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Best Practices for Developing Custom Applications

Best Practices for Developing Custom Applications

Developing a custom software application can provide many advantages to organizations over commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products. If you are considering developing a custom application, here is some advice and best practices to follow to help you ensure you get the most from your investment.

When You Should Consider Developing a Custom Application

Now that you have determined the custom application development is the right choice for your organization, there are a number of best practices to remember to help ensure your project produces a positive outcome.

  1. When you have unique or complex technical requirements that cannot be easily met with a COTS product. COTS products come with a core set of features intended to meet the needs of most customers. When COTS products cannot accommodate the unique capabilities that your organization requires, custom software development must be considered.

  2. To create a service offering that meets the unique needs of your customer. The most effective way to build customer loyalty is to offer a customer experience that your competition cannot match. Custom applications can be the foundation of your competitive advantage by creating opportunities to customize service delivery to meet the unique needs of your individual customers.

  3. When you require a higher level of security than COTS products can offer. COTS products generally do a very good job of ensuring the security and integrity of their solutions. With the proliferation of supply chain security attacks, COTS products which are trusted by thousands of organizations could become a liability. Custom applications can be designed to incorporate the latest security best practices to provide you an enhanced level of confidence and protection.

  4. When you do not want to change your internal processes to match the way a COTS solution works. COTS products often impose their own processes and procedures on organizations. These processes and procedures can sometimes represent major challenges for organizations. Custom applications can be designed around your preferred processes and procedures and produce greater efficiencies.

  5. When you need to integrate with legacy systems that COTS solutions do not support. Many business today continue to rely on applications which are older COTS products that are no longer supported, or include customizations which are unique to the business. Integrating with these legacy systems can pose a challenge for some newer COTS products. These types of unique requirements can usually be easily accommodated by custom applications.

  6. When you require flexibility to adapt features to meet changing business requirements. COTS solutions are designed for a mass mark and may be difficult to customize. This issue does not exist with custom applications because accommodations can be made to the application architecture to make it easier to incorporate anticipated future requirements.

  7. To ensure easier change management. One of the biggest barriers when implementing COTS solutions is adoption. COTS products often impose their own processes and procedures and can be met with resistance from employees, increase human error, and end up being costly. A well-designed custom application will be easier for your employees to learn and adapt to because it does not require major changes to established processes and procedures.

  8. When you want to own the solution to support your competitive advantage. A COTS application is generally available to any organization who wishes to purchase it. A custom application however can be proprietarily yours. When your competitive advantage relies upon the unique capabilities of the software you are using, you may have no choice but to own the solution to preserve your competitive advantage.

  9. When you consider total cost of ownership. Many COTS software products today are essentially rented. They carry an upfront configuration cost and an annual license fee that usually increases over time. Although custom application development will almost always carry a higher upfront cost, the long-term expense is often lower than with COTS products. Custom application development can be very cost-effective in the long run.

Best Practices for Your Custom Application Development Project

  1. Thoroughly document all the details. Thoroughly documenting your functional and technical requirements is critical. As part of this process, you should also consider which features are essential and which could potentially be deferred to a later phase should budget constraints arise. Project plans produced by the vendor should include clear descriptions of your requirements.
  2. Consider your current and future needs. Custom application development is a long-term investment. When planning your project, it is important to not only define your current needs but to try and anticipate your ongoing and future requirements. This should include consideration of hosting, application management post-delivery, future functional enhancements, capacity considerations, automation opportunities, and other requirements. Documenting these future requirements can allow your development vendor to anticipate future requirements in their solution design making it easier and less expensive to implement these upgrades in the future.
  3. Don’t overlook the user experience. A critical aspect of ensuring a successful project outcome is the user experience. The scope of your project should include a formal use case-based review of how the solution should function. A well-designed user interface will help improve user productivity and help ensure you realize a positive return on your development investment.
  4. Actively manage the budget. Actively managing your budget begins with scrutinizing and understanding the details of what is included in the project scope and what is not. You should also ensure your agreement with your application development vendor includes a formal process for change management. Changes in scope impacting cost should require documentation and a formal sign-off before they are included in the project scope.
  5. Choose the right technology stack. You should begin by reviewing the technologies used in your existing enterprise applications and infrastructure to assess their suitability for your new application. Building your new application using the latest versions of technologies your technology team is already familiar with can save you money. However, it is important to ensure your technology choices do not constrain the performance of your new application.
  6. Create a realistic project plan. A project plan with realistic goals and milestones helps to ensure a positive outcome from your project. Use project milestones as a time to review progress, identify and address any challenges encountered, and consider risks that might jeopardize the project schedule.
  7. Ensure you have a rigorous test plan. A comprehensive testing plan typically includes unit testing, integration testing, functional testing, end-to-end testing, user acceptance testing, performance testing and smoke testing. You vendor should have a formal bug tracking system to document all bugs and their resolution.
  8. Plan the handoff. Your new software application will require a plan to manage the applications and its supporting infrastructure after it is handed over by the vendor. This should include purchasing hardware and software licenses, entering into an agreement with your application development vendor, engaging and additional vendor, training existing staff or hiring new staff.
  9. Don’t forget the product documentation. One of the deliverables from your application development vendor should be comprehensive product documentation. This should include comprehensive technical documentation about the design of the application, its integrations and infrastructure as well as user manuals for your future reference.

