5 Reasons Why Platforms Are Better Than Bespoke Technical Solutions

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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.
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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.