Opinionated software

What is opinionated software?

Josh Walsh headshot
Josh Walsh

When considering buying vs. building software, there’s one crucial factor to keep in mind: How closely will the software work within our company’s operations?

One of the main reasons companies decide to build custom software is that it can seamlessly fit into the policy and procedures of that company. It’s like getting a swanky new 3-piece suit custom made just for you. It comes with a price, but also fits you in all the right ways.

Alternatively, you can license software off-the-shelf which is designed to solve the same problem. This comes with a lower overall cost, but lacks the tailored fit of custom software.

As a result, there’s an ongoing debate about how opinionated this off-the-shelf software should be when developed. Many Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies are building their products around their own opinions of how you should run your company. This trend, called “opinionated software” is in stark contrast to “enterprise” software which can be endlessly configured, customized and tweaked with to fit your implementation.

So, how to do you decide which path is right for you?

Buying vs. Building

When to Buy

  • Your need is a commonly solved problem
  • Need an immediate ROI
  • Implemented at small-mid scale
  • Willing to trade off some efficiency and control for speed / cost

When to Build

  • Your problem is unique, or your process to a common problem is unique
  • You benefit from more long term ROI by investing in something tailored for you.
  • There’s value in owning the intellectual property
  • You need to tightly integrate the product with other products

Your problem is unique, or your process to a common problem is unique
You benefit from more long term ROI by investing in something tailored for you.

There’s value in owning the intellectual property
You need to tightly integrate the product with other products.

The Analogy

For entry level usage and for the purpose of creating a simple conversion path for users, opinionated software is great. Take, for example, the iPhone. The beauty of the iPhone as it was designed by Apple in 2007 (Yep, you’re old) was that regardless of your knowledge and skill with technology, you could use the phone right out of the box. This allowed for easy adoption to the smartphone platform and, for many, created immediate brand recognition and loyalty. Easy, reliable, intuitive, done!

Where the wheels tend to fall off of opinionated software platform development is down the road. As your company needs grow, new lines of business are developed, or as the users of the platform become more savvy, they may want features that deviate from that “best” method. If it’s a CRM and you want to add a step in the sales process, opinionated software won’t allow for it. Perhaps you’d like simple conferencing capabilities on your phone, but the phone only works from one calling platform that doesn't allow for multi user conferencing.

The phrase, “You’ve gotta walk before you run” comes to mind in this debate. The key is that most people want to advance past the walking at their own pace and then have the option to jog run, gallop, bike or swim from there. We want options!

The Refinery's Take

In our opinion, the biggest ROI always comes from building your own product. Buying opinionated software comes with smaller license fees, but the cost of customizing and implementing quickly makes this more costly than expected. Our experience shows that it’s almost always better in terms of quality and cost to build than to buy, when following an Agile approach.

As one example, you could consider building a lower fidelity product to save on the initial cost. While this product would initially have fewer features, it would have an epicenter which is focused exactly on how you run your business. This way you get the immediate ROI benefits of buying software, without the extreme costs of a traditional custom approach. Over time, you can continually refine this product by investing in new functionality.

Our internal discussions on this topic have noted that the key differentiator has come out of the mindset of the customer (or user) journey. This is the universal belief that a company’s clients, users, customers are on a journey and the use of your product or software is not their end-game, it’s merely a small part of a bigger journey towards their goal. Your product (or website or application) aids the customers/users in their journey.

Often, the sign of a truly well-built piece of software is the users lack of recognition that they are even using it. If the user is taking for granted that your software is getting them where they need to be in their journey, then in our world you get a stickier.

Josh Walsh

Unlike a toddler’s little hands, stickier in our world is a good thing, it means your company is harder to let go of because you’ve made their lives better.

Our Conclusion

In our eyes, opinionated software is a great place to start building a new line of business, where it’s possible the software company knows your business better than you do. But as you scale, you’ll want to consider stepping up to something built specifically for your operation. You’ve got opinions all your own.

This post was last updated on: Feb 15, 2021.