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Commentary & Analysis

The Software You Buy vs. the Software You Use

A 2002 Standish Group study of software projects found that 45% of features were never used and only 20% features were used often or always. We base our software investment decisions on the number of features a product has and then we fail to utilize 80% of those features. Does that make sense to anyone?

By Jennifer Matt
Published: August 20, 2013

A 2002 Standish Group study of software projects found that 45% of features were never used and only 20% features were used often or always. We base our software investment decisions on the number of features a product has and then we fail to utilize 80% of those features. Does that make sense to anyone?

I bet you already think software is expensive. It’s even more expensive than you think because the majority of us are using a small fraction of what we bought. This isn’t even taking into consideration the “shelfware” phenomenon that is prevalent in every industry, print is no exception. What is shelfware? It’s that software investment you made which never got deployed, sometimes it never got unpackaged – so it’s sitting on the shelf. I’ve come across shelfware (never deployed) where the printer spent north of six figures.

What’s the solution to breaking the trend with software investments? We have to think about technology as more than a simple investment in the technology itself. The investment is really more about your business strategy and your people (those humans that are required to execute using the technology to create the results you desire from your strategy). Today our investment approach to technology is upside down, with too much emphasis on the technology itself.


Figure 1: Our over emphasis on technology prevents us from optimizing our investment.

In order to optimize our software investments, we need to clean up our act both upstream and downstream from the actual technology decision. The good news, this is 100% in your control. The bad news is you can’t blame the software or the vendor if you purchase software with no business strategy and no execution plan. The real emphasis in a software investment should look more like this; with the business strategy and the execution plan getting way more attention than the actual software technology decision.


Figure 2: The software decision in the correct perspective

One of the most common decision points we get involved with is when printers want to dump one software investment for different one. In most cases this scenario perfectly describes the common decision bias of narrow framing. Your decision isn’t simply toss your current software and buy another one, very rarely have I heard a printer say, we’re going to reset the whole project and do it right this time with the same technology. In this scenario, they aren’t simply pointing to the software as the issue; they are potentially seeing that they could have done things differently or better to produce more productive outcomes.

“Studies suggest that as much as 90 cents of every dollar invested in software is wasted because the employees using it don’t have the training and knowledge to use it properly and efficiently.”

— Tony Bradley Processor.com

Business strategy, execution plans, training plans – all “in the weeds” details, who wants to think of all that stuff? I just want to buy the latest and greatest technology, believe the sales pitch that it will change my business and move on! We have all fallen prey to this delusional belief. We all should know better. Software technology does not change anything about your business; but trained and skilled people using software technology can create massive leverage in your business. The people part is critical. The kind of leverage you want to create is your strategy.

Invest more in the strategy and the execution plan and your shelfware can be resurrected to produce the return on investment you bought it for. Don’t go out and buy another piece of technology – it’s the definition of insanity. First look long and hard at your business strategy and your execution plan. If you think they are nailed down, go ask three different people in your organization about what your strategy was for the last software purchase you made – are they aligned? Do they look at you in disbelief? Do they answer at all?

Software isn’t magic; it’s just a powerful tool. Think of it as an electric drill vs. a screw driver, when in properly trained hands it can be way more efficient. When in untrained hands it can be dangerous.

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions. You can reach her at jen@whattheythink.com.



By Richard F. Enright on Aug 20, 2013

Is the opening line as written ("A 2002 Standish Group study of software projects found...") correct?


By Eddy Hagen on Aug 20, 2013

The fact that some features are never used is not really an issue to me. E.g. my car has a built in feature that will automatically notify 911 (or the European equivalent) when I crash my car. I even hope I will never use this feature.
What is essential however, is that many features that were 'essential' in the buying proces ("We really need this!") are never used. Or that some 'hidden gems' are never used, because of lack of training.
So in general I absolutely agree with you, but I would be carefull to draw certain conclusions from the fact that x% of the features are never used. If one feature solves a big issue for me, it will be worth to buy the software, even I don't use the other 99% of the features. But I will have to use that 1 feature, otherwise it's a waste.


By Jennifer Matt on Aug 20, 2013


Yes, the opening line is correct - outdated I know but all the data I found after this was anecdotal rather than straight up research. All the research shows that the trend is getting worse not better.



By Jennifer Matt on Aug 20, 2013


The "never used" fact was also pointing to custom coding events - so it does matter because companies actually made investments to build features that were never used. I agree with you, features that aren't used in commercial products aren't really an issue. You pointed out the important point - all features are not created equal to YOU. Make sure the ones you really need get more attention than the total number of features.



By Rick Falls on Aug 21, 2013

Jennifer, This is an excellent and often overlooked point, and you are absolutely correct, it's bad as problems go, and it continues to get worse !

This has been and is one of the things that initially frustrated me, and now drives me to educate people regarding their potential solutions.

