Often, clients have asked us whether they should design a custom user interface before developing their custom software application or license a pre-built library. In this blog post, we'll dive into the pros and cons of both options, helping you make an informed decision that best suits your project's needs and constraints – but as always – pragmatically and reasonably from a business perspective.
Benefits of a Custom UI
First, let's review what custom application UI design means versus an off-the-shelf library. Plenty of licensed libraries online can be purchased and repurposed during a development project. These started many years ago as "Bootstrap" libraries. Today, you can find them for almost any code framework that does templating. Many libraries are available these days for React, Angular, Vue.JS, Laravel, and Ruby – as examples. These libraries are typically public via marketplaces with comprehensive demos displaying their ability to present any variety of interface widgets and components, and the cost for these libraries can range from free to hundreds of dollars.
The inverse option is a custom design process crafted by experts specifically for your company, project, and requirements. This involves the typical stages of a design process:
Define project and scope: Collaborate with the product team or client to establish the project's goals, scope, and deliverables.
Perform UX research: Conduct various types of research, including user research, competitor analysis, and technical feasibility studies, to find possible solutions.
Create user personas: Develop user personas to represent the target audience and guide the design process.
Develop user scenarios and sitemaps: Create user scenarios or "use cases: to describe how users will interact with the software, and create sitemaps (AKA Information Architecture) to outline the structure and navigation of the software.
Sketch and wireframe: Create rough drafts and wireframes to visualize the software's layout and user flow.
Design high-fidelity mockups and prototypes: Develop detailed mockups and prototypes to test and refine the design.
Conduct usability tests: Test the prototypes with real users to gather feedback and identify any issues or improvements needed.
Iterate and refine: Based on the feedback from usability tests, iterate and refine the design until it meets the project's goals and user expectations.
Collaborate with stakeholders and developers: Maintain open communication with stakeholders and developers throughout the design process to ensure alignment and address any concerns.
Launch and evaluate: After launching the software, monitor its performance, gather user feedback, and make necessary adjustments to improve the user experience.
Of course, depending on your budget, the scale of your team, and the resources available, some steps may be skipped or otherwise amended, but this should serve as an overview of the process for crafting a custom UI.
But what are the benefits of this process? From a business perspective, there are many.
Tailored to your needs: A custom UI allows you to design elements specifically tailored to your project's unique requirements, ensuring that it aligns with your brand and user preferences. This customization results in a more efficient and effective interface that meets the project's goals and constraints, ultimately increasing user satisfaction and engagement.
Lightweight: Many off-the-shelf libraries have components and code for things you never will care about. As such, they become bloatware, as your application will be loading a codebase capable of many different things when, in reality, you only need a part of it. Minimizing the load is not so easy, thus leading to a layer of complexity that is unnecessary for your application.
Full control: With a custom UI, you have complete control over the design, development, and maintenance of the UI, allowing for greater flexibility and adaptability. This control lets you make changes and updates as needed, ensuring the UI remains relevant and user-friendly. You also can ensure that the UI fits completely within your brand guidelines and the overall feel of your organization.
Uniqueness: A custom UI stands out from the competition as it is not based on a pre-existing library. This uniqueness can help your software application differentiate itself in a crowded market, attracting users with its distinctive design and user experience. This can also be called "Value" because the UI can often add distinct value to users even when the backend is similar to other available applications. After all, you can't license your way to innovation.
No licensing fees: No licensing fees are associated with using a custom UI, as you own the intellectual property. This can result in cost savings over time, especially if you plan to use the UI in multiple projects or for an extended period. It can also save you the headache of any legal exposure that may present itself in the future related to how you utilize a library or other claims such as accessibility.
Benefits of Licensing
There are definitely some instances where licensing a user interface makes sense. As with anything else, there never is one solution to any problem. And if off-the-shelf user interfaces were terrible, no one would be making them. In no particular order, here are some benefits of licensing a library instead of building your own.
Faster development: Using a pre-built library can significantly speed up the development process, as developers can leverage ready-made components. This allows your team to focus on integrating the library into your software application rather than spending time designing and building custom UI elements from scratch. Many off-the-shelf libraries offer good documentation, so you can hit the ground running and create actual functionality from day one.
Licensing a user interface allows you to work in a very agile development cycle. Developers can be provided with wireframes as a guide, and often, this work can be done without any user interface specialist involved with the project. This has benefits, especially if you're trying to get to market as clearly as possible.
