There’s a right way to conduct a software development RFP

A request for proposals (RFP) can be a great step toward procuring a product or service that delivers fantastic value. In my 25-plus years in custom software development, I’ve seen all kinds of RFPs. All too often, however, RFPs issued for software development are fatally flawed.

An RFP to complete a development project for a reasonable fee is fine. But, a major problem arises when the organization issuing the RFP tries to prescribe how the development should occur before figuring out what truly needs to be created. Too many times RFPs specify features to include without understanding what the market needs and the challenges to be addressed.

A useful analogy in the RFP process is custom home-building. When building a home, the future owner needs to consider how that home will be used, who will live there, and what features the home needs to have. Working with an experienced architect gives the owner a clear idea of what features the home can and should have. This requires thoughtful design, beyond tactical elements of home-building such as the materials and assembly processes the contractors should use.

Building a quality custom home starts with designing foundational blueprints—the architecture truly matters in this process. Custom software is very similar. Attention to the design and the user experience really should happen before a developer is identified and selected to develop the buildout. A good way to approach software projects is to have two RFPs – one to hire an architect and one to hire a developer, based on the blueprints from the architect. Sometimes it’s possible to fill both roles by using one firm.

Whether an organization is commissioning a building or custom software, it pays to shop around and get quotes, but it’s important to remember that there are reasons for varying prices. An inexperienced developer might look affordable on paper until the product is delivered and the owner discovers a lot of additional work is needed to make the software efficient and effective. The goal should be to work with an expert architect to design the blueprints and then find the best builder with the greatest amount of experience in what the organization wants to build.

Determining the right software architecture is a critical first step and ideally, it occurs before an organization issues an RFP. Unfortunately, I see a lot of organizations skip this step or try to shoehorn it into development. The results are predictable: regret, additional time and expense, and often, a failed implementation. In many cases, the authors of the RFP don’t understand what is involved with the architecture and development process. Securing experienced designers and developers ensures the requirements are clearly identified and enhances the likelihood of success.

The right way to conduct an RFP process is to provide realistic budgets for design and development. In the design phase, a professional product manager should sit down with the owner and consider the factors that are important to the end users, especially the problem the owner is trying solve. Product management is not the same thing as project management, which plays an important role in keeping things moving. Product managers in software development apply their expertise to make sure the ultimate product will achieve its intended purpose. Organizations that want to create custom software to sell also need to understand their target audience and whether the product has a place in the market. A complementary role in this process is the product marketer, a specialized software professional who can analyze a product’s viability in the target market and find the best ways to monetize it. The product manager and the product marketer can help determine if the product idea even makes sense in the market and truly can be monetized. All too often we receive an RFP with a legal software idea that will never sell. An honest assessment, like tough love, is helpful to all of us.

If your organization is considering issuing an RFP for custom software development, please talk to GDSI first. We can help you achieve a great outcome, from design through development and beyond.


GDSI has been delivering custom software solutions to law firms, legal software companies, and professional services firms for 25 years. We are a software design studio delivering creative solutions to the business challenges inherent in legal operations. Our frequent, relevant communications ensure clients are always informed. From research and analysis to design and implementation, our judicious approach ensures sustainable results. We’re about details done right.

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