There is no such thing as a perfect software solution - but what if there was a way to improve your business processes and bring everything into one place? Custom application software is changing how businesses operate because it eliminates the need for countless software integrations and allows more control. They are also budget-friendly in the long run because of their flexibility and scalability as your business grows.
Custom applications and the development process can seem complex and intimidating, but rest assured, it’s not as scary as you think. Keep reading, and soon you’ll be able to fully grasp what custom application software is in its different forms and the step-by-step development process to help you bring yours to life.
What is custom application software, and how does it differ from off-the-shelf software? Custom application software is tailor-made technology for users inside an organization to fulfill specific business needs.
In comparison, off-the-shelf software is a ready-made, accessible solution developed to serve multiple businesses' common interests. Although off-the-shelf software is cheaper in the short term, it can be costly to upgrade, and you could be at risk if product support becomes unavailable over time.
In general, there are four buckets where most (but not all) custom application software falls into: Content Management Systems, Customer Relationship Management Systems, Operations Management Systems, and E-Commerce Software.
Content management systems allow businesses to make content updates to their website without a developer. These updates can be anything such as documents, images, blog posts, etc. A perfect example is the custom portal we built for Cancer Support Community.
A customer relationship management system is ideal for businesses that need to track relationships and interactions with customers, vendors, or other organizations. A CRM system is an excellent way for businesses to streamline their buyer’s journey and increase profitability. For more clarity on CRMs, check out this blog post from Salesforce.
An operations management system assists businesses with improving internal processes and automating manual tasks. The overarching goal of an OMS is to ensure that a business is effective and efficient in delivering the best results to its customers. Check out the OMS we built for the University of North Carolina’s School of Government.
Online stores have become more prevalent because of their convenience and accessibility. A custom e-commerce application can provide businesses with an improved competitive edge and seamless user experience.
Remember that custom application capabilities extend outside the four categories listed above. It’s just a matter of determining what issues within your business could be solved by implementing custom technology and finding the right agency to meet your needs.
The custom application process is an iterative process that goes through a series of stages to implement all required features to function from discovery to go-live and beyond. While the process can be long and occasionally tedious, it is not hard to comprehend. Below, we’ve broken down each individual step in the process and laid out what each entails.
A discovery phase should always occur at the start of any custom application project. The discovery phase is a collaboration between you and key stakeholders (internal development resources, a development agency, and/or key decision-makers within your organization) to determine what the driving factors are for building a custom application. Typically, the discovery phase is a time to ask stakeholders questions, host workshops, and engage in collaborative discussions to identify project goals and understand priorities. These various activities help to create an accurate scope and overall project plan to progress to the next step of the custom application development process.
Many components make up a discovery phase, such as determining the final product, assessing project participants, defining resource requirements, establishing a budget and timeline, and understanding potential risks.
The discovery process's first and most crucial step is determining the final product. Within this simple step, you should aim to document what you are looking to build (whether that be a Minimum Viable Product, a plugin, or an API) as well as the main functionality that you must have within the first iteration. This final product documentation sets the foundation for the project and will serve as a roadmap for the development process.
After the final product is determined, the next step is outlining the necessary resources to bring the custom application to life. When it comes to figuring out which resources you will need to build the custom application, there are a few things to consider, such as:
- What is the custom application's tech stack, and how will it integrate with the technology you currently use?
- What roles/skillsets are required to build the custom application?
- What internal resources exist within your organization?
- What external resources will you have to outsource from an agency?
- What tools will be used to keep the project on track?
A custom application’s infrastructure is referred to as a tech stack or “solutions stack.” The tech stack is all the programming languages, developer tools, and APIs that will be needed to build the custom application.
While each custom application project is different, there are typically similar roles required to complete the project successfully. These roles include:
- Project Manager - Ensures that the project stays on track and that all team members are held accountable for their work. They are also responsible for maintaining communication between all parties involved.
- User Experience (UX) Designer - Bridges the gap between the design phase and the development phase of the project. Their job is to build wireframes that act as the blueprint for the project so that it is easy to use and accessible by the end-product users.
