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Bespoke vs off-the-shelf software: can you spot the difference?

date: 12 December 2017
reading time: 2 min

Originally published in December 2017, last updated in April 2020.

When looking for new software for your organisation, you want something that is reliable, efficient, modern, user-friendly, and – perhaps more importantly – catering to all your needs by allowing you to do your job properly.

Regardless of whether you’re running a major digital transformation programme or simply considering a new piece of software for your organisation, it’s very likely that you’re faced with the dilemma of choosing a ready-made solution or bespoke software.

Both types have their pros and cons and it’s important to compare them according to your business strategy and go with whichever suits the needs of your organisation best. To do so, you must understand basic differences between a bespoke solution and off-the-shelf software, as well as the consequences of picking one package over the other. 

What is off-the-shelf software?

Off-the-shelf solutions (also known as the box or commercial software) can be described as a proven, universal set of features which meet the common expectations of a certain group of clients, representing a variety of businesses.

Box systems are very popular, mainly due to their relatively low price. The software is easy to purchase and solves most of the general problems related to the specific market. However, the final cost depends on the number of active users – every employee delegated to work with the system needs their own, paid license. Hence, off-the-shelf solutions will be more economical for small teams, let’s say, up to 15 members.

Medium and large enterprises implement off-the-shelf software mainly in order to improve selected business operations, i.e., customer service, accounting, or task planning. Yet, due to the rigid scope of the functions offered, they might find themselves trying to change their enterprise to fit the bought system, rather than using it in order to stimulate further growth.

The question you may have in mind is: Every organisation is different, so why go with one size fits all? Generally speaking, there are a few important advantages of the off-the-shelf software, which convince companies to purchase already existing services.

What are the pros and cons of off-the-shelf software?

One of the greatest off-the-shelf software advantages is in its mass accessibility. It is built on the basis of many years of corporate experience in selected areas, and most of its functionalities were tested multiple times – ensuring, that each and every component is working properly and every business-related need is satisfied. Plus, there is always the possibility to check opinions about the selected software solutions online. 

Technically speaking, commercial systems can be expanded, yet developers rarely agree to do it. Consequently, the possibilities of adaptation are limited to satisfying the basic business needs, causing only partial improvement of the work. Of course, some vendors will try to tease your organisation with a promise of customised features, which are usually restricted to the possibilities of the system configuration and will surely generate additional costs.

Box software is ready to use immediately after purchase, thus, the distributor doesn’t usually offer support – you need to pay extra for that (as well as for staff training and further integration). The solution will speed up your team’ work, but only to a limited level.

Below, you will find a list of some of the most important arguments for and against implementing the off-the-shelf software into your company structures:

Advantages Disadvantages
LOWER INITIAL COST: Packaged software tends to be cheaper, as the costs of development have been spread across thousands of purchasers of the solution. HIGHER COST WITH MANY USERS: With ‘cost per licence’ payment model in particular, the bill can be quite hefty. Especially if you need your software to be used by a large number of employees at your company. Not to mention, these fees must be paid periodically.
READY WHEN YOU ARE: When using off-the-shelf software, what you need to do is have it set up on your machines and start using it immediately. In case of centrally hosted solutions, there is even no need for installations. NEED FOR CONFIGURATION: At times, you may find that commercially available products don’t quite meet the specific needs of your company, or are not compatible with your other systems. This may mean you require additional personalisation of the product, which usually leads to unexpected extra costs, and is not always possible.
AVAILABILITY OF TRAINING: A packaged solution is likely to have an established base of training materials. They come from the official producer of the software and corporate training companies, but also from its avid users (think YouTube tutorials and community forums). COMPLEXITY: Too many features can cause confusion among users and unnecessary clutter in the application. You may not be able to hide or remove functionalities or fields your staff neither like, nor need. This makes the system larger and harder to learn.
UPGRADES: An out-of-the box software will be continuously developed by its producer who will launch new and upgraded versions. Usually they are available for free or at a reduced cost. NO COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: You are just one of many users of the same system, which can also be bought by your competitors. In this case, it is hard to gain any competitive advantage.
MORE FUNCTIONALITY: Since it has to meet the requirements of as many users as possible, an off-the-shelf solution is likely to have more functionality. Often you will discover useful features you didn’t realise you needed.

