Best Practices for Building Custom Software
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Before describing what custom software is, it may help to describe what it’s not. Custom software is not off-the-shelf software. Commercial off-the-shelf software, or COTS, is a packaged solution geared toward a range of users. Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop are good examples.
By contrast, customized software is designed specifically for a certain user. A content management system or an automated invoicing platform are a couple of examples. In most cases, these software solutions will only be used by the company or organization they were created for.
Custom software development comes with its own set of challenges, and if you’re new to the process, those challenges may seem overwhelming. But following these best practices should help clarify the process and lead to more successful application development.
Clearly Define Your Goals and Requirements
Before you start building a custom software application, it helps to pin down your goals and business requirements. In most cases, you’ll be creating software to replace a current process that either isn’t working or isn’t achieving your business needs. Reviewing your existing systems, take a moment to answer the following questions:
- What’s your current process?
- What does your current process need to do better?
- Who will be using the new software and how?
- How will you know the new software has succeeded?
- Once it’s developed, will your team be able to maintain and update the software as needed?
You may want to consult subject matter experts to help answer these questions. Either way, deciding on the functionality of your new software ahead of time can save you a lot of headaches later on.
Choose Your Development Process Carefully
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and the same holds for custom software development. Here are some of the business processes software developers typically use:
Waterfall methodology focuses on delivering each phase of application development in order. These phases usually include defining your requirements, making and following a plan, implementing your software, verifying that everything works, and maintaining the software.
While waterfall doesn’t allow for much flexibility, it can be the best development methodology for certain projects. One of its biggest flaws is that, because it’s linear, it can be hard to go back and make adjustments when you run into unforeseen challenges.
Instead of progressing linearly, agile development moves in cycles. For example, after you complete the development phase of the project, your team reviews the work together and shares feedback. If everyone agrees that the phase has been successful, you’ll move on. Otherwise, you’ll circle back to make any needed changes to the product, then repeat the process. If you do end up circling back, you’ll adjust your project timeline and development costs accordingly.
Because agile allows for unseen challenges and adjustments, it has the potential to be a more successful and cost-effective software development process. That’s probably why more than 30% of development projects worldwide use agile.
You can’t be too careful about which software or app development process you choose. If your project is fairly small and doesn’t include many moving parts, waterfall may be the way to go. But if you may need to make adjustments throughout the development and implementation process, you’re probably safer with agile. If you outsource to a custom software development company, they may be able to advise you on which workflow to choose.
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Think About Outsourcing
If you have an in-house development team, you may think outsourcing doesn’t apply to you. But before you skip to the next item, ask yourself a few questions:
- Do your in-house developers have other things they need to be working on?
- Do they have the experience and know-how needed for this project?
- Is putting them on this project taking them away from other important tasks?
- Does your team have enough developers to handle a project this size?
- Could outsourcing save you money in the long run?
If you’re not sure of the answers, talk to your in-house development team and ask for their opinion. Often, hiring a custom software development company to handle or at least assist your project can help with:
- Development costs (cost reduction is the No. 1 reason most companies outsource)
- Delivery time
- Success of the final product
Outsourcing is usually a good idea for startups, who don’t always have enough staff to dedicate some to an ongoing development project. But larger companies can also benefit from outsourcing custom software development services.
Create a Realistic (and Flexible) Roadmap
Assemble a team of professionals (which may include project managers, subject matter experts, and DevOps) to guide the project. In collaboration with your team, create a roadmap for the project. As you do, keep the following in mind:
- Keep it realistic. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you’re not going to create the world’s best software in a week. Most projects take four to five months.
- Set achievable goals.
- Set clear milestones so you’ll know when they’ve been achieved.
- Set deadlines and budgets for each milestone, but remember that it’s ok if they fluctuate.
As you move through the software development life cycle, you’ll want to stop at each milestone to review the work you’ve done and make any needed adjustments to your plan. It’s also a good idea to share your progress with stakeholders at each milestone.
If you’re not sure where to start, a typical development process includes:
Don’t Ignore User Experience
Who are your end-users? If you’re rolling out mobile apps or custom software to the public, the user experience will give you the competitive advantage you need to climb to the top. But even if you’re using the software solely for your internal team, user experience is something you can’t afford to ignore.
Make sure the user interface is straightforward and free of clutter, and if relevant, allow for customization to meet your users’ individual needs.
Test, Test, Test
Testing isn’t something that should be saved for the end of the project. To avoid bugs and code failures, test from the early stages of development. There are two main types of testing you need to carry out: technical testing and user testing.
Performed by your software developers either manually or through automation, technical testing helps you ensure that the software application is working. You should start this testing early and continue throughout the project’s lifecycle.
By contrast, user testing is performed by beta users to make sure the software product holds up under scrutiny. While this testing will take place much later in the process, you shouldn’t save it for last either. Have users test the software as soon as there’s something to test. Working out the kinks in early versions can help you develop a better final product.
When doing technical testing, automation is your friend. In 2020, 78% of organizations were using automated testing, and it’s easy to see why. It makes the testing process faster and easier for everyone involved.
As you move through your software development project, documenting each step will help simplify project management and give you a resource to check your information against in the future. In addition to keeping meeting notes and a general roadmap, the following documents will help ease your process:
- Plan and checklist for testing
- Statement of scope
- Implementation plan
- Description of new features
- Training plan (if needed) to help people transition to using the new software
Keeping a record of your process can also come in handy with people who will want an update on your progress, such as stakeholders and your internal business team.
Whether you’re looking for a more efficient way to manage content, track payments, or serve clients, custom software development is an exciting step for your company. And if you follow these best practices, digital transformation can help you and your team reach new heights.