The COVID-19 pandemic has driven a huge increase in demand for digital services, while at the same time introducing high levels of economic uncertainty for businesses across virtually all sectors. As a result, there is now more pressure than ever before to ensure the technology choices you’re making are the right ones, at both a tactical and a strategic level.

a man pointing to the data on a board

With budgets being squeezed, the appeal of Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) software can be tempting, thanks to the perceived predictability of cost, and outsourced maintenance and development roadmaps associated with these solutions. However, while there are many situations where COTS can indeed deliver an effective solution, if you have extremely complex requirements it may be a challenge to accommodate these within any single existing solution. In this case you face either adapting off-the-shelf products – which can add significant cost – or not achieving everything you want, putting you at risk from more sophisticated competitors or innovative new disruptors.

If you are grappling with a complex software brief, this article will show you how bespoke software development can help get you where you need to be. Looking at the different kinds of project that can benefit most from bespoke development, I’ll also cover some key considerations to maximise your return on investment.

What is bespoke software?

Bespoke software: advantages and disadvantages

Advantages of bespoke software

A key advantage of a bespoke software development project is the control it gives you over the direction of development. As I’ve written about previously on this blog, taking a bespoke computing approach will enable you to target any investment where it’s most needed – which not only means delivering the exact functionality you require, but ensuring that you don’t waste time, budget or effort on features you’re not going to use. This kind of ‘feature bloat’ can also introduce usability issues and inefficient processes, giving even more reason to avoid unnecessary elements in your software systems.

Person in an office setting, sat in front of computer monitor

How your solution works is just as important as what it does, and with custom software you have the flexibility to define this at a granular level too. By prioritising Non-Functional Requirements (NFRs) – also known as Quality Attribute Requirements (QARs) – at the outset of your project and defining the scenarios and success metrics that matter to you, you can build these requirements into the fabric of your software, for confidence that your finished software will perform in the way you want it to. (NFRs and QARs are very important to us here at Box UK, so check out our guide on the subject if you want to learn more.)

Have you thought too about how your new software solution will interact with your wider technology ecosystem? Integrations are often the most complex element when developing new software, and a bespoke project can help ensure these are tailored to deliver, consume, share and manipulate data as needed, providing you with holistic insight across channels and platforms, joined-up business processes, and a unified approach across disparate organisational functions. Importantly you’ll also have complete ownership over every element of your tech stack and future development roadmap, so your software can scale and flex along with your business.

Support is another advantage of bespoke software development solutions, particularly if you have an in-house team or are working with a trusted development partner focused on delivering against agreed SLAs, performance objectives and even your wider strategic goals (as part of a product team approach). These teams will likely be able to apply their knowledge of your specific situation to protect business-critical areas of your solution and accommodate predicted spikes in demand; they should also take a proactive approach to monitoring and updating your systems to maintain performance and mitigate against risk.

Finally, what if you have a new idea that isn’t currently catered for in the wider market? Here the imperative to build something bespoke is clear – and while enterprise-level teams may think they can’t move quickly enough to disrupt the market, a custom software solution geared around rapid iteration and scalability can help larger organisations embrace a start-up mentality to innovate at pace.

Group of people working around a corkboard with post-it notes

Advantages of using off the shelf software

While the benefits of bespoke development highlighted above are compelling, it’s important to recognise that this approach isn’t a silver bullet, and there are some disadvantages of bespoke software that give good reasons to look at off-the-shelf software instead (although careful planning and management of your bespoke project can often help address and minimise the impact of any disadvantages).

When weighing up your options, cost will no doubt be an influencing factor, particularly if you’re putting together a business case for other stakeholders in your business. While bespoke software development often removes the need for ongoing licence fees the higher upfront costs can be a disadvantage, so it’s important to understand what you want to achieve from your software and how long it’ll be in place for in order to identify the right approach for you – check out this post if you’re after further guidance on conducting an effective cost/benefit analysis.