- User Interface (UI) Designer - Focus on the visual aspects of the custom application, like how the product will look and what the interactive elements will be.
- Frontend Developer - Builds the parts of the custom application that the end-users will engage with.
- Backend Developer - Controls what the end-users do not see, such as databases, servers, and APIs.
Some businesses may have a few of these roles on staff already. When examining your internal resources, here are some things to consider:
- Do you have anyone on your team with technical expertise? If so, what is the extent of their knowledge? To reiterate an earlier statement, custom applications are an investment. Therefore, if you have team members with technical experience, you need to fully understand their capabilities so that they do not take on more than they can handle.
- Once the custom application is complete - will you have people on your team who can implement it or maintain it? Knowing this will help determine your business's need for external support.
On the other hand, if there are roles that you need to fill in order to build your custom application, here are some things to help you find the right partner.
- First and foremost - does the agency possess the skillset to meet the project's technical requirements, and if so, what is their experience level? A huge red flag to watch out for is when an agency states that they will have to outsource a partner to help complete the project.
- Next, does the agency have experience working in your industry? An example of this is if your business is in the healthcare sector, the agency you choose should have experience in that field. By selecting an agency with industry experience, they are likely to better understand the potential rules and regulations that exist within that particular sector.
Lastly, well-established agencies use a myriad of tools throughout the custom application process to provide visibility into the development process. Some examples of these tools are:
- A project management tool such as TeamWork or Wrike is used to assign project tasks and deadlines to those working on the project. Using a tool like this keeps the project on track.
- Another tool that is commonly used is Github, an online Git repository system hosting service that makes it more efficient for multiple developers to work on the same project and help one another. Github is also a great way to easily share and modify code.
Even with thorough planning, no project is without risks. Risks include anything that could potentially impact the overall success of the project. You should assess and document all known risks by defining the project scope in the discovery phase. Documenting known risks can help you put measures in place to mitigate them when possible or pivot your approach to avoid those risks. Additionally, communicating known risks at the outset of a project helps avoid unpleasant surprises and conversations in the future. Then, even when unforeseen challenges arise during development, you can collectively work together to find the most efficient solution.
Your budget will vary greatly based on your internal resources versus what you will require outside help with. To simplify this somewhat complex area of Discovery, we’ve approached it from the perspective of hiring an agency and the budget required to do so.
Most agencies charge an hourly rate for developing custom applications because building requirements can be extremely time-intensive, and they are more easily tracked and billed by the hour. While you may have a set budget in mind, pricing can change based on a variety of factors such as:
- The complexity of the designs
- The number of desired functions and features
- The number of 3rd party integrations
- The size and experience of the development team
- Any additional support from the development agency after the app’s completion
If an additional budget is required to complete the build requirements, look for an agency that clearly outlines its pricing structure, experience, and service offerings.
A project timeline provides you with an overview of important milestones, tasks, and delivery dates. Timelines are the most efficient way to keep the development team on track and maintain productivity.
When creating a project timeline, you and your development partner will work together to list out all the tasks to be completed, their priority level, and whether or not they are dependent on other tasks. By systematically organizing tasks, your project team is given a clear understanding of the work that needs to be completed and is able to plan for potential development issues and delays.
You and your development partner can monitor project progress through established milestones and deadlines to ensure that the project is running smoothly.
Each phase of the development process is extremely intricate and requires cohesiveness between the various moving parts and between team members. A proper timeline emphasizes which team members are responsible for specific tasks, allowing for easier communication when seeking clarification or addressing concerns.
Project managers are the unsung heroes of the custom application development process. They provide leadership and direction to the project team while keeping stakeholders informed and up to date. Their top priority throughout the development process is keeping the project on track to meet the set budget and timeline expectations.
- Developing the Project Scope - Before development can begin, a project manager creates the project scope. A scope is a detailed outline of a project's aspects, such as defining roles and resources, assigning tasks, and identifying deliverables.
