David Williams is VP of technology at Coupa, which provides cloud spend management solutions for customers like Salesforce.com, Rent-A-Center, Amazon and SUBWAY. You can follow David on Twitter @metakube and on the company blog, Coupa Cabana.

Your company just on-boarded another software product that promises to make work better, faster and easier. If you’re familiar with traditional enterprise software, you probably found yourself rolling your eyes already. But some newer players are giving the dinosaurs a run for their money by focusing on simplification and usability. Not all business software is created equal, and there are some principles to keep in mind to identify truly better business software.

So, how do you spot better business software?

It’s Usable

I can’t stress this enough. The usability of a product is key to its adoption and implementation. When examining a new software product, ask yourself and others: Do you understand what it’s doing without taking a seminar? When it surprises you, are the surprises good or bad? (Frustration doesn’t tend to help adoption.) Is the learning curve comparable to my iPhone or Kindle? How much (if any) training will be required?

One way to gauge if a technology is usable for everyone — from IT, to marketing, to sales — is to form a technology focus group. “Focus group” can be a dirty term, and you don’t have to call it that, but make sure the groups of people that will use the software day-to-day get a say in it, or there’s a good chance you’ll end up with shelfware. Gathering folks at different levels and in different departments to test-drive the product will help determine if it’s truly easy to use and may help create buy-in early on.

It Has Structure

Business software benefits from certain constraints, and it’s important to understand how the structure of the software you’re evaluating maps to your own company structure and processes. In today’s marketplace, we’ve come to expect the ability to customize any product to our personal preferences. The same thinking often holds sway when selecting business software, and it’s not always healthy.

Structure should encourage best practices, discourage bad ones and map as cleanly as possible to your own company structure and processes. One of the most challenging aspects of building enterprise software is maintaining structure cleanly from release to release, and this plays a large role in determining which features to build. My company believes strongly in the 80/20 rule — 20% of the features will be used 80% of the time, and those features in the 20% group are likely to remain consistent throughout our customer base. Customization at the code level may or may not be on the table, but I strongly discourage it. In addition to the often significant upfront cost, there are innumerable tangible and intangible costs down the road, and there’s a decent chance you’ll compromise the structure.

It’s Flexible and Fast

As much as business software should have structure, it also needs flexibility within that structure.  Completely inflexible design will make it very difficult to add new departments, create new functions specific to your industry or business, or remove things that generate more problems than they fix. It will also lead you to resort to customization, increasing costs and time-to-value.

In addition to flexibility, the software should also be fast and agile, allowing for modifications and enhancements to be made and deployed in days, not months. For some companies, this might seem like a pipe dream, given traditional mega vendors’ notoriously long wait times and fees. The reality, though, is that we’re moving toward a model with more consumer-friendly, cloud-based software products that are designed to be this flexible. If your software vendor’s response to critical requests is consistently, “Hey, sure, we’ll get that to you in six to eight months,” then you’re just not going to see the results you need. On the other hand, if your critical request is, “This button is supposed to be yellow,” you’re doing it wrong.

It’s Scalable

Particularly with cloud and SaaS (software as a service) products, the need to scale can be huge. This isn’t quite the same as scaling, say, Twitter — your enterprise app isn’t going to debut at SXSW and get swamped by unexpected traffic spikes. It’s more about scaling to the functional demands of the business.

How easily can you scale up an implementation from an initial trial department to a global deployment? What if your company merges with a major enterprise or acquires a whole new division?  Or, on the flip side, what if you spin off a subsidiary? Your business software will need to adjust to more or fewer users, use cases and associated traffic.

Many businesses merge or acquire to rapidly grow. Your technology needs to be able to support that business growth and help accelerate it, ideally without turning it into a year-long consulting project.

These four traits are the hallmarks of better business software, but they can be tough to discern in an avalanche of demos.  If these resonate with you, how do they apply (or not apply) to the technology you’re running across your company today? What processes or software could use a rethink?

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, shironosov

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