December 13, 2019

There is no best software.

There are only best features.

by @maguay

Founding editor @capiche. Writer. Amateur photographer. Information architect. Older work: @zapier, @AppStorm. Personal blog: @techinch.
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This is the best thing you could buy, promises the internet, the holy grail, the be all end all, everything you’ve ever wanted. This product does everything at once—or maybe it only does one thing, but it does that task better than anything ever did it before.

You don’t have time or budget to try all the things; no one does. So you have two choices: Trust the wisdom of the crowd and buy the most popular thing, or check reviews and roundups of the best items in a category. Reviews are Google gold for blogs, productive-feeling entertainment as if researching the thing that will make us productive is actually productive.

And it’s not like the writers are terrible, the reviews misinformed, or the ratings skewed. Sure there’s junk online, but there’s also lots of great info. Pick a trusted publication and buy a “best” item from their list, and you’ll get something that meets what their criteria for what makes something best.

But what do you need?

You don’t need the best widget. You need the widget that does the one task you need.

You don’t need a social media management application; you need to schedule Tweets. You don’t need a form builder; you need to survey your audience and easily see their favorite option. You don’t need a word processor; you need to share your copy and get feedback.

You don’t need software. You need to accomplish a task.

Thus the adage that 80% of people only use 20% of a product’s features, taken from Standish Group research into software dating back to 1996. That was for custom, in-house software. For “package applications” such as Microsoft Office, it’s even worse—less than 5% of features are often used.

Here’s the catch: You’re not everyone. You’re you, and one person’s needless feature is another’s treasure. You might need that one specific feature that only 1% of people use—but it’s the critical reason you chose that specific piece of software.

Broad categories obscure that. It’s easy to say something's the best office suite or CRM or project management tool, based on sales records and industry accolades. It’s far harder to drill down and find what’s best at the specific thing you need.

There’s no best software. Ask the Capiche community what’s the best to-do list app and you’ll get over a dozen answers. Ask them what’s the best email app for over a half-dozen different software recommendations.

No one’s lying. Each person shared what they feel is the best program, with facts to back them up. And you know what? They’re right.

Take Google’s Docs word processor, for example. Google claimed over a billion people use Google Drive in 2018 after Microsoft claimed 1.2 billion users for its competing Microsoft Office in 2016. It’s popular—perhaps not the most popular, but easily #2 if not. While Microsoft Word format is still required for so many government, educational, and corporate documents, it’s easy to imagine Word may still be more popular, but Google Docs is right up there.

But best? Google Docs has fewer features than Microsoft Word, an older interface than more buzzy writing software like Notion and even Microsoft’s OneNote, and is far less flexible for print layouts than publishing software. It’d be easy to poke holes in the argument that it’s the best word processor.

What’s not debatable is that Google Docs is best for collaboration. “Google Docs has great collaborative functionality,” said Spectrum Labs founder Jackson Moses. “The comments/assign feature is incredibly useful and being able to review historical changes saves a lot of time.”

HubSpot CTO Dharmesh Shah shared similar feelings about Google Docs: “Not as cool as the cool kids, but it works and it's helpful when collaborating with folks outside the org as well (pretty much everyone has access to Google Docs in some way).”

Perhaps it’s not best for everything, but for collaboration specifically—where anyone can edit your document and share suggested changes, and you can look back through the edits easily—Google Docs is best. When you need to collaborate on documents, it’s the tool you pick not because its best, but because it’s best at that specific feature.

The iPhone wasn’t objectively the best phone at launch, in a “speeds and feeds” comparison of features. No copy/paste, no third-party software, no hardware keyboard, no front-facing camera, and no 3G. Yet it was best at the things that mattered: Web browsing and touch interface. Where touchscreens were clunky and required styli, the iPhone made it feel like you were touching software. And instead of basic mobile websites, you got the real internet in your pocket.

People chose it for the features they wanted most. Every other missing feature mattered far less for those customers.

When Salesforce entered the market as an early web app in late 1999, it wasn’t the most powerful or most feature-filled CRM. That crown went to software like Oracle and SAP. Salesforce’s winning feature was that it worked everywhere and didn’t require expensive in-house servers and maintenance. That feature was enough to turn Salesforce into the industry giant it is today—where now its killer feature is flexibility, something won by decades of iterative development. And rival HubSpot CRM’s core feature is that it’s free, which alone can be enough to cover a multitude of potential shortcomings.

Best is subjective, something everything from movie ratings to bestseller lists should teach us. We want the best—but maybe there’s no absolute best. As Shopify content strategist and writer Owen Williams recently wrote about gadgets, “finding one ‘best’ option for everyone might not actually be possible.”

And so it goes with software.

Is Sketch or Figma the best design tool today? “We've just moved from @sketch to @figmadesign at @Smarkup because of collaboration and scalability,” shared @adsabla, while @brendanciccone countered the opposite, saying “The reason I prefer Sketch is that I don't like people looking over my shoulder while I'm in design mode and seeing multiple people inside the document I'm working on just makes me feel anxious and less inspired to experiment.” Collaboration mattered to one, privacy to another, both key features that made one product best for different people.

There’s no best software. Some products have better specific features than others, though, and those tiny tools make us productive and help us get our jobs done.

Don’t waste your time looking for the perfect software. Find instead something that has features and tools you need. It might not be the coolest app, and might be worse for every other use case. Perfect; those are the 80% of the features you don’t need.

All that matters are the features you need most.


Image Credit: Header photo by Jon Tyson via Unsplash.

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