Another factor critical to the success of your custom application development project is choosing the right vendor.

Factors To Consider When Choosing a Custom Application Developer:

  1. Does the vendor understand your business needs? If your business is subject to industry or regulatory technology standards, working with a vendor who has experience in your industry can provide huge advantage. A good vendor can demonstrate they understand your business requirements by documenting them clearly and concisely and effectively answering any questions you have. A great vendor will go beyond this to offer suggestions that represents meaningful opportunities for your business to realize more return on your investment.

  2. Can the vendor demonstrate that they have the expertise needed to do the job? The right vendor will not only be able to demonstrate their relevant experience, technology expertise and a track record of successful projects, they will be able to present the specific professionals who will play key roles for your project. Take some time to review team members' expertise, background, and portfolios. You may also want to meet them before you entrust them with your project.

  3. Does the vendor have experience with your preferred technologies? Many enterprises have existing applications and infrastructure they rely on, and a team of professionals to manage and maintain those systems. Choosing a similar technology stack for your new custom application can reduce your ongoing maintenance and support costs by allowing you to leverage your existing team to meet some if not all of the needs of the new application. Unless there is a compelling reason to change, choose a vendor who can work with your existing technology stack.

  4. Can the vendor work within your budget? Some vendors will offer blanket assurances about budgets and deliverables to win a contract and then force the client to accept budget increases or a reduced scope to ensure they achieve their own profitability goals. A good partner will take a detailed approach to assessing your requirements, and the associated costs, that includes their estimates for delivering major elements and the assumptions and risks that could adversely impact their plan. There are many factors that can impact the final cost of a custom application development project. A good vendor can demonstrate they have considered they factors and prepared contingency plans to address them.

  5. Can the vendor demonstrate financial stability? A good vendor will be able to demonstrate their financial means to complete the project. Reviewing audited financial statements, credit ratings and bank references can help you ensure there will be unwelcome surprises during the development process.

  6. Is the vendor’s culture compatible with your own? For your project to be successful, you project team will need to work closely with the vendor team. When assessing the vendor, and their personnel, pay close attention to their soft skills, listening skills, and willingness to accommodate your project preferences.

  7. Can the vendor accommodate your preferred project management methodology? Inquire about the project management methodology they intend to use. If you are facing time constraints, and to ensure you can maintain visibility throughout the development process, you may want to request that the vendor use an Agile methodology.

  8. Has the vendor put forward a realistic project plan? Software vendors can sometimes promise unrealistic results. The plan should be reviewed in detail. The vendor should be able to provide a detailed explanation of their assumptions and include milestones which they are committing to meet. The plan should also include clearly defined milestones, mechanisms for frequent status updates, and other ways to provide you transparency into the work being completed.

  9. Can the vendor support you after the application was launched? Every custom application development project should come with a warranty period. Every development project will require remediation of some bugs. Your contract with the vendor should clearly define a warranty period and expectations for remediation of any issues that arise. Another consideration is stability. Choosing an established vendor that is financially stable ensures you have an ideal partner for future upgrades and enhancements. Having a vendor who is already familiar with your business and the application can provide significant long run savings.

  10. Does their proposal represent good value? Make your decision based on the entire value proposition the vendor is bringing forward. Consider the vendor’s capabilities, experience, project plan, proposed team and cost. Decisions weighted too heavily on price often result in disappointment.