Cost-effective: Licensing a library can be more cost-effective than building a custom UI, as it eliminates the need to hire a design team and develop the UI from scratch. Additionally, using a pre-built library can save time and resources, further reducing the project's overall cost. It's hard to argue with this point when a client is budget-sensitive.
Proven quality: Many UI component libraries have been tested and refined by a large user base, ensuring they are reliable and high-quality. This can help you avoid potential issues and bugs arising from building a custom UI, leading to a more stable and reliable software application. Of course, much like anything, you should perform your due diligence because libraries are available in marketplaces that could be more focused on quality.
Community support: Licensing a library sometimes comes with community support, which can be invaluable when troubleshooting issues or seeking advice on best practices. A strong community can provide resources, updates, and ongoing development, ensuring that your software application remains up-to-date and compatible with the latest industry standards. When researching libraries, you must find the community supporting it and get a sense of how active it is.
A Pragmatic Approach
One of the services that we bring to the table during custom software development is recommending solutions that fall within the variables that our clients provide us with. For example, a client-focused on minimizing budget and getting to market quickly could benefit from an off-the-shelf UI. On the opposite hand, we have clients who come to us and are focused on the behavior of their site from a look and feel perspective more so than from a backend functionality perspective.
There is no correct answer. In conducting our discovery sessions with new customers, our goal is often to recommend the most pragmatic approach to solving their business challenges with custom software. It is common for a project to contain a customized user interface for anything client-facing. This way, the client can benefit from a unique user experience that can serve as a differentiating factor between themselves and their competitors. At the same time, an off-the-shelf platform would make sense for in-house or back-office applications. In fact, most of our customers utilize a user interface we have already developed further administrative portals. It doesn't make sense to license or design a new user interface when we already have one that can bring significant time and cost savings to the client.
Questions you should ask yourself
In determining what pathways you should take, ask yourself the following questions:
Are we inventing a new process or looking to differentiate in some way?
As mentioned earlier, anyone looking to invent a new process or severely disrupt an industry almost always should consider a custom user interface. User interface and user experience are the only way to truly differentiate in a crowded ecosystem. Licensing a user interface will never propel your organization to the next level.
Is this a public-facing or an internally used application?
If your application is only used within an enterprise or for some other limited audience, you can save significant time and money by licensing and interface. Going through a custom design process for something used in a controlled environment makes no sense. The only exception to this would be if your plan was to eventually license to other organizations with similar challenges. In that case, you're not just building a solution to your problem but a solution to theirs as well, and that would require special thought and attention to ensure you're differentiating yourselves from competitors in the present or future.
What are the future plans for the platform?
I alluded to this in the last point, but if your plan is to eventually license your software out or grow it into its own enterprise, that would be worth considering and would lead me in the direction of recommending a custom user interface. But in addition to that, other future considerations should be thought of as well. If there are grand plans to expand the functionality of this application in the future, it's essential that you are sure that whatever library your license can handle that functionality. While most of these libraries allow you to amend the code with custom changes in the future, some do not. So you must be aware of the licensing arrangement and the flexibility you'll be afforded to make it your own as time goes on and your plans change.
Are there any compliance issues that need to be considered?
Lastly, so many off-the-shelf libraries fail to achieve compliance with essential standards. Whether commerce, security, or accessibility, many of these libraries are crafted offshore in other countries where those issues are less of a priority. When potentially licensing a library, be sure to see the capabilities concerning these compliance matters. For example, if accessibility is important, run some scans on the demo to see how they perform. This is a quick and easy way to determine if any thought was put into this issue. If thought was not put into the subject while the library was being built, it's doubtful you'll be able to convince the original team to look at it later. You're going to be on your own.
IMPORTANT: One Last Point
A word of warning to end this post. Once chosen, changing the UI of your application is going to be a project. Let's say you use an offshore platform and develop a piece of software, and a year or so later, you decide that it's time for a change, and you want to go to the custom route. This means a complete redevelopment of the entire front end. These days, libraries like React do a great job separating front-end functionality from backend functionality, primarily through API-driven architecture. Even so, rebuilding our front end requires significant effort. It would require reviewing all the custom design steps outlined above and refactoring any front-end code driving much of the functionality.
The key takeaway is that you must make the right decision from day one.
In wrapping up this post, once again, we have a topic with various pros and cons in either direction. Ultimately, it comes down to the wisdom of your development partner to make the proper recommendations. With any software development project, where the functionality is almost always custom-built, it all comes down to good planning and architecture. The success of a project is determined by how well it was planned and thought out in the beginning by technologists who have a good understanding of business and how your organization operates.