- Project Alignment - Project managers are responsible for understanding stakeholder expectations and ensuring the project aligns with company initiatives.
- Facilitates Risk Management - By flagging and documenting the potential risks outlined in the discovery phase, project managers can work with their team to mitigate these issues and course-correct as needed.
- Team Leadership & Communication - As the main point of contact between stakeholders and the project team, an experienced project manager should have strong internal and external communication skills. Their ability to effectively communicate increases transparency between the project team and stakeholders and holds all parties accountable.
After the project manager has set the foundation for the production of the custom application, the design phase can begin. An effective product design should not only be aesthetically appealing to the end-users but should provide a positive and engaging experience.
There are two parts to the design phase - User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI). The following subsections will help you understand the difference between these two design types and their roles in the custom application development process.
User experience (UX) designers create evidence-based designs that are easy to navigate and enjoyable for people to use. As the name implies, they are focused on the application’s usability rather than the aesthetic. Their work is driven by research, strategizing, and data analysis, primarily focusing on the end-user experience.
The UX design process is broken up into three steps - research, prototyping and wireframing, and testing.
Step 1: Research
Research must be performed in many different areas in order to provide UX designers with the information they need to understand how the targeted end-users will feel when interacting with the custom application.
- User Research - UX designers conduct rigorous stakeholder interviews and mock-up user personas to understand the target audience's potential pain points, blockers, and characteristics.
- Market Research - Understanding the availability of similar products and services from market competitors to find areas of opportunity to differentiate your product.
- Business Analysis - Learning about your company’s business processes to determine the effects of implementing a custom application.
Step 2: Wireframing and UX Prototyping
As research ends, UX designers start developing wireframes for the application. Wireframes outline how users will flow from one element to the next and what components are necessary for the application to function as desired.
During wireframe development, UX designers can create a prototype or minimal viable product (MVP). This is not the final product but rather showcases how the final product will work.
This process allows UX designers to collect feedback and work alongside stakeholders to decide how to move forward before finalizing the final product and spending unnecessary resources.
Step 3: Testing
Finally, UX designers will perform user tests to diagnose current or potential design issues. Examples of these issues include:
- A confusing user interface that either prevents users from converting or diverts from your business goals
- There are unnecessary features that make the application cumbersome and challenging to navigate
- Specific user actions lead to an unfavorable product experience
While every project’s users will be different and require altered experiences to support them, there are still several best practices that all UX Designers should follow in order to support your custom application’s successful design and implementation.
Only Design with the User in Mind
The sole purpose of UX designers is to help users reach their goals or solve their problems quickly and efficiently. Therefore, every screen, function, and feature should be designed with the user in mind.
Clear Navigation and Usability
UX designers need to make it easy for users to navigate the app and quickly find what they are looking for without confusion.
Keep the Experience the Same
If your custom application is available on different platforms - mobile vs. desktop or iOS vs. Andriod, UX designers need to ensure that every user should have the same experience.
Unlike UX designers, UI designers are responsible for managing the visual elements that make up the look and feel of a custom application. They ensure that your brand is effectively conveyed and follows the foundation set forth by the UX designers.
Step 1: Aligning with the UX Designers
Before UI designers can begin, they work with the UX designers to understand who the target audience is, how they can build off of the wireframes, and what the user flow of the custom application involves.
Step 2: Creating Mood Boards
Next, UI designers create mood boards (aka reference boards), which is a compilation of visual references to help define the visual design direction of the custom application. Examples of these visual elements are:
- Color palette
- The positioning and behavior of UI elements such as buttons, text and form fields, drop-down lists, scrollbars, icons, checkboxes, etc
- Animations and graphic elements
- Responsive design—ensuring that the design adapts to different devices and screen sizes if needed
- Accessible and inclusive to those that will be using the application
After the initial mood boards have been created, you and the UI designer will review them together and decide which elements best represent your brand or need to change.
Step 3: Create Mockups and Application Elements
Once the visual direction is established, the UI designer will create screen mockups so that you can easily visualize the appearance of your custom application’s interface.
