A practical guide to choosing web based business apps for your business
The recent explosion of web based business apps means businesses are now spoilt for choice when it comes to technology that can help their business. But how do we sort the wheat from the chaff?
Do you use Evernote, Skype, MailChimp, Survey Monkey or Xero? Then you’re currently using a web-based business app that (I assume) makes your life easier. The sheer number of apps now available to us is startling and, because they are relatively affordable to purchase or subscribe to, they can also be a little addictive!
A big problem with all of this ‘apping’ is the large investment in the time it takes to successfully implement and learn the application to best leverage the efficiencies they provide. This time investment is a genuine hidden cost involved with cloud-based applications and should not be underestimated.
So how do you reduce this time investment? And how do you ensure the web-based business apps you’re spending a lot of time learning how to use is the best one for your business?
Here are some of the items you should consider when choosing web based business apps:
As a starting point, you should write down the top five pain points in your business and assess the application based on how well it appears to address these problems. For example, if you were looking at a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application to capture and improve your sales process, example pain points might be:
- I can’t easily see all my contacts in one place.
- I have trouble capturing phone calls and emails related to a potential sale.
- I need to be able to quickly generate an invoice from my customer’s information.
- I need to be reminded about when to follow up a potential customer.
The way an application presents its features on its website is often a good indication of the quality of the software. Look for a clear list of features as well as screenshots and videos detailing how the application works. There should be features that relieve each of your pain points and you should get excited by the application’s solutions to your problems! If you don’t, then you might want to keep looking.
2. Application Programming Interface (‘API’) and data export capability
In today’s technology environment it is important that the application has the ability to communicate with other pieces of software. At the very least the application should allow you to export information to Excel/Google Docs formats.
This makes your data transportable in the event you need to store it, manipulate it or transfer it to another application.
"This time investment is a genuine hidden cost involved with cloud-based applications and should not be underestimated."
Truly powerful applications will have what the technology world refers to as Open API’s. Put simply, an API allows other application developers to communicate with the application: ie send and receive information to and from the application.
As more applications enter the market, it is important they can work together, and a good API is the foundation of this.
For the non-tech types, you can assess this by looking for logical API documentation on the Developer’s website. If it looks substantial and generally easy to follow, then you are probably pretty safe.
3. Development cycle and roadmap
One of the key advantages of cloud software is that it is updated frequently. This process of improvement is often referred to as an application’s ‘development cycle’, and speed is important. The quicker the application matures, the faster you will receive the benefits of improved processes and features that make your life easier.
The more frequent and substantial the updates, the more faith you can have in the developer of the app. Most applications will have a ‘changelog’ of release notes detailing any improvements, new features and bug fixes, including when they happened. You should be able to find them on the developer’s website or via a quick google search.
In addition a developer should publish a development ‘roadmap’ identifying what features are to be released next and when. By reviewing the changelog and the roadmap you can identify how well the developer is planning, meeting its goals and therefore delivering a better application for its users.
A good application should have well-written and easy to follow documentation and training materials. This will allow you and your team to quickly learn how to use it and troubleshoot on your own without the need for support.
This documentation is generally freely available, so search their website or google for words like ‘Help’, ‘Knowledgebase’ or ‘User Guide’. Reviewing the documentation is also a good way to find out more detail about the application’s features and workflows without actually using it.
Any application that deals with money and interacts with your accounting system should have sound accounting principles. In our reviews, we have found some application developers have underestimated these complexities resulting in misreported taxes and compliance issues.
This can be a tricky one to assess on your own and we recommend seeking sound advice from advisors who are knowledgeable about cloud applications.
6. Free trial
Any good application will have a free trial period in which you can assess the application before committing to pay for it. Use the free trial wisely. Don’t waste the ‘free’ element or your time by not committing to it.
Following these steps will help you get the most out of your free trial:
1. Assess the application based on the points above.
2. Collate the necessary information to process real life examples.
3. Sign up to the free trial and test it thoroughly.
The most important thing is to put the application through its paces by using real information and scenarios from your business. Enter a client. Make a sale. Go through an entire process and take notes about what it does and does not do well.
7. User experience
User experience (‘UX’) should be assessed during your free trial. UX is the overall experience of using an application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use.
The application may have all the features you have ever dreamed of, however, if it is difficult to use or counter-intuitive, then it may not improve the way you do business.
8. Mobile application
One of the key benefits of the cloud is that you can access your applications and information anywhere at any time.
At the very least the application should have a website optimised for mobile devices. There is nothing worse than trying to access an application designed for a desktop on a small screen! If you need to use your application on mobile devices as staff are out on the road, keep in mind that a native application (one that actually installs on your device) will often have more functionality than a website e.g. access to other applications on the device as well as cameras and GPS. So if this is important to you, it might be a good place to start.
9. User support
Good support from real people is critical to the successful adoption of any application. You will rely on an application’s support initially as you learn how to use it and in the event something goes wrong. Support should be easily accessible and responsive.
Keep in mind the support included in a subscription will often be email only. This isn’t a problem if the developer is responsive (and in our experience, a response time less than eight hours is a good benchmark).
Some developers may offer telephone support either as part of the subscription or for an additional fee. Keep in mind the hours that telephone support is available as many developers won’t be in the same time zone as you.
User support can only really be tested during your free trial so make sure you send them a few questions and measure the speed and detail in which they respond.
10. Security and infrastructure
Security of your information should be looked at in two ways:
- the potential for unauthorised access to information; as well as
- the potential for the loss of information.
Application security is a big topic and has many components. Practically however, answers to the following questions will help provide you with some peace of mind:
Does the developer’s website call out security as a priority?
The developer should have a dedicated page or section of their website that talks about how they address their application’s security.
What hosting provider do they use?
Applications are built on hardware that is often managed by third party providers. This allows the developer to focus on the software while the hosting provider deals with the hardware. Most developers using reputable hosting providers will want to advertise this as it adds to their own credibility. If you can’t find it on their website then ask them.
Review the hosting providers own website to get clarity around where they are based and their attention to security. Examples of well-respected hosting providers include Rackspace (used by Xero) and Microsoft Azure, so use these as a benchmark.
Remember that by trusting your information to someone else, there is always the potential for loss or theft. It is about weighing up the risk against benefits the cloud provides. A good application should give you little reason to be alarmed.
11. User ratings
The value of user ratings on the web is questionable. If the rating is found on the developer’s website then it is almost certainly going to be positive. On the flip side, poor ratings found in other locations can often be either disgruntled users or sometimes competitors.
In short, don’t go by any single rating. Rather, look at whether the comments are generally positive or negative. The best way to use ratings is to find ones that point out a particular deficiency or issue about the application and then look into it further during your free trial.
12. Financial backing and ownership
Lastly, it’s important to know that the application you choose is going to be in business in the long term. At the end of the day, it comes down to a matter of money. Many developers are not yet profitable in their own right (ie the sales they make don’t cover the costs of their ongoing development). This isn’t a problem if they have enough cash in the bank to cover the shortfall.
So take the time to understand who owns the application and where their financial backing comes from. As an example, Xero is a public company and information is freely available about their financial resources. Smaller developers won’t have this level of detail. However, they should have information on their website explaining who is behind the application and who is funding it.
Whilst a move to the cloud will generally pay dividends, a little due diligence in the selection of your business applications can go a long way to ensuring your business enjoys the benefits and efficiencies the cloud has to offer.
What are some of your favourite web based business apps?