VITAL Business Checklist: 21 Criteria for Choosing Technology Solutions

If you are adopting a new technology system or platform, the questions and tips on this checklist will save you time, money and stress. Use this list as your guide and your initial filter, and look for systems that meet most (or preferably all) of these points.

These points are important whatever the system you are looking at, whether it be open source software, software you buy and host yourself or software that is hosted by others in the Cloud. Think of these points first before you try and buy. (Article Updated: 6 October 2011)

Ideally, your new technology system must be:

  1. Functional and able to do what you need it to do. Clearly defining your own requirements is probably the hardest step in the selection process. You can spend a lot of time analyzing your own business processes, issues and the outcomes you need from the system. It’s a never-ending process which will evolve as your business, your customers and your technology options evolve. Prioritizing your requirements into features that are either “Essential Now, Nice to Have Now, Essential Later, Nice to Have Later” can be a good start. Unless your needs are simple or your budget unlimited, you will find your selection will always involve some compromises and clearly knowing the important business outcomes you want to achieve is the key.
  2. Easy to learn. If a new system looks cluttered, cumbersome and hard to use, it probably is. Good software looks easy to use. It’s not accidental – good software is designed and built with novice users in mind rather than just catering to highly trained and experienced users. You may need some basic training, but most good software will appear to be intuitive and relatively easy to start to use.
  3. Able to be trialed. Don’t just commit to using a new system. Trial it, run a pilot program and learn from it. Have clear boundaries for the trial and know how and when you will judge the trial to be a success. If you jump in too deeply and start using a system too broadly in your pilot phase with lots of real customers, it can be hard to extract yourself from the system later. Be careful as vendors have a vested interest in making the trial successful. They may be hoping that you lock yourself into the system during the free trial period.
  4. Efficient & Effective. The new system must help you do what you need to do quickly and easily, and preferably better than how you are doing things at the moment. The software should be efficient, and it should make you and your team more efficient, more effective and more productive. Think how you can measure the increases in efficiency, effectiveness and productivity. Develop these measures and use them as performance indicators and to determine the Return On Investment (ROI) you are making. Most businesses don’t do this – and they are left wondering if the new system really did make such a difference.
  5. Extensible and Scalable. Your new system must be capable of being extended and preferably have a large number of readily available plug-in applications available for your use. Scalability is vital as the system will need to be able to easily grow with you or easily shrink with you if your needs diminish.
  6. Open, Integratable and Secure. You may not know it now, but sooner or later you will want to connect other things (databases, software apps, processes, etc) to your system. Will it be easy, hard or impossible? Who will be needed to do this integration work and how secure will the connections be?
  7. Accessible for mobile users. Almost any type of system you consider these days will need to have some parts of it available for mobile users who might be accessing the system and its capabilities through a smartphone, tablet or other wireless device. Encourage mobility for your customers and your staff.
  8. Already in use by a large base of users. A large and happy user base will give you confidence in your selection and people to turn to for extra help. It’s also more likely that the product will continue to survive and evolve if lots of others love it and depend on it. Depending on the importance of the system to you, you  may want to talk to some of these users who are in similar situations to you and ask them about their experiences with the product and the vendor.  Join the User Groups for these products and start asking questions about the product, the support services and the known bugs with the product – and how responsive the vendor is to fixing these bugs.
  9. Popular in credible reviews. Use peer reviews and recommendations. Don’t blindly follow others, but don’t ignore them either.
  10. Showing positive momentum in the marketplace. Products, like people are either green and growing or ripe and rotting. You want to choose a growing product. The leading edge is ok, but avoid the bleeding edge.
  11. Backed by a strong development community. The more people who are actively involved collaboratively in the development of the product, generally the better it is likely to be. Choose a product with a carefully managed core product and avoid products with too many branches in their development roadmap.
  12. Common Language based. You want software written in a common programming language so you have a large base of technical skills available.
  13. Well Supported BEFORE you buy it. You can’t just rely on information you find on some vendor’s website. You want someone to be able to answer your questions. It’s important to be able to ask intelligent questions and get intelligent answers during your investigative research and shopping process.  It’s also important for you to be able to ask questions that might be dumb – and get an intelligent, helpful and guiding response. You don’t want to be made to feel like a fool by some sales dude who is too busy or too too remote to care. Use the pre-sales support you receive as a guide to how your relationship with this vendor might be after the sale. (In my experience, a business that does not care about you during the sales process won’t magically start to care about you AFTER you’ve paid your money to them.)
  14. Well supported AFTER you buy it. Depending on the size and capabilities of your team, you may want or need good local support or you may be happy enough to have remote support provided online by others. Don’t assume that the people on your own IT team will always be there; in fact, make contingency plans for if and when they leave. Some products may not need much support at all, but make sure you choose systems where external technical support is readily available.  Find out who will provide it, at what cost and in what response time.  Find out what a support contract will include and exclude.  Software support is a bit like insurance. It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.  And just like insurance, you only really know how good it is when you have to make a claim.  Check it – and talk to other customers about their experiences.
  15. Able to be quickly installed. Ideally installation of software should be easy and preferably through an automated process. If software has or needs complex installation procedures, then be wary of it as it is likely to also need complex training and support, and that can get expensive later on. In the Cloud computing environment, with hosted Software as a Service (SaaS) or Application Service Provider (ASP) solutions, there are no installation issues and no infrastructure you need to buy, but there are other issues about data ownership and access, privacy and long-term costs to consider. (Some of these have been raised in the Trend discussions about Technical Connectivity and Low Cost Software & Storage Solutions so check these articles too.)
  16. Ideally Do-It-Yourself if possible. Popular software systems are often popular simply because they are so easy to use. This will probably not mean you can do everything yourself, or even that you want to, but knowing that you don’t need to be calling on seriously clever and expensive hard to find external technical experts is reassuring.
  17. Good value initially. Low cost generally beats high cost, but it’s all relative. The question is more about value. Sometimes the initial cost might be free and plenty of great open source software is available online for free. Look for the catch, as relying on free commercial products can often be in the ‘too good to be true’ category. Some free software may actually contain viruses or other mal-ware. Don’t blindly download free software, don’t be put off by good products being free, and don’t assume free or cheap is good or bad.
  18. Good value for its Lifetime. Consider the likely Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of a system you are looking to introduce. TCO includes costs associated with