Along with the screen mockups, UI designers will list out every element that will appear on the main screens of your custom application. These elements are the buttons, images, icons, etc. It is imperative that during this phase, the UI designer keeps functionality in mind because the placement of these elements in the screen mockups can affect the overall user experience.
Step 4: Design a UI Prototype
One of the best ways to emanate the functionality of the custom application before it moves to the development stage is to create a clickable prototype. This iteration of your application provides a visual representation of how the application will look and feel as you (or the user) switch between screens.
Step 5: Finalize the UI Design Style Guide
The UI design style guide contains the final screen views and functionality of each element in your custom application. A style guide ensures that the project team is on the same page with how the application should look and feel to the end-users.
Similar to UX Design, UI Design will always be driven by varying elements like user and stakeholder preferences. Still, there are UI best practices that should always be considered when designing your custom application.
Incorporating Brand Elements
Understanding how to incorporate your logo, color schemes, typography, and image styles should be a collaborative process between you and the UI designers so that your custom application accurately reflects your brand.
UI designers can prevent cognitive overload by creating patterns in language, layout, and design throughout the custom application. By doing this, users can efficiently navigate the application by transferring a learned skill rather than figuring out what to do by recalling information. For example, if there is a navigation bar at the top of the screen on one page, it should remain in that exact location on every page.
Once the design phase has been completed, the custom application can move to the development phase.
The development phase starts with the backend development. Backend developers are responsible for implementing the tech stack defined in the discovery phase. Additionally, they write code focusing on functionality, maintain data storage infrastructure, and manage integrations with external systems. Since backend developers handle the application's inner workings, their work is not easily visible to the end-users.
At a fundamental level, there are three steps in the backend developer process.
Step 1 - Providing Access to the Information Users Require
No matter the nature of the product, users continuously ask for information (data) when using applications. Backend developers are responsible for providing that data so your custom application can function.
Step 2 - Gather the Information
Next, backend developers use various databases to locate the necessary data for your custom application. Sometimes multiple databases are needed, so backend developers “combine” them to provide the desired results.
For example, say you download a custom application that finds and provides directions to local taco restaurants. For this app to work, it will need to pull information from a database containing local taco restaurants and from a database (like Google Maps) to provide directions on how to get there.
Step 3 - Translate and Return to the User
Once the backend has gathered all the requested data, the data needs to return to the user. However, this data is in code form, so backend developers rely on third-party integrations (like APIs) and frontend developers to translate the code into human language.
Frontend developers have the unique role of connecting the design team's efforts with the data from the backend. Opposite to backend developers, frontend developers build and maintain the components the end-users interact with, such as:
- User-Entered Data
- The User Interface
Another significant responsibility of frontend developers is to enhance application performance. There are a few ways they manage this.
Reduce Load Time
Load time is the time it takes for the application to load different screens or display new elements. To avoid this, frontend developers can use smaller files and reduce the number of HTTP requests.
Aside from quick load times, custom applications should be easy to use. For example, its buttons should respond correctly to clicks, and interactive elements should react immediately to user actions.
Image and Video Optimization
Images and videos can take up a significant amount of data in custom applications, ultimately affecting performance. To avoid this risk, frontend developers can optimize images and videos by compressing them, adopting the vector file format, or caching them. Doing this reduces page weight, load times, and network resource loads.
Despite there being obvious differences between backend and frontend developers, they have similar, if not the same, best practices.
A developer should never push code without it being reviewed by another developer on the team. Reviewing code avoids vulnerabilities and difficulties maintaining the code. Pull requests are a simple but efficient way to review a developer’s code and discuss any potential changes.
Ensure Backup Code
In the event that something goes wrong when code is merged or uploaded to the custom application, it is imperative that the developer team has backups of the previous data just in case it needs to be restored. Without proper code backups, it becomes more and more difficult to go back and fix code.
Test at Every Level
With every new feature or added code, developers must test the custom application so that your project team will not have to retrace their steps to find out where things went wrong.
