Software demonstrations can be a necessary chore if you’re involved in a tech acquisition.
How to make the most of your time with a vendor will be determined in part by whether you are traveling to wherever the demo is presented, or the vendor is bringing it to you. In the latter case, the demo is likely to be more of a presentation than a demonstration, run from a laptop or embedded in a PowerPoint show.
A “canned” demo like this will show the software performing under ideal conditions. You can get a sense of the features and capabilities, but a true assessment will require seeing the software operating in a live, real-world environment. For that, you’ll need to go to a site where the product is installed and running. The vendor should assist you in coordinating such a site visit. So, either way, you’re likely to make one or more road trips before you can make an informed decision.
Take a worker bee or two
Management personnel are the ones who usually make the buying decisions, and they often are the ones going on the demo trips and site visits. It’s critical that some of the people who do the job every day at the line level also participate in this process. They are the employees who know the problems first hand and are current with the real-world needs of the agency.
In selecting the employee(s) to view the demo, consider the more technically-oriented people, or the ones who carry the greatest respect among their peers. If you’re evaluating digital evidence management software, involve the people who will be using the product first-hand. Who is your go-to person for making sense of digital media from multiple devices and platforms? That’s the person who will give you the best assessment of the new product.
Consider the environment
If the setting where the new software will be used differs markedly from that at the demo site, usability problems might not be immediately apparent. Some software requires or strongly recommends a specific keyboard layout. Is that keyboard compatible with other systems in use in the workspace, or will users have to switch between one terminal and another? Experienced users develop considerable muscle memory with regard to their keyboards and pointing devices. Forcing them to switch between different systems is going to slow down productivity and invite user errors.
When a user is importing and cataloging multiple digital files, online bandwidth is a major consideration. Consider whether the internet connection speed at the point of use is at least as fast as the one at the demo site. If it’s significantly slower, using the software may be a frustrating experience.
If the software uses sound cues to alert users to system events, the sounds might not be heard if the ambient noise level is too high, or the users are wearing headsets. If the sounds can be heard, they might interfere with other tasks, like hearing radio traffic. These are all issues that line employees will catch, where managers might not notice.
If your software needs to be able to interface with other automated systems, ensure the proper application programming interfaces (APIs) are available for the specific programs you will need to work with. State criminal records and motor vehicles systems are known to be especially persnickety, as there are few standards – each state comes up with their own. If the planned acquisition has never been installed at an agency in your state, you are going to want to see the appropriate API in place before you sign off on delivery. Better yet, have the vendor demonstrate interoperability at the software demo.
Many interoperability concerns are minimized if your purchase is from a vendor that already supplies other software you are using. Most systems can be made to integrate, but the investment of resources necessary to make your installation run smoothly may be more than the vendor is willing to commit to.
Almost any software can be made to look good in a demo environment if you don’t know where to look for pitfalls. By asking the right questions and relying on your end users to put the application through its paces, you should come away with a tech acquisition that works for your agency.