Before the first line of code is written, your organisation must do some serious planning and research – even if the new application will only ever be used in-house. We call this the Business Planning stage of the software development cycle.

There are two key questions that need to be answered as part of this planning phase:

  1. Is there a gap in the market for our product idea?
  2. What are our competitors offering?

By answering these questions, you can make an informed decision as to whether it is worth proceeding with the project or not.

Identifying a gap in the market

Sometimes a great app happens almost by accident when its developers stumble across an idea that allows them to create a whole new market. Like Facebook, which went from minor college project to becoming the foundation of social media as we know it today.

In most cases however, new successful products are the result of many hours of research, interviews and careful analysis to identify new opportunities in existing markets. These applications tend to improve productivity, increase efficiency or add features to an existing concept or practice.

There are several ways you can go about identifying gaps – and you should use as many as possible to get a proper understanding of the current situation.

  1. Survey your team

Your employees, particularly those who work in support roles, will have a very good understanding of your customers’ challenges and pain points. They will know where your current offering is weak, or where there are “gaps” – functionality that would help to improve the usability experience.

  1. Survey your customers

Your support team knows many of the problems already but collecting real-world user experience is invaluable. They can show you their workflows and frustrations, allowing you to see exactly where to find new opportunities. Don’t limit your survey to your own activities though – customers experience many inefficiencies and each is potentially a new revenue stream for your business.

  1. Survey the rest of the market

Your existing customer base represents just one aspect of the marketplace. When developing new software products you also need to look further afield; the more people you can serve, the more successful your application will be.

It is possible for your in-house team to conduct the research. However, you may struggle to make contact with the right people to formulate a balanced, realistic view of the marketplace. It is often more effective to partner with a market research specialist who can identify and contact relevant parties on your behalf.

Alternatively, your software development partner may be able to assist. They can survey relevant individuals from the viewpoint of developing a product to address the users’ needs. These insights will also help them plan future phases of the development cycle.

What are our competitors offering?

As well as surveying potential users, you need to understand the products that already exist in your target market space. It may be that the space is already crowded, leaving little room for new entrants.

Understanding competitor products serves two purposes. First, you know exactly what is available, its general functionality and market share. Second, you can assess how well the product actually meets the needs of its users.

You should certainly see competing tools in action, arranging for product demos or trials that allow you to test the capabilities and limitations of each. When you understand what you are up against, you can also begin to formulate your own concepts and ideas for overcoming the shortcomings of each.

Where possible you should also seek to interview existing users of these products. Again, they will be able to pinpoint inefficiencies, failings and annoyances. They will also be able to show where complementary products could improve their experiences.

Don’t forget to take a look into the future

It is important to remember that competitors’ software is unlikely to be static; they will be constantly enhancing and improving applications to create a product that meets the changing needs of their customers. It is extremely likely that they are surveying their users to understand frustrations and failings, just as you are.

The good news is that many software providers publish development roadmaps, outlining the enhancements and improvements they will be adding in future revisions. Roadmaps and estimated timescales may change, but they provide some indication of what to expect.

Roadmaps may also indicate that the gaps your research has identified are due to be addressed imminently. Where this is the case, you must either shorten your time to delivery, or identify an alternative issue to exploit.

Buyer beware – do we really need to build in-house?

Completing a business plan is also an essential step when developing bespoke software that will only be used in-house. Should you really reinvent the wheel if there is an existing product available that meets your needs?

Working alongside a specialist consultancy like Matter of Software you can assess the available products. It could be that nothing meets your needs perfectly, but your development partner may be able to extend and customise an existing application. This is often quicker and more cost effective than building new software from scratch.

Report to your stakeholders

The final output of the business planning phase should be – a business plan. This report compiles the results of all your research, outlining the state of the marketplace and the products that are already active in it.

In order to be useful, the plan must fully answer the two questions previously specified:

  1. Is there a gap in the market for our product idea?
  2. What are our competitors offering?

Additional information that will help to provide context includes projected costs, estimated development times and potential risks that have been identified during initial research.

The collated evidence should help your stakeholders decide if the proposed software could be a viable product or not. The project can then move onto the next phase (business process mapping) if there is a sufficient potential. If the evidence suggests the product will (probably) fail, the rest of the project should be cancelled immediately. You will not incur any further cost associated with research and development into a product that has little chance of success.

You will also have a good understanding of the high-level functionality that the new application must offer. These insights will be fed into later stages of the project to help deliver a genuinely useful product that meets the needs of users.