Throughout the development phase, developers should be consistently checking to see that all third-party integrations and databases are working as expected. If these systems are to unexpectedly update or go offline, the entire functionality of your application is put at risk.
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Humans are not perfect and are bound to make mistakes, regardless of their expertise and experience. Therefore, quality assurance (QA) is the most critical step in the custom application development process because it helps catch these mistakes and ensures that your team delivers a high-quality product. By definition, quality assurance is the systematic process of determining whether or not the product meets the specifications and function. In theory, quality assurance should happen throughout development to stay within the timeline and deliverables expectations.
The QA process is managed by the assigned project manager and is a series of four steps which are:
- Plan - During this step, the project manager will not only review the project risks defined during the discovery phase but will also manage unexpected errors as they arise. From there, the PM will develop a plan with set objectives and changes for the team to address these issues.
- Do - Next, the team will perform the procedures defined in the previous step and asses to see if the changes worked.
- Check - After the changes have been made, the project team will evaluate the results to see if the errors have been corrected.
- Act/Adjust - Finally, the team will implement the changes and adjust as necessary. The QA process will repeat itself until the project is complete.
There are several different methods to test for quality assurance, but here are some of the common ones.
In most cases, your company's new custom application will require data migration from your old systems. This process can be extremely risky and if not performed properly, can result in file corruption or data loss. Data conversion testing confirms the compatibility between your old and new systems to minimize the risk of permanently losing data.
Regression testing checks software functionality before and after an update or patch release.
User Acceptance Testing
User testing allows developers to check for unforeseen issues in the application that could affect the application’s performance and result in a poor user experience.
Software Performance Testing
Software performance testing helps developers define limitations and confirm the specs and abilities of the custom application. Additionally, this method of testing will check for speed and scalability to determine how far the application can be pushed.
The risk of not performing quality assurance can be detrimental. Here are a few examples of what can happen if your or your partner agency does not have a quality assurance plan in place.
Without proper software testing, your product is at risk for bugs and defects. The longer these issues go undetected, the harder they can be to rectify. Ultimately, you will risk paying more for your product due to the lost productivity and the extended timeline based on the increase in the project team’s hours.
When investing in custom software, you preemptively expect your product to work correctly, protect private information, and run without crashing. Unaddressed software bugs can lead to a poor user experience, resulting in lost customers and a tarnished brand reputation.
However time-consuming quality assurance might be, it ensures your product's value and overall success.
Finally, your custom application is ready to go live after months of discovery, designing, developing, and testing. The go-live implementation process is the final step of the custom application development process. During this phase, your development team or partner will guide you through your application's integration and deployment. Through user training, a thorough technical go-live, and a detailed project hand-off, you should be left feeling confident in using your new custom application.
The first step of the go-live process is user training. User training is when you set aside time at the end of the development process to train your team on how to use the application. Training ensures you gain the most value and benefits from your product and utilize it to its full potential. It also is a time for you to ask questions and seek support from your development team or partner so that the product hand-off is not overwhelming and unmanageable.
Since everyone learns differently, user training can take many forms to meet your company’s unique needs. Some examples of user training include:
- In-person or virtual live walkthroughs of the product
- Thorough digital documentation
- Pre-recorded training videos
Regardless of your learning style, your team should leave you feeling confident that you will be able to utilize and maintain your custom application.
After user training has been completed, you and your development team or partner can prepare for the technical go-live. The technical go-live means that your team has completed all the required technical elements and conditions that have been met per the project scope. This step in the process is helpful because it allows you to see how the custom application will function in parallel with the old system and address situations that could not be replicated during product testing.
A technical go-live has many benefits and adds significant value to the custom application development process.
This is the only moment the project developers can see how the application will perform in real situations, meaning that collecting feedback will be extremely important to ensure that everything is truly working as planned.
A technical go-live allows you to roll out new features and processes gradually and serves as a final chance to identify any requirement gaps and resolve technical issues.
Practice Makes Perfect
Despite in-depth user training, you and your team still need time to become familiar with your new application. The technical go-live provides your team the opportunity to practice using the new system and request adjustments as needed.
