When is off-the-shelf software a better fit?

Nick Thompson, managing director, DCSL Software, discusses the crucial steps organisations should take when deciding between bespoke and off-the-shelf software.

There are many benefits to having a custom made software application, but it is not always the best investment. There are lots of business scenarios where existing, mass-market products do the job so well and so consistently that there is no real need to create the same functionality in a custom solution.

Generic applications can be extremely sophisticated, as they are developed for a wide audience and have had considerable investment going into their construction. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel where an existing solution works perfectly well.

Take accounting software for example, market leaders such as Sage, Quickbooks and Xero are dominating the industry with feature-rich and user-friendly applications.

There is simply not much sense in re-designing accounting software that works well. Instead, companies typically choose to integrate a bespoke element into the existing system for any added functions they need.

Know what you’re looking for

When your business identifies a need for new software, it’s important to take the time to develop a use case for it. Asking a set of initial questions and documenting the response from the key stakeholders involved will help you arrive at the right decision on where to invest.

When starting your project map out the key functions, as described in the workflow diagram below*, as this gives you a good overview of the functions you need and will lay the groundwork for creating a software specification further down the line once you start working with a developer.

In some cases, you may not know exactly what it is you want to achieve, or even understand the potential possibilities available to you. However, a skilled development team will be able to help you analyse your problems and offer clear definitions with realistic timescales to deliver.

An important part of building a use case is understanding the financial benefits of having access to the new software. If you can identify how these functions will have a positive impact on the productivity or profitability of your business, you will already have a good view of what the application will be worth to your organisation. This in turn will help you make decisions on how to spend your software budget.

Ideal business areas for bespoke software applications

The more unique a function or process is to your business, the harder it will be to find an existing solution that does exactly what you need it to do. This is where bespoke development can really make a difference.

There are some examples of functions that are notoriously difficult to match up to existing off-the-shelf applications, as they will often be very diverse and require a highly tailored approach.

Online self-service

If you have a service offering that has a unique or innovative edge, chances are that you will want to do things differently to everyone else. This is where you can bring your user experience vision to life with the help of bespoke software, web and mobile app development.

The internet is a constantly growing hive of innovation, and you can choose to bring together all the best elements of the latest technology to your service pages and apps.

Operational systems

Nobody knows your processes better than you do. Chances are that you have developed an internal operational landscape that is so perfectly tailored to your teams and service delivery that there won’t be a single system out there that supports the way you work. Rather than patching together a set of different systems to deliver one outcome, it is often a good investment to create your own software.

Internet of Things (IoT)

We’re seeing a dramatic increase in the number of IoT innovations in British industry. Hardware and physical equipment is now increasingly being designed with connectivity in mind, and needs specialist software and integration applications. Many companies are now able to create a powerful competitive edge with not just great products, but with smart technology that brings them to life for the user.


When deciding between bespoke and off-the-shelf software ask yourself some simple questions, do I have a unique problem that requires a tailored approach? What do I need the benefits to be? Will this be a good use of my budget and what could I expect the return on investment to be?

Involve your key stakeholders throughout the decision process so that everyone can see the use case for this new piece of software and have set expectations of what it will look like. Although projects evolve, agreeing on the groundwork should help to minimise the risk of contrasting ideas that could otherwise arise later on in the development journey.

You may find that some functions of off-the-shelf software will fit your needs but others don’t, in this case don’t be afraid to take a leap and add on some bespoke elements, or even start from scratch. A good development partner will help you design and implement a solution that suits you, is cost effective and well maintained.

Nick Thompson is managing director at DCSL Software

Further reading on buying software

Owen Gough, SmallBusiness UK

Owen Gough

Owen was a reporter for Bonhill Group plc writing across the Smallbusiness.co.uk and Growthbusiness.co.uk titles before moving on to be a Digital Technology reporter for the Express.co.uk.

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