I remember the day my son came home very excited about a car. It was not long after he received his driver’s license, and of course it’s no fun for a 17 year old to ask to borrow the family-mobile (he knew better than to ask to borrow my sports car), so he had been looking for his own. After scouring the newspapers and car lots, he found one on a used car lot that, with a little help on the down payment and insurance, he could afford.
So off we went one Saturday to the dealership for an object lesson in the art of used car evaluation and negotiation. It was not a big surprise to me that the car of his dreams was a sharp looking foreign sports car. It was also no surprise to me that the car failed in most of the evaluation criteria I applied. While disappointed, my son learned a lot that day about how to shop for cars, and we eventually found one that was cool enough for school while still being safe and reliable.
I bring this story up for two reasons. First, I’m reminded of it because my daughter is about to go through the same process. Second, I am frequently asked how one should best shop for construction business software. Cars and software are of course a bit different but they do share a couple things in common. Neither are commodities—there are significant differences in performance and quality. And the buyer should check carefully under the hood before being taken in by a nice looking exterior.
So if you are entering the market for construction software for your business, or you just want to kick the tires a bit, here are what I consider the five most important items for your software review checklist:
1. Ease of Use.
If construction software is not easy to use for everyone who is supposed to use it then—no surprise—it will not get used. Issuing a “use-it-or-else” mandate rarely works. Folks will simply do their work in spreadsheets or other programs then do double duty to put the information in your new, shiny, but complex software system. Look for user interfaces that are intuitive and that help guide you to the information you need without the need to navigate and memorize elaborate menu structures.
Data and documentation have always been important to work done in the office, but having access to electronic information is becoming more of a necessity at the job site and in the field. That means using business and project management software that does not rely heavily (or at all) on the type of device being used. Ideally, look for software that your staff can access and use from any device regardless of the type of hardware, operating system, or applications loaded—i.e., true cloud-based software.
3. Cost of Ownership.
Here, software and cars share a bit in common. You may pay a little more for certain makes and models, but at least you won’t be buying cases of oil because the engine burns it up. More than just initial price, look for software that minimizes the burdens of implementation and training and that does not require you to purchase new versions or constantly upgrade your hardware or operating systems.
These days using DOS-based construction software is all but unheard of. But when they first came out, graphical interfaces were seen by many as an unnecessary and distracting approach to software design. Today, we’re seeing a similar movement with cloud computing. But over the past two years, the number of devices relying on a Windows-based design has dropped from 95% to 50% of all computing. The movement to cloud-based applications paired with single-purpose apps is just as inevitable as the movement from DOS to Windows. Look for construction software vendors who are designing their products to work in this new environment. This means more than just dropping their existing Windows-based products onto a server for remote access. It means actively redesigning the way their software works.
The ongoing fees you pay for support should buy you more than a number to call. It should buy you peace of mind that you will have a working, updated product and the confidence that you are getting something for your money, not just “paying insurance” to cover times when things go wrong. Look for software vendors who offer support packages that include regular updates and even new versions without the need to re-purchase any software. Look for support that is provided by the company, not outsourced, and that doesn’t drop you into a long cue every time you call.
What do you look for when picking out construction management or operations software?