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5 Reasons Why Platforms Are Better Than Bespoke Technical Solutions

By Natasha Beale on July 4, 2016


For many organizations, the struggle to choose between platform and bespoke solutions is becoming more and more unwieldy as technology choices increase exponentially. In the international development field, organizations are always looking for an edge in the competition for donor funds, and with recent trends focused on innovation and scale, ICTs are increasingly seen as the way to stand out from the crowd. NGOs often see investment in bespoke solutions as the best way to appear competitive on the road to more funding in the innovation landscape.

However, while bespoke solutions may seem like a better idea on the surface because they are tailored to a specific use case and thus have a higher probability for success, there are several reasons why a platform solution is actually better for successful implementation of projects. Indeed, they are better also for the development process overall and, most importantly, the intended beneficiaries.

A bespoke product is tailor-made to the needs of the user or client—built from the ground up, fully customizable, and reliant on the developer for continued support and maintenance. Open source products are free to use and access, but they are not designed in line with an organization’s specific needs.

Platform or Software as-a-service solutions are somewhere in the middle of the road. While not fully customizable, a software company or technology provider has determined the best features and functions for a particular market or set of use cases that organizations might address.



VOTO Mobile has developed an Interactive Voice Response and SMS software-as-a-service approach. VOTO Mobile’s IVR platform has revolutionized the way that Equal Access field teams interact with our radio program listeners and television viewers. The platform facilitates two-way communication and helps Equal Access engage with difficult-to-reach populations through their mobile phone in any language.

The successful partnership between Equal Access and VOTO Mobile has created some lessons in terms of how NGOs can effectively choose which ICT approach (bespoke, open source, or platform) to take to effectively implement an innovative ICT strategy.

  1. Platforms are more cost effective and grant you more “bang for your donor buck”. While perhaps, not entirely free (though many platforms such as Dimagi’s CommCare have limited free plans), platforms are far less expensive than bespoke solutions which can easily run an organization into the hundred thousand dollar range. In our experience, platforms are far more reliable than open source software and have the capacity to complete far more complex tasks.
  1. Platforms often have an evidence base where bespoke solutions may have limited evidence regarding their past performance and impact. Equal Access’s preferred platforms—Dimagi’s CommCare and VOTO Mobile’s IVR and SMS system—both boast a lengthy and impressive evidence base rich with rigorous research, use cases, and case studies. Partnering with such organizations allows an organization to have considerably more confidence that the solution will prove effective. Open source and custom solutions may have several use cases but often far fewer success stories.
  1. Platforms allow you to prioritize deployment over development. Custom solutions take a great deal of time, money, and resources to initiate and require a significant level of design leadership on the part of the NGO as well as quality assurance (QA) testing. NGOs are not technical experts and are often better served by platform solutions whose providers intimately understand users in a way NGOs may not. By their very nature, platforms are often ready to use and can quickly be implemented anywhere while also having guaranteed maintenance and support built in to simpler budgets. EA has learned from experience that platform technology is less risky when compared to bespoke solutions that can take significant time and finances to build and not work when implemented.
  1. Platforms are easily customizable for a price. Rather than starting from scratch, platforms allow you to build upon existing software or choose a subscription plan to better tailor the solution for your use case. Many platform providers are happy to work with NGOs to better understand and use case and make adjustments to their platform. They can also develop new features for a fraction of the cost of a customized solution.
  1. Platforms are far more sustainable and scalable than bespoke solutions. Evidence suggests that one-off technologies are not sustainable and not easily scaled. A recent article by The Engine Room, for instance, highlighted that many organizations that build custom tech solutions don’t end up effectively using them. This was often as a result of not knowing exactly what they wanted from the outset and not doing sufficient research or properly articulating their needs. Since bespoke models are constructed for such a narrow purpose or use case, it is difficult to repurpose them for something else, and they often quickly become defunct. Given that platform solutions are more general in what they are designed to do, they are often used by the same organization for very different activities (and by very different organizations with divergent needs).

Perhaps, in the development industry it is easier to see technical solutions in terms of a binary between free open source solutions that are rhetorically promoted by donors and bespoke solutions that are implicitly celebrated by the same donors. However, Equal Access chooses to see technology as a spectrum, recognizing that many subscription-based platform solutions offer the best of both worlds—open source technology and bespoke solutions.

This article is co-authored with Heather Gilberds, the Director of Insights and Marketing at VOTO Mobile.

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Written by
Natasha Beale is the ICT4D Specialist at Equal Access International and has managed a range of ICT4D projects in a variety of sectors from maternal and child health to education system strengthening as well as agricultural development.
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8 Comments to “5 Reasons Why Platforms Are Better Than Bespoke Technical Solutions”

  1. Joe says:

    Really sorry, but this article is full of inaccuracies. A system can be a ‘platform’ as you put it and open source at the same time. Are you aware that DHIS2 is open source? Would you regard DHIS2 as a ‘platform’?

