When compared to purchasing Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) software, investing in bespoke software development is often perceived as a higher-cost and more risky option – particularly when you’re trying to justify spend to a senior management team who may not be so familiar with your technology needs and objectives.

Group of people in a room with glass walls, having a discussion

However, as we’ve covered previously, there are many cases where bespoke solutions can deliver greater value over the long-term than something off-the-shelf, for example when dealing with complex demands such as multiple integrations, or strict non-functional requirements such as high performance and robust security.

And as I’ll explore in this article, even if you already have COTS systems in place that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from incorporating elements of bespoke development into your tech stack. By supporting greater connection and communication between your existing systems, custom software can join up key journeys for your middle users and end customers – delivering operational efficiencies and usability improvements, without the cost of a full migration.

The challenge of disparate systems

As organisations grow and evolve over time, they accumulate multiple systems to solve different business functions. For example, it’s not unusual for a business to have dedicated finance management software, workflow and scheduling tools, and a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system among many others, as well as inventory management and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions for ecommerce businesses dealing with physical and digital products.

Example ecommerce platform architecture diagram

As the need for each new system is identified, traditional criteria may suggest that purchasing a COTS solution – with predictable recurring costs and a third-party development roadmap – is the most suitable approach. However, these criteria tend to only view each solution in isolation, causing issues to appear over time due to a lack of integration and poor communication between systems. This will be a familiar scenario to organisations across all industries that are dealing with legacy software, and particularly those that have previously merged different business lines, audience bases and even separate companies (commonly seen among insurance providers, media and communications distributors, and many more).

A lack of unification and consolidation across systems and processes can further compound issues; for example, new customers brought in through the acquisition of another company may have their own specific flows, which cannot be served by current systems. Even for existing flows and ways of working, these may have evolved and diversified over time to the point where they cannot be effectively managed through a single system – often requiring a lot of manual work that ends up frustrating both middle users and end customers alike.

Many legacy COTS systems are also not designed with an organisation’s users and their journeys in mind, but instead are built according to business lines, with compliance front-of-mind which (while understandable) doesn’t always allow for a great deal of flexibility. This leads to services that are driven by systems rather than the other way around, with complicated and unintuitive customer journeys as a result.

Close up of person holding smartphone and using laptop

Add to all this the fact that the User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design of these systems is often basic – to the point of being unsuitable for exposure on a public-facing website – and it’s clear that action is required. Indeed, we’re seeing more and more organisations looking to improve the experience for their customers and middle users by transforming their legacy systems (both COTS and bespoke), having worked with clients such as ateb, Sodexo and RS Components to do just that.

Solving the problem of integration

Transforming legacy systems is of course a complex challenge, often requiring the modernisation of an extensive digital estate that blends old and new software, while at the same time keeping existing operational processes running smoothly. Efforts to consolidate everything onto a single platform can be blocked by a lack of stability or security in your legacy systems, while a wholesale replacement risks not only high costs, but significant downtime as your systems are replaced – although this can be mitigated by adopting a strangler pattern approach to development, which allows elements of your system to be migrated gradually and run in parallel with legacy solutions, to streamline the onboarding process for middle and end users and ultimately deliver you working software (and therefore value) more quickly.

Bespoke development activities can also deliver you a homogenous middleware layer to consolidate the systems you already have in place, using custom APIs to integrate these systems and enable data to be shared and consumed across your full technology stack. Displayed outwardly via your website (providing a single portal for users) as well as the primary interface for inward-facing activities (such as customer service), this middleware layer also plays a crucial role in removing barriers to the completion of key processes and journeys, and provides a holistic view of the customer and their interactions to your teams.

To ensure that your bespoke software fulfils these objectives however, it’s crucial that any development work is underpinned with a clear understanding of both the current ‘as-is’ picture and the future ‘to-be’ vision. We’ve used a range of discovery techniques to help clients achieve this insight in the past, conducting stakeholder workshops and user story mapping exercises with organisations such as the NHS and Jaguar Land Rover to define requirements and inform a clear development roadmap.

Person putting a post-it note saying 'social media' on a wall

Taking a User-Centred Design (UCD) approach to the design and development of your new software is also vital – combining the insight captured in the discovery phase with research into those people who will actually be using the system (for example call centre workers, or representative users) to ensure your processes and journeys are mapped to their needs and mental models.

A connected future

Both the strangler pattern approach and the creation of a custom middleware layer can deliver huge value – enabling you to make improvements without impacting business continuity, and while avoiding the significant upfront costs of a full platform rebuild.

More than this though, these bespoke development innovations can deliver direct cost savings and efficiency gains, by reducing the time your team spends on administrative tasks (and minimising the risk of process errors that will need to be rectified at a later stage). Additionally, providing a fast, seamless, engaging and even enjoyable experience for users will measurably impact customer satisfaction and loyalty, leading to more repeat business and greater word-of-mouth referrals.

At Box UK we have first-hand experience of the benefits that can be gained taking action against troublesome legacy systems, and our multidisciplinary team have helped many clients effectively diagnose and remedy issues to drive efficiency gains, grow audiences, and build out a more attractive digital offering. Take a look at the work we’ve delivered previously to learn more, and get in touch today to discuss your specific requirements with a member of our team.

About the Author

Paul Evans

As Box UK’s Head of Operations, Paul Evans is responsible for overseeing the company’s operational processes to deliver maximum efficiency, promoting company culture and vision, and ensuring a superb customer experience. The role includes designing and implementing business strategies and plans to meet comprehensive goals for future performance and growth.