Evolving your business software

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Earlier this week, I talked about how you can use principles from evolution to grow your small business. The main point of that post was to stop worrying about making the right choices ahead of time and instead think about how you're going to evaluate changes once you've made them. Today I'm going to talk about how that principle can be applied to choosing and changing the software used in your company.

Evolving your software
It can be really hard to know what software is right for your company ahead of time. No matter how many reviews you read or how many feature lists you compare, you're not really going to know how well a piece of software works for you until you use it. Given that, how should you go about determining if your new software is better than your old one? The tradeoff when considering software for your company probably comes down to financial costs vs gains in productivity. Both of these have multiple different aspects, including:

  • financial costs
  • startup costs
  • continuing costs
  • productivity
  • how well can you accomplish what you need
  • how much time you waste
  • how happy are you using the software

But how do you weight all those things against each other to decide if your new software is better than what you were using before? If you're a big company, you'd probably try to quantify the financial costs and benefits of each of those bullet points and combine everything together. For a small business, however, that method is likely to be infeasible, inaccurate, or both.

Converting comparisons to requirements
An alternative approach is to judge the software by a single metric, and turn everything else into requirements. By doing so, you'll be able to easily compare two pieces of software against each other along that single comparison metric, while remaining confident that all of your other constraints are maintained.

So which of those bullets should be your ranking metric? This might sound either obvious or ridiculous depending on your point of view, but I think your best bet is to compare based on your happiness when using the software. Before explaining why I think that's a good metric, lets first think about how to convert all the other points into constraints.

For the costs, determine a budget ahead of time and just make sure your software stays within it. Don't worry if something costs $8 per month instead of $10 as long as they're both under your $15 budget. For the productivity point "how well can you accomplish what you need," write down ahead of time what tasks you need the software to be able to handle, and make sure it is able to take care of them. Don't worry about which software has more features, just make sure that they are all capable of performing the key tasks. I'm going to ignore the "time waste" piece for now, but we'll get back to it later.

Putting it all together
Alright, so combining all those constraints, when comparing new software to old:

  1. make sure it doesn't cost too much
  2. make sure that it can perform all the necessary functions
  3. ask yourself or your employees "which one do you like more?"

That third step is subtly but importantly different from "which one is better?" because it emphasizes user experience over utility. You know how no one really liked the person who won "most popular" in high school? That's because you voted on who was "most popular" instead of voting on who you liked the most. The same basic problem arises when you ask someone to tell you what they think the best software is; try asking who they like instead.

So why do I think happiness with your software is a good ranking metric? The truth is, people don't enjoy using software that doesn't easily accomplish what they need. They don't enjoy using software that wastes a bunch of time, or that makes simple tasks take a long time. They don't enjoy using software that takes them three months to master. For the most part, people don't like using bad software. Just asking yourself or your employees if they like the new software more than the old stuff is probably about as accurate of a rating as you're gonna get easily.

Alright, so that's a lot of reasoning to reach the simple conclusion that the right way to judge software is to keep using software that you like, and look for new software if you don't like what you are currently using. But it's easy to lose a simple message like that when you're making decisions for your business. If you're really taking this post to heart though, I suppose you'll just have to try it out on your own and see if it works.

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