Maybe the providers of these alleged solutions, will consider more open access to the inner workings, and possibly even include (low tech) guidance, that will empower the end user, rather than intimidate them.

I understand that corporate income flows from sales, but service before and after the sale, would enhance and solidify the connection between the promise of said solutions, and insure the actual USE of the help that is being promised and sold, yet rarely delivered.


By norman belanger on Aug 21, 2013

I have been working as a project manager and trainer for a Print MIS provider for close to twenty years. We regularly are faced with a client purchasing a system and electing to veto onsite face to face training. We also regularly have customers who have been using the system for a significant length of time suggesting we add features to the system. We then inform them that it has the feature and had it when they bought the system. Training costs money but it really is an investment that will mitigate the issue of "Not using 90% of what they buy."


By Hamilton Costa on Aug 21, 2013

Jeniffer, very good point and very updated to many PSPs struggling with W2P, MIS, ERPs, etc but still trusty in their Excel spreadsheets or wall billboard controls....


By Charles Gehman on Aug 21, 2013

There has been an answer to this since 2002. It's Internet applications, mostly created by startup companies. Small applications that do one thing very well. Often resulting in user engagement utilization of the software to the fullest extent possible. This has become very popular.

This 2002 "study" is the old, "no one uses all the features of Microsoft Word" diatribe, which ignores the fact that most of those features were created to sell the software, not to make it more useful. Different paradigm.


By Jennifer Matt on Aug 21, 2013


I agree with you, its easier for us to invest in the technology purchase - its harder to invest in what we have unfortunately named the "soft" investments in people and processes.



By Jennifer Matt on Aug 21, 2013


I agree, there are some great examples of modern/new web software that zoom in on specific needs and are amazingly simple and you use every single feature because there are only three-five features.

For example, we use Toggl for time tracking, Basecamp for task tracking, and GDrive for our file sharing. All those tools are great at what they do. I also think new products have a distinct advantage over older products who have been living through years of feature bloat (adding features b/c of what you said - to sell more technology, not necessarily to make the technology that more useful).

Enterprise solutions like Print MIS systems are doing a lot and that is both their advantage and their disadvantage. You want everything to be easy and use the best of breed for each task but you also need an end-to-end solution (from order entry to invoice). The challenge with smaller solutions which do one task is that you have to integrate to get to that end-to-end solution. The good news is that most of these applications are fully API addressable - all good for people with plenty of technical resources, not so good for those people who just looked up API on wikipedia ;-)

The future of technology is easy because it allows technology to be just used - removing the need to learn it (e.g. your kid using an iPad). In the mean time we have to figure out how to make better software decisions when our choices aren't the absolute best and most modern. Legacy technologies provide awesome value - if you have the right attitude about how to figure out how to get the most out of the software for you particular business. We think this is about focusing on your business strategy and your execution.



By Erik Nikkanen on Aug 21, 2013

Like many things, the usefulness of software probably follows the 20/80 rule. 20% of the software provides 80% of the benefits. So I suspect it is not so surprising that people don't use all the features.

Also this idea that technology is capable and all that is needed is to train people is faulty. Some of the training needed is to show how operators need to use the technology to get around inherent faults in the technology. The printing industry is full of faulty concepts that when automated just produce automated faulty approaches.

You are right that it make little sense that people buy technology and then don't understand how to use it so they go out to buy something new. This has always been a chronic problem in the printing industry.

The industry doesn't understand offset lithography fully so they go to waterless, digital inkjet and toner and maybe now to Landa nanography. Put some effort into understanding what technology one has in more depth can lead to using what exists in a much more productive way. There is a lot of potential to advance offset but there is no interest.

Strategy and execution are critical but it should be based on knowledge before the technology is defined. The industry does not want to invest in developing knowledge that can be used as a guide.

Web to print models such as is used by VistaPrint and others, require capable software but there are faults in the process that are needed to be solved to meet those strategic goals.

At least with offset what all these models are failing to execute is capable presetting and consistent and predictable running at the start of their short runs on press. So what happens. They get frustrated in trying to control this part of the problem and they try other press manufacturers hoping that they might help, but of course the new suppliers are just as useful as the old supplier.

The industry has gotten so frustrated with this problem that going to the digital printing technologies with web to print models seems to be the answer. And it might be until the offset problem gets fixed. In the end, the winner will be the lowest cost production method and understanding that should be part of the strategic plan.


By Charles Gehman on Aug 22, 2013

Good points Jennifer, APIs are critical in today's environment.

In terms of Enterprise and Print MIS, there's yet another reason why people aren't using the features... one big one is that they are going digital, and most of the use of legacy Print MIS systems was around offset estimating. In many cases, there could be a million lines of code (and dozens of useless menus) sitting there that no one needs anymore.


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