      a. computer hardware and programs for your network, servers, devices, warranties and licenses, migration expenses, upgrades, patches and future licensing policies, etc.

      b. operating expenses such as electricity, testing costs, downtime, outage and failure expenses, security (including breaches, loss of reputation, recovery and prevention), backup and recovery processes, technology training, implementation, insurance and even future upgrade expenses and decommissioning.

  19. Migratable. Your new systems need to be relatively easy for you to migrate into, and VERY easy for you to get out of later if and when you want to cease using the system. Never use an external hosted service that does not promise to give you your data back when you want to leave.
  20. Give you good options for the future. Despite some techos using the term future-proof, no technology system really is. Look for standards, languages and platforms that are popular with enough of a critical mass of users to have continual development and enhancement even if the company that currently owns the system goes broke. Make sure the technology you implement today can be easily adapted for changing processes in your business in months and years to come. Flexibility and agility is what your business will need to survive, and your technology must help you and not hinder you as your business evolves.
  21. Low Risk. All systems carry some level of risk but you don’t need to willingly take high risks in your choice of technology, Don’t fall for the slick promises of tech sales guys, and don’t believe everything you are told. You can’t avoid risk – so make a list of the possible risks for each of the various options you are considering and plan how you will mitigate and reduce these risks.

I’d love your thoughts on this… And there’s a related article here with some other thoughts on why I reckon a lot of business people get their technology decisions wrong.

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