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If you need a bespoke software project to give your business the process optimisation or revenue-generating machine it needs, you’re potentially looking at several months of your time, and who knows how much money to do it right.

These are the six things you must do from the get-go to make sure your efforts aren’t wasted.

1. Dig up credit histories, ex-clients and anything else you can find on potential software development providers you’re thinking of hiring

Finding the right software development company is a crucial decision that could propel you to anywhere between slam-dunking all your business ambitions, to being left completely paralysed.

So spend the time doing full due diligence to get the best possible information.

  • Have they done projects like yours before?
  • Are they financially stable?
  • Do they struggle to keep hold of enough of the right skills?
  • Do their customers tend to hang around for the long term, or mysteriously disappear once the project is over?

You shouldn’t have to be Columbo to find this out.  Find as much as you can by researching the company’s activity, employees and financial status online. Then, when you start discussions, just ask them for answers upfront.  If they have nothing to hide then they should be very forthcoming!

2. Demand simple answers to every important software development-related question you can think of

You need to put these software development geeks through the mill, because at the end of it you’re going to choose the one you believe will do the best job for your business.

The truth is that wearing rose-tinted glasses at this stage might lead you to a company that can start your project, but can’t complete it.

So you’re better off being the most difficult prospect they’ve ever had, as it increases your chances of achieving all your goals (thereby becoming the best customer they’ve ever laid claim to!).

A good place to start is by dreaming up some nightmare scenarios like the software development company going bust or starting a legal dispute over intellectual property.

If you’re still unsure about what questions to ask, try this list:

  • How much will it cost for the software to accommodate increasing future demand?
  • What’s the best way of budgeting for the software project over its lifetime?
  • Who will the software legally belong to?
  • How is the Intellectual Property protected?
  • Which data compliance and security standards should the software adhere to?
  • What happens to the software after it’s been finished?
  • Where will the software ‘live’ and who has responsibility for looking after which aspects of it, and for how long?

3. Be bold about your business proposition, back it up with belief and facts (and accept that bits of it might turn out to be wrong)

These software guys are going to march to your tune, your business goals.  So tell them what they are!  While you’re at it, you need to listen and encourage your ideas to be challenged.

If you don’t want to waste time fudging your way through a software project that ends up missing the mark, you need to communicate the strongest, boldest vision in plain business language.

  • You’ll be asked a lot of questions, so prepare for them and be consistent in your position.
    • Do you know enough about the market sector you are aiming for with this software; how big the opportunity is, what competitors are doing etc.?
    • Have you mapped out realistic business objectives for each of the next five years, with projected costs, revenues and profits?
    • Have you developed a concise, compelling value proposition for your business?
    • What skills and other internal resources do you plan to commit to the project?
  • Share your business plan and other prized nuggets of data – just ensure you’re always protected by a signed NDA.
  • Adopt a posture of ‘selling’ or ‘pitching’ your business idea, Dragons’ Den style.  Show your passion and commitment so it can rub off on others.

The business-aware software experts you hire will tell you the constraints and devise ways of getting to the end goal.  But the more clarity they have to start with, the less expensive their project will be in the long run.

4. Forget trying to be a software expert 

We’re not saying you shouldn’t follow your natural curiosity about technology, but – seriously – almost none of it will benefit you; that’s what you’re hiring a software development expert for.

When you sit down and write a tender / ITT/ RFP for software development, make it 99% about your business and what it wants to achieve, and 1% on dredging up technicalities.  Unless there is a strict business requirement for it, you shouldn’t misspend time predefining technology parameters or being overly technical.

Be as detailed and honest as possible about the long term business objectives of the software and of your organisation in general.  Our step-by-step guide to writing a software development brief walks you through all this.

For your own sanity, don’t waste your life learning all the programming terminology.  A decent software company will help you consider and decide these things without blinding you with obscure detail.

The golden rule:

You should NOT expect to end up feeling confused or beaten up by jargon when dealing with a software development company.  If this happens then head for the exit door immediately.

5. Do a focus group of real users before you start

That crushing realisation when you suddenly realise your preconceptions are in fact wildly off track?  You really will have to experience it –  just make sure it’s before you start paying someone to develop actual software.

It’s quite normal to think so much about the software that you start believing you are the most important user.  Wrong!  In most cases the person buying the software is an unreliable authority on the needs and wants of the main user group; rather it’s your customers or staff that you really have to give a voice to.

Remember that making too many assumptions ends up costing you money.  The best software development process makes absolutely no assumptions whatsoever.

  • Think long and hard about who the software users are going to be, and start engaging them.
  • Common approaches are focus groups and surveys.  But even straightforward conversations with people is a good start.
  • Focus groups can be very small; perhaps just 5 or 6 people.  Small is good because you can spend time probing the real reasons behind user behaviour and motivation, and get qualitative results.  These people need to trust you with their insights, and be rewarded for their candour.  Aim for a variety of people; age, sex, experience etc.
  • Surveys enable you to take larger and more representative samples for quantitative insights.  They can also be anonymous; thereby maximising honesty of responses.  Take care to compare apples with apples.  And test the questions on small samples before going large on a full survey.  Online surveys can cost next to nothing if you’ve already got your own data, or more if using a third party market researcher able to guarantee the right respondent profile and size.
  • Don’t make the mistake of only asking people what they want because this inevitably leads them to agree that your ideas are spot on (even if they aren’t).  The most important thing you can find out is what their pain is, how this manifests itself and how common this is among the same group of potential users.
  • Start to characterise users into user personas, and define common preferences for working, their frustrations, what they find usable and valuable etc.

A good software development company will do this detailed work with you as part of a pre-project scoping exercise.

6. Remember that the favourite customer gets the best service, so show the team a little love and respect (because it will go a very long way)

Start out as you mean to go on by putting the effort into a positive working relationship with your software development company.

  • ‘The team’ includes you and your colleagues too, by the way.  Avoid a ‘them and us’ dynamic with two camps sitting on opposite sides of a table.
  • Your software development company will appoint a team to work on your project, with a project leader who’ll be on every call, at every meeting, every step of the way.  Who’ll be on your team?  Who from your organisation be on those calls?
  • Always be honest, not guarded, in your attitude to the process.
  • Don’t delegate too much responsibility away from yourself, fail to co-opt senior colleagues, or have the team change a lot because no-one really ‘owns’ it internally.
  • Remember to keep communicating; don’t suddenly go quiet.  Make sure you’re alert to it if anyone else drops off the radar.
  • Demand professionalism and accountability at all times, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun together too.

Don’t learn the hard way

We seen it time and time again.  Starting off the software development process in the best possible way takes a little extra thought and application, but pays enormous financial dividends in the end.  In fact, it’s the most important stage to get right.

But that’s not the full story.  Look out for more blogs on how to ensure you maximise the value of software developmentwhile the process is mid-flow, and long after your first version has been released.