5 Steps for Evaluating New Software Before You Buy

June 2, 2016

5 Steps for Evaluating New Software Before You BuySome people love to go shopping, but it is not one of my favorite activities, so I try to make it as quick as possible. I go in to the store, I get what I need, and I leave. 

However, I am not that way when it comes to purchasing new softtware. In fact, I tend to go about it in a completely different manner. I research all available options, I search for reviews, I test it extensively, and I sleep on the decision before finally making the call to purchase.

There are three reasons why I shop this way for software while buying new clothes is 20 minute trip for me.

First, I am in the software business, so I tend to know exactly what I want. As a manager of church management software, it is my job to connect people with tools that makes their lives easier. I know that it is not a decision an easy decision for my customers, I make sure to treat my decision the same way.

Second, purchasing new software is rarely a short-term decision. When choosing an app for my phone, I put very little effort into making a decision. If I don't like it, I can get a new one (and it's usually free). When it comes to software I use on a daily basis, I am making a commitment to change my processes and move my data. That is not easily corrected if I make a bad choice.

Third, when I choose new software for work, it is not my money, so I need to practice good stewardship. If I spend $2.99 on an app and it turns out to be terrible, then I am out a little coffee money. If I subscribe to a project management software and it turns out to be a dud, my organization is out a large chunk of money.

About six months ago, we made some organizational changes and my product group went from a marketing team of 1.5 to a team of four. While I previously managed my to-do list with Microsoft Outlook and found it to work out quite well, it was lacking some of the collaboration requirements I knew my team would need.

I have a five-step process I follow when choosing any new software and I am going to use this personal example to help teach these steps.

1. Make a list of requirements

I generally know exactly what I want, and that includes specific features within a software. I started by making a list of the things I liked about using Outlook that were requirements for me:

  • I can view all my tasks in one place
  • I can set due dates for tasks, but I am not required to
  • I can categorize tasks into projected, but I am not required to (for those little one-off tasks)
  • I can quickly convert emails into tasks

As you can see, I kept it pretty short.

Next, I made a list of the required features Outlook was lacking (or features that didn't quite fit my expectations):

  • I can assign tasks to different people
  • I can add subtasks to a task (and assign them to other people)
  • I can create a list of tasks from an external source (such as Excel)
  • I can export data to an external source (such as Excel ... notice a trend?)
  • I can access my to-do list on my phone
  • I can integrate it with other software like Slack

There were other things I considered including in my requirements, but I tried to distinguish between things I needed and things I wanted.

2. Explore all your options

After I had my requirements, I compiled my list of options. I started in Google and typed, "project management software," and began making a list of the available software.

Making note of what came up on the first 2-3 pages, I started searching based on ratings, so I typed in "top project management software." I used the results to narrow my list down to around 15 options.

Asana did not show up on the very top of many lists, but it was consistently in the top 10 of most lists. I had not heard of it before and I really didn't think twice about it when I added it to the list.

3. Find out what others are saying

With my list down to 15 options, I wanted to see what real people said. Most of the results from my "top project management software" list were professional reviews, but I know that those reviewers may not have used all the software options, or they may have been sponsored ads rather than actual reviews.

Instead, I searched by the names of the software, so something like "asana review" or "basecamp vs. wrike" and looked for blog posts or news articles. Granted, some of these may be sponsored as well, but they tend to go into specific features and compare ease of use, which is beneficial.

4. Narrow your choices

When reviewing software options, more isn't always better. After trying them out, they all begin to seem alike and it's hard to remember which software had which features. I recommend narrowing your list before you even start trying them out.

  • Certain factors, particularly price, could eliminate some options regardless of the feature set. If your budget is limited (and in the church, whose isn't?), you probably have a max number in mind. Cut those from your list.

  • When comparing pricing, be sure to look how the pricing is structured. Something that is $20/month may sound reasonable, until you realize it is per user and you have five people who will be using it. Try to get everything to a per month or per year price so that you are comparing apples to apples.

  • In my initial round of cuts, I eliminated from consideration any software that required me to speak with a salesperson before trying. I didn't want to wait to give any software a test run.

  • Take another look at your criteria - are there any that your remaining options clearly don't meet? Cut those from your list as well. For example, I cut every software that didn't advertise a mobile option.

Try to get your options down to 3-5, but remember that this could just be Round 1. If you don't like any of your final five options, you can always go back to your initial list and try a different five. 

5. Try it yourself

Once you narrow your list down to 3-5 options, start a free trial. I am a big believer that trying out a software is the only way you'll know if it's a good fit.

Here are a few things I consider when testing software:

  • Can I figure it out on my own, or do I need to read instructions?
    Maybe it is because I am a male, but I sure don't like to have to read the instructions. It's bad enough that I need the pictures from an Ikea manual to set up a tiny nightstand, but I certainly don't want to have to ask for help with software. Additionally, if I can't figure it out, how will I expect my team to learn how to use it?

  • Is there help available if I want it?
    While I don't want to use a help system to teach me how to use software, I love to use one to find tips, tricks, and best practices. While good software will make it very clear how to use the basic functionality, it will also appeal to its core user base by providing details on lesser used features.

  • Does it feel right?
    I'm not really in touch with my feelings, but I rely on my instinct with a lot of things, and if something doesn't feel quite right, then it's probably not a good fit. It is important to distinguish between "new and different" and "uncomfortable and annoying."

The last thing I do is try to replicate the same task in each software. In the case of searching for project management software, my goal was to track marketing campaign as projects, tactics as tasks, and individual actions as subtasks that could be assigned to other people. I took the exact same campaign and added it to each software I tested.

So that's my process. In the end, I narrowed my choices to two good options: Asana and Basecamp.

I'll be honest, when I started the process, even before the first step, I really thought Basecamp would be my choice. I had heard a lot about them, read the book written by their founder, and knew how much they integrated with other software. Basecamp is a great product and it hit all my requirements. 

However, Asana also hit all my requirements, and it did one thing that Basecamp didn't do: it felt right. When I was using Asana, I became comfortable very quickly, whereas Basecamp felt a bit stiff for my liking. It was not a very scientific decision, but it is one that I have been comfortable with for about eight months. Asana continues to serve our team well today.

So how about you? What do you look for in software? How do you go about evaluating new tools? Let me know in the comment section below!

Are you in the market for a new church management software, but still don't know what questions to ask? Download our free ebook "Church Management Software Checklist" for 106 questions to help you get started. 


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