Comparing an Off-The-Shelf solution with a Custom build

From time to time we get asked by clients if we can draw up a comparison chart between a similar existing OTS (Off The Shelf) solution and a custom solution. But does this give a realistic impression?

We understand why clients want to compare the different solutions, especially if they do not have much technical experience with software solutions. A table compare chart is a very easy to understand visual that highlights the pros and cons between different applications. Little to no technical experience is required to understand them and clients are often used to seeing such charts when comparing different OTS solutions.

But such a chart does not work between custom and OTS. They are simply too different and this is what we try to help our clients understand. The goal of OTS is to satisfy as many users as possible. The benefits are that it is stable as it has often already been tested and used by thousands, if not millions, of users. Starting on an OTS solution can also be significantly cheaper. I talked at length about this in my article Considering a custom website? Here are 10 tips!. The downsides are that the business needs to adapt to the software. The automation, design and UX will be generic and might be missing specific features the business needs in their solution.

Custom solutions take longer to create and they will be unstable until they have been sufficiently tested, used and iterated. They have a higher initial cost but this may sometimes be offset by lower long-term costs. Certainly in cases such as an intranet for a large business, where you often need a license for every staff member, the total can be quite significant. The main advantage is that custom solutions are built specifically for the business. The workflows and automation are designed to be the ideal solution and users should not need to accommodate any shortcomings or inefficient workflows if the solution is designed right.

When you compare OTS to custom solutions it’s best to keep it high-level and focused on price. Put together a 5 year cost estimate, usually comparing 5 years of licensing (or a single one-time payment) and 5 years of maintenance. You can also look at timeline and some of the high-level advantages (design, automation, workflows). That is about as far as you should go in a comparison.

Going into more detail and comparing specific features between OTS and custom is not useful because the custom solution can build any feature you might need and leave out anything you don’t need. Have a look at the following example where we substitute an application with a suit.

Features OTS Suit Customized OTS Suit Fully Custom Suit
Shirt Yes Yes Yes
Jacket Yes Yes Yes
Trousers Yes Yes Yes
Preparation time Minutes Hours Days
Cost $200 $400 $600

If you were only to look at this chart, the obvious choice would be the OTS suit. It has all the same features, minimal preparation time and is seemingly very cost-effective. But this is not a fair comparison. As with an application, people with generic requirements can find an OTS solution that they are happy with and fits perfectly for their needs. But those with specific, non-standard requirements (often business with innovative ideas) will need a custom solution to meet their expectations.

A realistic evaluation of the best option can only be made on a case-by-case basis, and will require technical expertise and knowledge of solutions and technologies suitable to your project goals and requirements. In a previous blog post, we provided a broad list of deciding factors that you may consider in evaluating your existing idea, here. These are some of the things we look out for when educating clients about better ways to approach their projects.