    The other issue I have is the claim that bespoke systems can run into hundreds of thousands of rands and that developers are required to maintain them. I just want to start by saying that software developers are valuable contributors to every business sector and the sooner that businesses realise that and hire their own software developer (a role that can be shared with another technical role), the better. Software developers are no more expensive than (for example) M&E experts. By going with a ‘platform’ that doesn’t fit 100%, you are introducing additional effort and wastage in addition to not delivering on exact needs. Cost of ownership of any ‘system’ is far more complex than people realise.

    Personally I think there is more valid conversation to be held around proper requirements gathering processes at the start of software projects – this is the most common place for funded projects to go awry. Late starts, rigid delivery schedules, lack of clear requirements are all big risks and apply to any project, whether bespoke or ‘platform’ based.

    The real challenge with these ‘platform’ approaches that often gets overlooked is amalgamating data sources and performing useful analytics with ALL data sources – this could be your Commcare data, Excel data, DHIS, etc. etc.
    Somthing of a bespoke system is often required to do this.

    In conclusion, I’d suggest ‘not throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ and rather recognize where bespoke systems belong and where existing platforms belong and using technology appropriately… the right tool for the job. That is a universal law.

    Whichever way you go, a good Information Systems manager is required to get a significant project done well, but don’t make the mistake that so many do and assume that building a good IS system can be done with IS technical staff alone – the business staff absolutely need to be a big part of that process.

    • Hi Joe,

      Thank you so much for your detailed and ardent comments. I hope you’ll permit me a moment to respond in kind.

      You make a very good point that platform solutions can and often are open-source. Indeed, I used to work for Dimagi who develops and maintains Commcare, an open-source mobile data collection platform. The purpose of this article was not to draw so much of a distinction between open-source software and software-as-service platforms (because indeed they can be one in the same) but rather between platforms and one-off custom developed, single purpose software. It should also be noted that while many platforms can be open-source, they can still be supported by a sustainable company with a team willing to incorporate users into the roadmap and do custom development.

      I completely agree with your point about the value of software developers. My post was not in any way meant to undermine their role. Rather, I attempted to explain some of the choices and recommendations I make to my organization based on my own personal experience with mine and other organizations. One part of the article that was eventually cut explained EA’s experience working with open-source solutions such as Freedom Fone (of which we were one of the initial beta testers), VOTO Mobile as a software-as-service platform, and customized development projects on an IVR system in West Africa and Learning Management System in Asia. Each of these experiences has been tremendously valuable to us and this article seeks to share some of the lessons learned from these experiences with others. Perhaps, I could caveat this post by saying many small to medium organizations may not be able to afford a software developer or have enough for them to do on the projects that they are currently implementing. Believe me, I would love to have more technical people at our organization, but this is often seen as a luxury. Furthermore, for organizations seeking to stretch donor dollars further, platform technical solutions can often cost-effectively meet the needs of many projects.

      Software platforms with technical support teams like Dimagi and VOTO Mobile offer organizations a phenomenally advantageous package: ready to deploy software, a technical support team, a variety of tried and tested features, a diverse user base with specific and instructional experience, and a far more affordable budget.

      I believe that we should indeed have a conversation about how custom solutions can go awry when the development phase is muddled with miscommunication, unclear requirements, and unwieldy project schedules. However, this discussion was not the initial purpose of this particular article. I would encourage you to write a post on this process and perhaps your personal experiences with organizations seeking custom solutions to development challenges. I am also happy to take this conversation offline. Please feel free to contact me directly through my LinkedIn hyperlinked above.

      With regards to your contention about the difficulties of platform solutions, I completely agree. There are several challenges to using any kind of technical solution in the field. I have personally never heard of any ICT4D use case without any challenges. If you have, I would love to discuss these with you and learn from your experiences. The purpose of my article was to simply point out that if in an organization does not have the resources, both financial and technical, to devote to a proper bespoke technical solution development and deployment, then software-as-service platforms provide a much more cost-effective and proven solution to a variety of development challenges. Furthermore, I want to underscore that without significant financial and technical resources as well as either local governments’ literal buy-in or public-private partnerships, bespoke solutions are often not as likely to provide a sustainable solution to development issue as platform solutions that have a devoted infrastructure behind them making it work.

  2. Clement K. Tay says:

    Thanks for the splendid write out Natasha Beale. I have a different view though.

