Image: Andy Wolber/TechRepublic

A search for software starts with a general need. Maybe you need an app to track customers, collaborate with colleagues, create a presentation, monitor weather forecasts or handle your accounting. In each of these fields, most people may be able to rapidly identify widely-used, well-known apps.

But in my experience, software selection too often starts with a focus on a long list of features. In many cases, I think that’s a mistake. A better approach is to make a short list of apps you’re already aware of, then follow the steps below first to expand and then shorten your list. During the expansion process, you seek out systems you might not know that may make viable candidates. During the shortening process, you eliminate apps that aren’t well-maintained or aren’t from credible companies. Only then do you dig into product details.

How to streamline your software selection sequence

Search for solutions

A web search — or, more accurately, a series of web searches — may help you identify potential software solutions. Make sure to use keywords, group keywords in quotes and then refine your results by eliminating results that contain phrases you don’t need. It is an iterative process, but when done well, helps you hone in on the results you seek.

SEE: How to get better search results in Google (TechRepublic)

But once you have identified a few potential vendors and apps, I suggest you also search mobile app stores. When I work with organizations, I strongly prefer vendors that offer both Android and Apple apps. That means I turn to the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store and search for vendor apps in both stores. When vendors offer mobile apps in both stores, that’s a strong signal the vendor has at least a certain scale.

When I compare apps from different vendors, I tend to note not only the number of downloads, which indicates popularity and market reach, but also the app rating, which is at least a general indicator of user satisfaction with the app. Some rankings may be affected by spurious ratings or flaws found only in early editions of an app. However, in general, the number of downloads and ratings provide a fast way to eliminate apps that are rarely downloaded and poorly ranked.

System and platform-specific app stores may be of help, too. For example, people in organizations that use Google Workspace might explore the Google Workspace Marketplace. Use Salesforce? Try the Salesforce App Store. You get the idea. Apps listed in a store provided by a platform you use are more likely to work well with the app you already use. Often, such systems support single sign-on and some level of integration with your chosen platform.

App stores also often display related apps, such as the You Might Also Like section of the App Store or the Similar Apps area in the Google Play store. Apps listed in these areas are sometimes excellent alternatives you might want to explore.

Review updates

Identify recent changes made to the app either by reviewing release notes and dates for the mobile apps or by checking publicly posted change logs or blogs. For example, look at a the Version History data in Apple’s App Store or the About This App | Updated On date in Google Play. This helps you identify apps that are not actively developed. If an app has not been updated in a year or more, I consider it no longer under active development. Is it possible the software is perfect and has needed no changes? Yes. Is that likely? No.

For an additional level of review, seek out public product plans and upcoming updates. Sometimes, a vendor will provide a public release calendar of future features. In other cases, changes might be previewed as part of a conference or customer gathering. The level of detail about upcoming changes varies significantly, but if all other things are roughly equal, I would strongly prefer to work with a vendor that publishes plans over a vendor that does not disclose any future development path.

Prefer public people

A surprising number of software vendors choose to publish little or no information about the people behind the product. I much prefer to use systems from companies where real people, photos, names, title, bios and contact information are provided.

Additionally, I also have a preference for software and systems from organizations and people who actively engage on social media. This sort of presence and activity tends to indicate a company that is either large enough to have people dedicated to this task or a culture of community engagement. Both are positive signs in my view. Whether people participate on Twitter, LinkedIn, blog posts or Reddit doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the company provides information, responds to customer inquiries, and engages with current and potential customers.

Consider cost

A published set of prices tends to enhance my trust in a company: I can estimate what things might cost. Anyone who has ever sought enterprise pricing for software knows that many companies offer a form and invite you to contact a salesperson for a quote. That’s a very pre-cloud era tactic intended to maximize revenue for the company. The companies will suggest they seek to ensure you have the right solution to meet your needs. That may be so, but failure to provide any sort of public pricing guidance diminishes my trust in your organization.

I’m not suggesting you need a complete cost estimate or quote at this stage. Instead, just take a few minutes to figure out how much a system might cost for your usage scenario. An estimate is fine. A reliable vendor that publishes pricing will at least provide sufficient guidance that you can identify that a system will cost $10/month per person rather than $1,000/month per person.

Evaluate features

If a system passes all of the prior four assessments, you at least know you have a system worth considering. Next, you’ll move on to the detail evaluation stage, which is where too many people often start. At this point, you’ll want to use the usual sort of evaluation techniques to make sure the system does what you need, in a workflow you like, and works with the devices and systems you use. As usual, don’t trust checklists of features. Verify that things work as you expect yourself.

Be open to different ways of working, though, since your mental model of how things should work may not be how a vendor solves a problem. For example, for years I encountered people accustomed to emailing files. It took some explaining to convey that, no, a share button lets you give people access to a group of people, all at once, rather than emailing an attachment so that each person on a team has their own copy of a file. Similar issues occur with workflows, where access lets you rework a process. This process of choosing a different system is a chance to consider a different way to work.

What’s your experience with software selection?

In my experience, too many people skip straight to evaluating features. There’s great value: However, in going through the first four steps very quickly, as each of these steps helps you eliminate systems that don’t work with existing systems, aren’t updated, or are not open and transparent in terms of either people or pricing.

What simple software and vendor screening techniques do you use? Is there a specific signal you seek, that, when present, indicates you should — or should not — consider a system? Have any of the above tips help you make an effective software choice?

If you have any software selection tips or techniques, let me know with either a mention or direct message on Twitter (@awolber).

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