evaluating software and services with a planning grid

Planning grids, notebooks, pens, and coffee for a software evaluation

Clients often approach me asking for assistance in choosing new technology. After they answer the first three critical questions, it’s time to get into the grit of researching options and evaluating them in light of my client’s needs. This is where my planning grid provides assistance.

Yes, I could use a spreadsheet and evaluate many more potential solutions at once, and I have. However, this method of limited choice helps to focus discussions. If none of the potential solutions fit the requirements, then I’ll create another grid and expand the search.

In the photo, I’m using the grid to evaluate solutions for two different clients (in addition to several other projects). One is thinking of changing her website from a WYSIWYG hosted environment to one where she has more control. The other likes the convenience and familiarity of her email server, but has concerns about personal information privacy.

At this stage I still have many questions and uncertainty about all the data I need to capture. The planning grid helps me begin to organize the information in a consistent way while still leaving room for the unexpected.

In general, my setup up of the planning grid is the same in both cases. It’s not a requirement to use my special PDF to analyze software. Of course I like it! I printed up several copies and grab one when I need it. I like that I don’t need to spend time drawing border lines in my log book or thinking about how many columns to make. It’s ready to customize!

Filling out the planning grid

planning grid sample for software evaluation
sample planning grid. (click to enlarge)

Column Headings This is where I list the options under consideration. If this is a situation where we’re looking to replace the current solution, it goes in the first column. Then I often have three ideas in mind for the project. I also like to include two outliers that I don’t think will work either due to what I know of feature sets or price, but I include them at this stage of the evaluation. I’ve been surprised by my research before!

Budget is always a concern! I like to record price first because I often have to convert to make sure all my numbers are in a standard base unit (either per month or per annum). It’s easier to compare apples to apples. At this point in the process I round numbers.

Key features are often consistent across everything, but not always. What is the storage? How many user accounts? How much RAM? If the answer is consistent with the current solution, I often draw an arrow across. That helps the differences to jump out as I review the chart.

Special features are also helpful to see what makes one solution tempting over another choice. These answers are often driven by sales and marketing materials at this stage.

Pros & Cons are my opinions on each solution. These are subjective and often change as I learn more about the different solutions. This is where I’ll complain about being unsure if an application is still in active development because the blog and social media have gone quiet. Or I’ll note that basic support documentation is behind a registration wall. If someone recommended it to the client that information is often remarked upon here.

Next steps

Now that I’m armed with some basic information I often return to the client with detailed questions before I provide my recommendations.

I hope this general tour of how I evaluate software will help your small business chose the right technology. If you have questions and need assistance, please contact me!