Service design and COTS products
Blog by Serena Nusing, Senior Service Designer, Digital Directorate.
Often, when organisations start a new IT project or require new software, there is a question about whether to build the solution themselves or to buy it. When it comes to the buying option, organisations are then often presented with a Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) product that promises to do exactly what they need ‘out-of-the-box’.
COTS products are packaged or ready-made hardware or software available to the general public – like Microsoft Office. Although they can offer a high degree of configuration, in contrast to bespoke solutions, COTS products are often limited in their options for customisation,which should be avoided as it makes the product implementation more difficult to support and maintain.
With the aim of service design to identify and meet business and user needs to deliver an efficient, usable and desirable service, COTS products might be seen as conflicting approaches due to their limitations of adjusting to individual needs. So, how do service design and COTS products go together?
Start with user needs
As outlined in the Scottish Approach to Service Design, design aims to first explore the problem space before deciding on a solution. Taking time to explore the problem before creating a solution ensures that we’re creating the right thing that meets the needs of the users, staff and organisation. Therefore, organisations and teams should always start with identifying the needs before they even think about buying or implementing a COTS product. Ask yourself: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? What are the business and user needs that underpin this problem? Start by doing some research and by articulating what you want a solution to do and for who.
You might worry now about the additional time that it will cost you to do that research first. However, one of the truths of designing services is that more time for designing leads to less time fixing later. Once a decision has been made and it’s implemented, it will be more difficult to change things. Taking time at the beginning to do some research will save you a lot of time and effort later.
Reuse before buy before build
Once you have identified your business and user needs, the next step is to explore the options on how to address them. When it comes to deciding on options or solutions, service design does not only need to consider the desirability, the need for it, but equally has to think about its feasibility and viability. The most valuable design lies in the intersection of all of the three of these concepts.
Despite some expensive licence costs, COTS products often benefit businesses as they reduce complexity and time of deployment, provide customer support, and have a high reliability and no need for maintenance or development. When it comes to identifying how feasible or viable an idea or solution is, these can be very convincing arguments.
However, these need to be weighed out against its desirability in how it’s meeting the needs of the people using it or being affected by it. If you realise that you have too many unique requirements that will be missed out, a COTS product might not be the right solution. The Digital Scotland Service Standards provide good guidance following the principle of reuse before buy before build.
It doesn’t work in isolation
When implementing a COTS product, organisations need to be aware of the implications that come with it. How does it affect your current processes and systems? How do you need to change business processes to match the COTS product? The implementation of a COTS product might bring consequences to your organisation requiring you to adjust to the software you want to implement. If the same COTS product is used somewhere else in your organisation, speak to the users of the system to see if it is meeting their needs appropriately. They might flag some concerns and will be a good indication for the success of the product.
A COTS product like any other technology rarely works in isolation. They are just one part of the overall service. Another truth of designing services is that a good idea, a good technology or processes alone will deliver an experience but not the ones you want. Be aware of how the new solution impacts your service. Any faults in the software will cause you service failure. COTS products as technology in general, should be seen as enablers not as solutions. Start with the people, the users, the staff and the business, identify their needs before discussing a COTS product as a potential solution.
Remember, your most valuable design does not only need to be feasible and viable, it also needs to be desirable for users.
For more information, please contact the Digital Directorate’s, Digital Transformation Service – DTS@gov.scot.