Deciding between off-the-shelf and custom business applications? Think about your users

Deciding Between Off-the-shelf and Custom Business Applications?

Do a simple Google search for “off the shelf vs. custom application” and you'll find dozens of helpful and well-argued articles with convincing analyses of factors ranging from costs, features, and organizational and technical implications, to tax and legal considerations. Such articles can be useful as checklists to ensure you've done your due diligence when deciding how to approach the system or application you need. But one factor that is often given surprisingly little weight in the decision-making process (perhaps because it is difficult to quantify) is user experience. And user experience can turn your solution (and your investment of time, effort, and money) into a hit or a total bust.

The decision-making process

The pace and demands of the business environment in which many of us function dictates a somewhat rigid decision-making approach for deciding what kind of application will be used to support a business process: Make a list of the features you need, then find a solution that includes all or most of those features with an optimal mix of time to deploy and cost. This approach typically favors off-the-shelf solutions because they’re already built (speed), you can see what you're buying (features), and with a couple of phone calls to a sales rep, you can get a good sense of the initial and ongoing costs. Because the software and web application space is highly commoditized you’re very likely to find several (if not many) perfectly adequate off-the-shelf options for almost any business process you need to support. These applications tend to be feature rich and their commercial success is due in part to the fact that they do many things for many types of users. The flip side is that they are not designed to do any particular thing really well for a specific set of users—for your specific set of users.

Software as a communication channel

It can be argued that a web or business software application is a type of communication channel that facilitates the exchange of information. An application can process, store, organize, compute, and report on data, but ultimately, its main function is to add value by presenting information to humans in a useful way. Read the stories of companies that have created popular web applications and you’ll find example after example of “we started by developing a system for our in-house [fill in the blank] process and developed something that was so innovative and useful that now we want to share it with you”. The problem is that the broader the market for the application gets, the more bloated the feature set becomes and the more convoluted and watered down the user experience feels. This is not to say that an off-the-shelf tool will necessarily force you to compromise user experience. In many cases, doing basic due diligence to define the desired information architecture, user experience, and user interface (within the constraints of the off-the-shelf application) can provide you with the best of both worlds—the speed to launch and robustness of an off-the-shelf solution and a user experience tailored to your audience. You just need to account for that effort as part of your project.

Whether your particular set of circumstances calls for an off-the-shelf application or for a custom-built system, and regardless of whether the application is intended for your customers or for an internal audience, make sure the following factors inform the user experience:

The mindset of your users (audience)

The organizational goals that drive your need for a business application are clear. But do those goals align with the goals of the intended users? Take the time to understand the mindset of the people who will use the tool. Determine early on the degree to which you can meet their needs and address their barriers to adoption:

  • Do they view the eventual new tool with excitement and anticipation? Do they dread it as yet another system they’ll have to learn or a new set of tasks to add to their busy day? Or are they indifferent?
  • What is their technical proficiency? How difficult will it be for them to adapt to the functions and workflows in the new application?

An initial set of wireframe mockups and some user experience explorations with a small set of future users can give you a strong foundation for a successful launch down the road.

The complete technology mix

Typically, business applications must be integrated with existing systems—corporate user authentication schemas, CRM, analytics and reporting, intranet and extranet portals, etc. Taking into account the complete technology mix allows you to plan for a user experience that creates minimum friction for your users:

  • Can the new tool’s user authentication schema integrate with existing corporate credential systems so users don’t have to manage multiple sets of logins?
  • Can the new tool be configured to follow similar visual, navigation, workflow, and language patterns as other tools used day to day in the organization?
  • Can specific modules or features of the tool be syndicated to or embedded in other systems? Conversely, can the tool embed or display content from other systems to create a seamless experience for the user?


In addition to providing robust features and functions, your business application must also help its users learn how to use it. Invest time in developing thorough but succinct help text, documentation, and user guides, as well as clear tooltips and navigation labels, and make them available to users in the appropriate contexts throughout the system. Proper wayfinding tools reduce frustration and accelerate adoption of the new tool.

The market offers plenty of robust and reputable off-the-shelf solutions that can get you up and running quickly with potentially lower initial costs. At the same time, there may be significant benefits to developing a custom solution that is specifically tailored to your organization and may provide you with more flexibility and scalability to grow. In the end, the success of your application will be determined by its adoption and by the degree to which it improves the day to day lives of your users, your customers, or your audience.

CRC Marketing Solutions is a Minneapolis, Minnesota, digital agency that creates and executes ideas for building business.