How to plan your custom application build
Today, organisations can employ a wide range of software packages to streamline customer care, backup and disaster recovery, or cybersecurity. Off-the-shelf software can satisfy many companies’ needs, but in some cases, you have to take the matter into your own hands through developing custom applications and software solutions.
In this article, we will try to give you an idea of what it takes to build a quality application for your business needs.
Why Would You Want to Build A Custom Application?
There are many reasons why an organisation may want to create a custom application. Among other things, you may do this to:
- Fix a problem or fill a need for people outside your company, e.g. your customers.
- Fix a problem or fill a need for people inside your company, like your employees.
This guide is going to focus on the latter case – building a custom application to treat issues inside your company. The steps you’ll need to take will differ depending on who you are making the changes for, but you should be able to adapt your process for other goals with minimal changes.
Custom vs off-the-shelf solutions – what’s the difference?
If there is a need to be filled in your organisation, building a custom application isn’t your only option. You may also choose to purchase an off-the-shelf software solution instead.
With that in mind, why would you want to craft an application from the ground up rather than get a pre-made package?
Well, custom-built applications have the following four advantages over their ready-to-use counterparts:
- They are tightly tailored to your needs. No one knows your issues and demands better than you. Whether your app is being built by a third party or your in-house team, a custom application can be suited to your exact requirements.
- They effortlessly integrate into your corporate environment. Are you using dozens of software solutions to support your workflows? If so, it may be difficult to find an off-the-shelf application that will work will all your existing packages. An app built from zero can be more easily customised and integrated into your current environment.
- They don’t have unnecessary features. Aiming to satisfy the “average” company, ready-made solutions are crafted with a wide array of needs in mind. They therefore may come with features that have no use for you, which may be problematic because unneeded features could make the app more sluggish and increase its size.
- They can be easily scaled and upgraded. You can and should plan for growth, which shouldn’t be terribly difficult to do if the app is custom-built for your company. Updating existing apps and migrating them to new, bigger environments can be painful, but with proper planning and implementation, scalability and upgradability with little effort are achievable.
On the other hand, off-the-shelf software can be deployed faster and much cheaper. If you have “typical” needs for your industry, ready-made packages could be the more reasonable choice.
If you can’t find any application package that satisfies your very specific needs, then it may be worth it to make your own software. In the long term, customised software can yield great returns, offsetting the initial investment.
The Key Steps for Planning Your Own Application Build
In broad terms, the building process of an application incorporates two components:
- Planning for the build.
- Controlling the build.
If you want your application to have its own commercial market, there are other things to consider as well – like efficient deployment and post-launch maintenance. Today, we are going to focus on the first component – planning for the build.
1. Research your users
With the end goal of your application being the improvement of your internal workflows, you should start by researching your users. More specifically, you should carefully observe how they conduct the processes you think should be improved.
To make useful changes and avoid wasting funds on recreating the wheel, you should understand your workflow weaknesses in great detail.
What prevents your users from carrying out their duties efficiently? And on the other hand, is there anything that is great already and should not be touched? You need clear, concrete data to start making positive steps.
2. Engage senior leadership
Engaging senior leadership early is crucial, allowing you to gain support and avoid hurdles and miscommunication during development.
From the standpoint of a department or separate workflow, building custom software may absolutely be worth it. But ultimately, it is up to senior management to determine if a project like a custom application aligns with the global goals of the organisation.
To convince senior leadership of the usefulness of the application, you should prepare a detailed cost and benefit analysis. This will allow you to clearly illustrate the potential benefits of the custom software.
Furthermore, a cost-benefit report will enable you to express potential improvements in dollar terms (or in the key language of executives, so to speak).
3. Set your budget
Next, you need to set a budget for your custom application project; this is another reason to have your senior team on board.
Your cost-benefit analysis should incorporate estimates of anticipated costs. You won’t know actual costs until you formulate your build plan, but preliminary estimates based on educated guesses can help you get started.
4. Apply Design Thinking
Design Thinking is an approach for problem solving. It relies on methods and practices originally used by designers, but it has expanded way beyond the boundaries of just design. Any organisation – be it an architectural, finance, or IT firm – may employ Design Thinking in their application development process.
Design Thinking is a solution-based method of overcoming problems, and its most notable characteristic is its emphasis on the needs of end users.
The Stanford d.school – the institute of design at Stanford University – breaks down Design Thinking into the following five phases:
- Empathise. As the driver of any human-centred design process, empathy can help you better understand people – most importantly, from the standpoint of their needs. Engaging with people can help you more efficiently uncover shortcomings in your current system.
- Define. Based on your findings in the “Empathise” stage, you need to define the problem your application is going to attempt to solve. Without clarity and measurable goals, you won’t be able to convey to your development team what you want from them.
- Ideate. At the stage of ideation, your company needs to generate ideas to tackle the identified problems. Design Thinking infuses this step with creativity and imagination.
- Prototype. Prototyping brings ideation to a practical field, allowing you to transition from sketches to action. Your early prototypes may be quick and cheap to implement, pursuing to gain initial feedback on, for example, a new user interface. Then, you may make the prototypes more and more defined and specific based on earlier suggestions.
- Test. Lastly, your prototypes should be tested in the real world for final refinement.
Although suggested by a design school, these steps are industry-agnostic – at least, at a high level. As for the finer details, you’ll need to figure them out based on your unique internal needs.
5. Build a communication plan
People accept drastic changes in their day-to-day office workflows with immense difficulty unless they understand the value those changes can bring.
It’s therefore important to establish a communication plan so that the end users of your application are motivated enough to abandon their currently sub-optimal processes.
Your application may objectively be far better than what you have in place right now, but if you aren’t able to get the point across, users may just prefer sticking to their inefficient yet familiar and comfortable habits.
6. Make your Build Plan
Next, you should come up with a plan to ensure that your software solution will be delivered on-time and to specification.
Your build plan should outline:
- The scope of the project. Determine what the finished application should do. If you don’t have a scope, development may drag out, and project costs may inflate way beyond projections as more and more things keep being added. Define a finish line for the project – if you need something more down the line, you should be able to easily extend the application.
- Workflows the application should perform.
- Who will test the application?
- How the application will be tested?
- When the application will be tested?
- How the test team is to report their findings.
- The application release plan. Where will the application be deployed first, and how should it be rolled out to the entire organisation after that? Your release plan should be part of your communication plan.
- A training plan. Will users need training to use the new application package? How long will the training last? Who will provide that training?
Once you are through these steps, your custom application plan is ready. Next comes the fun part– bringing your idea to life! The actual creation of a custom app is peppered with its own challenges, but a sound plan provides a strong foundation for success.