As web workers, we depend on a variety of tools: mobile phones, computers, PDAs, even (depending on how you look at it) coffee shops. But one set of tools stands out as being both important and difficult to select: the software we use, whether as web applications or desktop tools.
Over the years, I’ve watched web workers (and others) fall into a variety of traps. I’ve seen startups spend thousands of dollars on software licenses for packages that were never used. I’ve seen people struggling to edit files in NotePad when a good dedicated editor would get the job done in a tenth the time. I’ve seen brand loyalty (or disloyalty) outweigh conscious thought. If you’re trying to get a job done, none of these is an especially good strategy. Want to make better software choices? Here’s how.There’s one simple rule to keep in mind: a software tool (whether a desktop application or a web application) is only worth adding to your collection if its expected value exceeds its expected cost. There are three basic ways that you can tweak this equation to make it work in your favor.
1. Increase the Value. Any software package, no matter how expensive or inexpensive, is worthless if you don’t use it. If you’re picking a new tool, take the time to learn to use it and to explore all of its features. With large, complex applications this has a twofold benefit: not only will you become more efficient with the tool, you may discover that it does more than you thought and so keeps you from having to spend money on other applications.
Learning the tool can take many forms: reading help files, buying a book, watching online videos, or even attending training courses. How much time and money to invest in learning depends on how central this particular application is to your work.
After you’ve decided to purchase an application, you should also try to increase its utility to you. This is particularly necessary when you’ve bought something (such as a graphics design application or subscription to a stock photo service) to meet the needs of a single client. Add the tool to the repertoire of things that you market yourself as having experience with so you can reuse it and spread the cost across multiple projects.
Finally, be aware of network effects when looking at the value of new applications. Software doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s all interconnected. Other things being equal, you should prefer to buy things that work as add-ins to applications you already have, or that come from the same vendor. This increases the chance of smooth interoperability and lowers your learning curve.
2. Decrease the Cost. If you had a choice between a $50 application and a $5000 application with the exact same features, the choice would be easy. But decreasing your software cost is rarely as simple as that. You need to make sure you take hidden costs – notably the cost of learning a new application to the point where you’re reasonably expert in it – into account. Remember, time you spend learning, installing, and working around bugs is generally not billable.
This is why free and open source applications are not always the best choice. Even if an open source application has the same capabilities as a commercial alternative, you need to ask yourself whether it’s as efficient to use. Is the user interface good? Is support available when you need it? Will it take longer to learn because there’s not good documentation?
On the other hand, you need to avoid falling into the trap of always buying the most powerful possible application – sometimes, you’ll end up paying for power that you don’t need. If you only need to do occasional graphics work, for example, and it’s not your core business, PhotoShop may be the wrong choice for you. The extra time you’ll spend wrestling with the Gimp when you use it once a month can take a long time to reach the cost of a PhotoShop license.
Also keep in mind that you don’t need to do everything yourself, even if you can. Perhaps that occasional bit of graphics work is best subcontracted to someone else so that you don’t need to license and learn a high-end application.
3. Decrease the Uncertainty. One of the best ways to avoid spending too much on your software is to not rush into decisions. The best time to discover that an application won’t actually meet your needs is before you invest money or time in it. Of course, collecting information also takes time (and therefore costs you money), but if you choose the right sources, it’s a cheap way to get started.
Reading reviews (especially from trusted sources like, oh, Web Worker Daily) is a good way to get started. Independent reviews are often more useful than vendor websites because they give a more balanced opinion. Asking your peers for recommendations is also helpful – even a quick post to Twitter can bring out surprisingly useful information in many cases.
If you can, you should always try software before you buy it. With shareware, of course, this is part of the marketing deal in the first place, but many regular commercial applications also offer time-limited or demo versions. Even some that don’t publicly offer demos may do so if you convince their salespeople that you’re a serious prospect (and if you’re not a serious prospect, you have no business wasting time on the software anyhow).
Have you got any software-buying success (or horror) stores of your own to share? What advice would you offer your peers who are hunting for the right applications to make their web work go smoothly?