    Balancing a company’s immediate needs with its long-term growth is both paramount and challenging – especially if a business is a startup. Challenging questions arise, such as whether the business should invest aggressively in long-term initiatives or take the less expensive and more conservative approach. The “build versus buy” decision, for example, in my view is a significant one that many companies/businesses face when addressing their software needs.
    Most businesses initially start with off-the-shelf software because it was fast and cheap, but eventually will find that the lack of customization relative to the day-to-day operations ultimately led to inefficient and manual processes. Businesses tend to grow overtime, as they do, these challenges became more and more pronounced and scalability became harder to reach. Ultimately, businesses will be forced to invest heavily in proprietary software so that they could scale effectively. In retrospect, many of these tradeoffs could have been assessed far earlier in company’s lifetime.
    Building custom software can unlock a host of benefits, but companies can only pursue that strategy if
    1) an entity is building a large business that can spread the cost of a proprietary system over a large number of clients,
    2) better software can provide a competitive advantage relative to other competitors, and consider the following questions before making this decision:
    Why should you consider investing in custom software?
    While building custom software is expensive, the return on investment can be well worth it. Remember, however, that significant energy, resources, and time must be dedicated to its development. These tasks associated with custom software may initially make a canned solution seem like the smarter idea, but there are several reasons to reconsider:
    • Canned solutions are rigid. The vast majority of off-the-shelf software will not allow you to modify its functionality in a meaningful way. It may be difficult to add or subtract built-in features, leading to either too many or too few functions for a company,
    • Off-the-shelf software cannot meet every need. Canned solutions generally address many of the needs of most companies. If a business has specialized needs, custom software may be better qualified to meet them.

    • Hi Clement,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough comments.

      I wanted to clarify that I wrote the preceding post from the perspective of an NGO that is primarily funded through project grants. Our technical investments are either organizational or project-based though we do sometimes run into similar challenges to private businesses when choosing technical solutions.

      This article is specifically focused on project based technical solutions rather than internal organizational ones. Often, projects have a limited lifespan due to the deeply flawed development model of institutional donors (but that is a for a separate conversation altogether). When implementing projects, whether it be in WASH, MCH, or CVE, technical solutions can often help address local challenges from simple mobile data collection and digitized M&E to technical tools developed to help farmers access market prices or mothers to access childcare information.

      Platform solutions are indeed subject their own challenges and may not meet an organization’s project needs entirely. However, many software-as-service providers offer customizable options for a fee, a fee that is often far more affordable when compared to developing a custom solution from scratch. Developing a custom solution can be extremely expensive and difficult to convince donor’s to back when there is no proven evidence base for a solution that only exists in theory. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the solution, once developed, will work as intended due to a myriad of challenges during the development phase enumerated by you and our colleague Joe above.

      Indeed, Equal Access has had this exact experience where a great deal of time and grant money were spent on a technical solution meant to aid in M&E on a specific project, but after a year of development and QA testing, the solution is not a solution at all. The system barely functions, if at all, and in the end wasted a great deal of staff time and donor money. This is a best case scenario where the solution simply didn’t work and at least did not cause any harm to our beneficiaries. I tell this story here to serve as a cautionary tale to other organizations seeking to deploy custom solutions for projects. From my personal experience, platform solutions have always been more reliable, better met project needs and have been easier to implement that bespoke solutions that, as you mentioned, require a significant investment from an organization or business.

  3. John Dwyer says:

    Ms. Beale makes a lot of good points, and I found myself especially agreeing with the fifth point, that “Platforms are far more sustainable and scalable than bespoke solutions” at the moment. I had made a similar point in a recent World Bank conference paper on the evolution of mobile technology in international development: http://bit.ly/29vmbd5

    While certainly, most current “one-off technologies are not sustainable and not easily scaled,” I don’t think bespoke solutions are going to disappear anytime soon. So perhaps it would be good to show and encourage organizations to build with platforms and scaling in mind if and when they are going to make their own solutions anyways?

  4. Hi John,

    Thank you for your kind and insightful comments. Thank you for also sharing the World Bank resource. I hadn’t seen this yet and look forward to reviewing it!

    You are certainly correct that bespoke solutions aren’t going anywhere. Indeed there are whole enterprises whose business model is to develop bespoke technical solutions to development challenges. And there are loads of donors and implementers who see bespoke solutions as the only route forward to address certain challenges. Indeed, in some instances I would say that a bespoke solution is necessary particularly if the technology doesn’t exist yet.

    However for simple technical solutions that are often used in development projects such as mobile data collection, digital M&E tools, and IVR and SMS systems, there are numerous platforms that can meet these needs and do not require additional bespoke system development in this space, at least not for the types of projects with which I am familiar. Rather, it would make sense for organizations to invest in developing customized features on the platforms that already exist and add to the wealth of user knowledge and experience for these platforms.

    I would definitely echo all of my esteemed commenters remarks and say that for organizations who are seeking to develop a custom solution to a development challenge, significant financial, technical and human resources should be devoted to the development, deployment and post-project sustainability process.

  5. Clint Lambert says:

    Great article Natasha, and extremely relevant to a sector that is experiencing shrinking funding sources, but higher donor expectations. As mentioned above by other commentators, the bespoke solutions will never go away, and nor should they as they offer customized solutions to complex problems, that may not be covered by a platform. However, for a non-profit or start-up that is already experiencing funding issues, utilizing a developed platform and establishing strong links with the developer, is certainly a sustainable and scale-able use of technology.