What does bespoke software stand for?

Are you a proud owner of a business in which internal processes are organised in a specific way? Then you should definitely think about bespoke software – a tailored, unique solution, fully adapted to the individual needs and expectations of a specific organisation that will suit its needs. 

The custom-made system is a result of close cooperation between software developers and client’s representatives. The creation process of customised software lasts longer than implementing a box product – taking at least several weeks.

However, the software is designed to fully reflect your organisation’s structures, satisfying your demands, and strictly following your vision – including incorporating brand- based design, sync with the programs already operating in the company, or the possibility of further customizations. You don’t have to make any compromises anymore.

Using bespoke software may seem expensive. But it should be remembered that an investment in a dedicated system will pay off because it gives its users a variety of benefits that cannot be obtained with box programs. For example, the creator of a bespoke solution – usually the software outsourcing company – provides your organisation with full assistance in implementing the system, as well as further app maintenance and development.

Why would a business use bespoke software?

Bespoke software offers an ultimate solution for medium and large enterprises which seek for an intuitive, highly tailored product with a unique set of organisation-related features. Its main goal is to improve company management and efficiency by facilitating the data flow, task performance and internal/external communication. 

There are no two similar bespoke systems on the market. The uniqueness of the custom software allows you to select only the functionalities you need or decide which modules should be added/excluded.

A well-considered, intuitive design can blend in with the enterprise quickly – there is no need for changing the work organisation neither before, nor after the implementation. Notably, each dedicated product can be modified in the future, depending on the evolving needs of your business – so there will be no problem with i.e.; adding extra features or changing the way something works.

It’s worth to mention that bespoke software should be treated as a full service, not limited to a single system delivery. Many software developers transfer copyrights to the bespoke product, thanks to which the ordering party gains full control over the future development of the application. 

Systems prepared at the customer’s request have many advantages, but they have some disadvantages as well. Let’s compare them quickly:

Advantages and disadvantages of bespoke software

Advantages Disadvantages
TAILOR-MADE: The product you will receive will be one of a kind – suited to you, your company and your pocket. It will do exactly what you need it to, exactly how you want it to. Nothing more, nothing less. HIGHER INITIAL COSTS: As bespoke system needs to be developed to match the needs of your business, it will cost more initially. What is more, sometimes you will end up with underestimated budgets, increasing the costs further.
EASE OF USE: Bespoke system requires less supervision and results in fewer errors. It increases productivity and is easy to understand, because it incorporates your own business know-how. LONG WAITING TIME: Software development requires not only money, but also time and effort. The more complex a solution you need, the longer will it take to build it for you. The more you get into the project, the more complicated and expensive it becomes.
FLEXIBILITY: Since you are in control of a scalable solution, it can be amended over time to match your new criteria. And as your business changes, the system can change too, boosting your performance. RISK OF INSTABILITY: When not developed according to best standards – and especially when the budget and deadlines are tight – the software could be done in a rush and thus be unreliable and bug-ridden.
SAFETY AND SECURITY: Bespoke development increases not only cyber safety of the system, but also operational security of your company. As you own the solution, you are not tied to a specific vendor, nor forced to pay monthly per-user fees.
COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: A tailor-made system can give you the upper hand, as your competitors won’t have access to the same solutions. And as it becomes your company’s asset, it adds more value to your business.

So, which way to go?

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to whether it’s better to choose an off-the-shelf software vs a fully-tailored system. Each implementation requires an individual approach.

To make the right decision, we advise you to carry out a brief analysis before you decide on a specific business management software. Write down what generic needs the system has to meet, how much time (consider at least two or three years) and how big budget you have in the long run and what directions the organisation will develop in.

Then, depending on your choice:

For ready-made packages, ask for a demo to find out what are they capable of and what limitations there are. But beyond speaking to the vendor, look through internet forums for reviews of real-life users. Be aware that it is highly unlikely to find off-the-shelf software that does everything you need it to.

For a custom-made product, choose a dedicated team of developers that will create bespoke software for you. It is worth considering a company that has a Product Design and Requirements Engineering competencies, in order to a thorough analysis of the problem and propose the best solution.

We understand that each enterprise is different and therefore software development needs to match your uniqueness. In a world of ever-faster change, make sure your business relies on solutions that support your changing needs and processes.

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