Yes I did just finish In Defense of Food
by Michael Pollan, which has been really helpful to me in separating real food from cheap imitations. It's my newest filter for navigating the grocery store, providing an easy to follow set of best practices for avoiding nasty edibles that cause us more long term harm than good. And yes, this book can even help us with software selection.
Michael Pollan reinforces that we must be careful when we enter a unfolding situation, already having decided on certain outcomes. We software experts and users spend a lot of time grouping software into similar features, development models, support system, company backing and more. This work is extremely useful to helping our understanding of software, but must always be taken with a grain (or two) of salt.
So how do we keep our critical eye sharp without getting overwhelmed with the myriad of possibilities when evaluating software?
(1) Frame your context
Understanding your organization processes are key, we software geeks say this all the time. Also important is understanding your organizational capacity to change. Important factors include internal staff expertise, general workload, organizational growth pattern, and system of governance. Defining how you do the work you do helps eliminate features and services that are unnecessary or come into conflict with your organizational context.
(2) Use filters
Filters can help us make sense of complexity by removing some of the detail. Quality software reviews are very helpful filters as they provide both strong context describing who the review is for, and well defined categories to help you group software according to common and critical needs. Internal organizational experience with software are also great filters as they come with institutional knowledge of the organizational context, offering a unique opportunity to combine this knowledge with software experience to shape well fit decisions.
(3) Be discriminating, don't discriminate
Look behind the filter to understand what it does not include. Often filters will look at software from certain perspectives that hide important information. I often run into this problem working with nonprofit associations, for which many vendors have created "association management software". A smartly compiled list of best vendors in this space is a great filter to have. However, it turns out the needs of associations are far more diverse than these association management packages support well. By limiting the focus on association management solutions, nonprofits often miss out compelling offerings provided by donor, membership, constituent management and content management vendors. Vendors generally are one good source of information about their products, however it is much better when verified against independent sources with specific experience using the vendor services.
(4) Test assumptions
Keep a critical eye on your plan for a new system. How many "needs" are supported by assumption versus research? Some nonprofits face difficult change management issues by launching a new system where the core users were not adequately engaged in planning and implementation. Others are disappointed to find that features that claim to be present really are no good for their needs. Beware the salty snacks - some tools make it seem so easy to keep adding fields or new features, but they can make your system very sick with bloat if overindulged. Understand the source of any advise or reviews you receive - what is their context? Who is their intended audience?