Finally, the moment has come when you officially get to assume responsibility of your custom application. This moment can be equally exciting as it is scary, which is why this is a gradual process rather than an immediate takeover. The official project hand-off consists of the project manager transferring all necessary project documents, files, and assets to your team.
Before the project can come to a close, there are a few things you should expect from your development team or partner to ensure a successful hand-off.
At the end of the contract, if working with a vendor, your digital partner may send you additional paperwork to sign off that the work performed meets the expected deliverables.
There is always a chance that bugs or errors will arise during the project hand-off. Your development team or partner should fix and address any issues before completely stepping away from the project.
If there is any additional documentation required that was not provided to you during user training, be sure you obtain that information before the project’s conclusion.
Your development team or partner should prioritize checking in with you. Monthly check-ins show that your teams care about the work and are invested in the success of your custom application. These check-ins also give you the opportunity to ask for additional support if needed.
Once you have taken ownership of your custom application, your development team or partner should provide you with options for additional support. Technology is constantly evolving and changing, and your application may need adjustments over time to meet new demands.
Even after you have officially taken ownership of your custom application, an expert-level developer or agency will provide additional support plans to assist you in the evolution and customization of your application and ongoing maintenance as requested.
There may come a time when your custom application simply no longer meets the needs of your end-users like it once used to. It may “do the job”, but there are obvious areas of improvement.
To maintain the success of your custom application, your development team or partner can work with you to either enhance the application or even change certain aspects. The evolution and customization possess similar aspects of the custom application process but on a much smaller scale.
First and foremost, you and your team will analyze the application’s performance and work together to determine what adjustments need to be made. From there, you will create a new task order with the requested changes. This task order will outline the work that needs to be done and holds your team or partner accountable.
Testing and Product Updates
Next, your team or partner will perform the agreed-upon tasks and update the custom application. This step will also include quality assurance testing to ensure that the additional enhancements or features function as desired.
Together, you and your team will walk through the updated changes, verify functionality, and decide whether or not ongoing maintenance will be necessary.
Most digital agencies offer ongoing maintenance plans for your custom application as should any in-house development team. Setting up an ongoing maintenance plan allows them to provide updates, address spontaneous repairs, and optimize your custom application to keep it in tip-top shape. Without routine maintenance, your application may be susceptible to bugs, become increasingly inefficient, or even be inoperable.
Prevent Larger Issues
With an ongoing maintenance plan, your development team or partner is able to routinely check on your custom application and identity any small flaws/ errors that may have gone unnoticed. The last thing you want to deal with is letting a program error go unresolved and interfere with your business.
Maintain Security Protocols
As mentioned earlier, the world of technology is always changing. There are always going to be new threats and vulnerabilities that will need to be addressed. Having your development team or partner check for and install security updates protects your custom application and company data.
Most custom applications require the integration of third-party applications. As these various applications evolve over time, they may no longer be compatible with your application. Ongoing maintenance allows developers to change out third-party systems if they are no longer needed.
Custom application software is the only software on the market that will have the ability to completely meet your specific business needs. By investing in custom application software, you will not only be able to take your business to the next level, but you will have an unmatched advantage over your competitors.
If you find yourself wanting to invest in custom application software, remember the following:
- Start by locating any pain points within your business processes to determine if custom software is the right solution for you.
- Consider the different custom software solutions and what might work best for you.
- Connect with company stakeholders to set your budget and timeline.
The custom application development process is long and tedious, which is why finding the right development partner is especially important. The right partner should be able to help you find the right technology solution in addition to developing it. Finding a partner agency that aligns with your company’s mission and values is just as important as the work they produce.
At Savas Labs, our mission is to craft excellent digital products and experiences that not only drive results for our partners but make a positive impact. Our devotion to our clients goes beyond the work we produce. We understand that investing in custom applications takes a great deal of trust and consideration, which is why we keep our partners involved during every stage of the custom application development process. If you are considering custom application software and find that our values meet your expectations, we invite you to set up a discovery session with our business development team.