought!
Testing your software prior to deployment is an important part of any software development lifecycle.
Imagine putting a lot of time and effort into a programming class project for several weeks. But when the day of dispatch arrives, your application refuses to run!
Sometimes we get so carried away with writing code that we forget to check if it works correctly. Other times, we can relax a little, thinking that there is nothing that could go wrong. Actual projects are of much greater value than just school projects. To a certain extent, you can be just wrong; otherwise, you may lose an important client.
There are several standard types of testing to help you identify major and minor problems with your software.
- Unit testing
- Integration testing
- System testing
- Stress Testing
- Security testing (e.g. penetration testing)
- Performance testing
- Automated testing
- Usability testing
- Mobile testing
As a tech consultancy, we recommend making your testing process as comprehensive as possible. Then it will be easier to make sure that your software works perfectly, without any random errors or bugs. By following the right testing methodology, you can create software that has the following qualities:
- Maximum functionality
- Ease of use
- Optimal efficiency
7. Document everything that pertains to your project
Documentation is essential at all stages of software development and implementation. You know that you need to determine what you have and what you want—your project plan states who is responsible for each part, as well as dates and expectations.
Make sure you have the following:
- Test plan and checklist for a complete software review;
- A statement of scope to ensure you avoid feature creep;
- A deployment plan that defines who will start using the software and when;
- A training plan and detailed user documentation, so people don’t get frustrated and ask questions when rolling out a new resource.
Although this is not a complete list of best practices when it comes to the software development process, it does help understand better what it takes to build bespoke software and what things to focus on before and during your development project.
If you need professional help with your custom software development – do get in touch with Evolve! We'll be happy to share our client case stories and show how we make a difference compared to other UK-based consultancies!