Closely associated with cost is the time it’ll take to deliver you the functionality you need, and allow you to start driving value back into your business. As COTS solutions are typically quicker to implement than bespoke software they can support businesses in rapidly reacting to specific requests or business challenges; however you may find yourself hindered in terms of future flexibility and scalability. To balance these demands we are seeing more and more organisations using off-the-shelf software in a ‘project accelerator’ capacity – providing a foundation to kick-start bespoke development, or forming part of a wider technology ecosystem to support specific processes and areas of the business.

For organisations who are struggling with platforms that have grown and evolved over time, an off-the-shelf solution can also aid with addressing legacy issues, by helping consolidate and streamline complex, monolithic systems. At Box UK we’re experienced in employing a ‘strangler pattern’ (also known among our team as the ‘Anfield approach’) when moving legacy systems to new, better-supported platforms in a way that minimises downtime and disruption, as well as designing modular / hexagonal system architectures that reduce complexity and enable individual elements to be swapped out as needed.

With regards support, while working with a team on a bespoke software project helps secure high levels of responsiveness and business-specific insight (as covered above), if you’re managing your project internally remember that you will be responsible for maintaining this knowledge and capability. Working with a skilled partner can remove this responsibility away from you, while choosing a popular and proven programming language/framework can give you access to a wider talent pool should members of your team move on. It’s also vital to document design decisions and implementation choices, to provide a reference that can be shared across your team to guide future development work.

Uses of bespoke software

Taking into account both the benefits and drawbacks of bespoke software development helps identify those situations where the approach is best-suited to deliver against requirements and outcomes. As mentioned previously for example, projects with high levels of complexity often require bespoke development, whether this complexity takes the form of numerous or highly-specific features, integrations between disparate systems and data sets, and multi-stage business processes or user journeys.

When dealing with complex requirements you may also find that you need support at the outset of your project to define exactly what’s needed, and identify a programme of work that will deliver against your goals. At Box UK we understand that this requires input from right across the business, and our bespoke software consultants have guided multiple global organisations through the discovery phase to give them the information they need to move forward.

Person writing with a laptop on the table

Another important factor when choosing a development approach is the value that your software solution will deliver back into your business, whether by directly contributing to strategic objectives (such as revenue generation, operational efficiency and customer satisfaction) or by supporting fundamental business processes. In these cases you’re less likely to want to compromise on features, and may require a strong and consistent brand identity across your systems – making a bespoke solution that delivers everything you want it to an attractive proposition.

Key questions to support you in making an informed decision

To fully understand whether bespoke development is right for your software project, it’s important to conduct a thorough assessment of your needs and understand how these align with the development options on offer.

You should begin by defining the problem you’re trying to solve; this will help you understand whether there is a COTS solution available that already meets your needs, and help identify potential integrations and process changes needed to support development.

By defining the expected lifespan of your software along with the value it is set to deliver back into your business, you’ll be able to conduct a more accurate cost/benefit analysis when comparing bespoke vs off-the-shelf solutions. Take time too to review the costing models of the solutions you’re investigating, to identify additional spend that may otherwise have been overlooked (for example costs to scale, or additional integration costs).

If you do discover that a bespoke development solution is the best fit for your business, you then need to decide whether the work will be undertaken by your existing team, a new internal team or an external partner – as this will impact the technology choices you make, the support contracts you should put in place, and how you communicate requirements and changes.

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Safeguarding the success of your bespoke project

With digital technologies playing an increasingly pivotal role in driving growth and success, organisations simply can’t afford to invest in software systems that don’t respond to user and business demands. And if you’re operating in the enterprise or dealing with high levels of complexity, a bespoke solution can provide you with confidence in your systems’ ability to deliver.

At Box UK, we’re well aware of the imperative to identify the right software solution for you, and have supported numerous organisations across a range of industries in doing just that. We also understand the unique complexities of bespoke software development, applying more than two decades’ experience delivering high-traffic, high-transaction systems to support our clients throughout the full project lifecycle. Find out more about the results we’ve delivered for businesses across the globe, and contact us now to find out how we can help you.

About the Author

Andrew Skinner

A highly-experienced business development professional with over 15 years of software industry experience, Andrew has worked across the UK and Europe with organisations such as Aviva, Sainsbury’s, Legal & General, Barclays and Welsh Government to support their commercial success through the development and delivery of custom software solutions.