When determining agency technology needs–in particular, for software solutions–the tendency is often to seek customized, comprehensive, cutting-edge solutions for specific needs. Technology advances have opened a world of opportunity for insurance agencies to streamline processes, increase efficiencies and improve customer service.

At the same time, technology trends and the ready availability of talented software developers make it easier than ever to get carried away. While developers can create exactly what you ask for, the result may be more than what you need. How can agencies best manage the software development process to ensure the final product meets the needs of agents, carriers and, ultimately, customers?

Simplicity and careful planning are key. Differing agency office environments, whether centralized or distributed, often lead management to seek a one-size-fits-all solution. A seemingly simple request by one department often grows as others are pulled into the discussion, and before you know it, the end result is greater than the sum of its parts–not user friendly, expensive and perhaps outdated by the time it gets to market.

For example, Agent A asks, “How quickly can I get an accurate quote?” an apparently straightforward question. The agency decides that developing specialized rating software to gather this pricing information expeditiously would provide a real competitive advantage.

Professionals from throughout the agency are called upon for input, and various departmental needs are built into the software RFP. As we all know, rates can vary by many factors, such as line of business, state and insurance company. Rates change constantly. People from various departments may work with different interfaces (the way an individual communicates with the computer). The project grows, the timeline extends and the proposed solution becomes complicated. Suddenly, Agent A’s simple question seems quite complex.

Agencies seeking an outside software solution to address a need should begin with a small internal team, ideally two or three people, to determine specific project needs, scope and budget. While IT insight is valuable, it is not imperative (or even preferred) that IT leads this team. The project leader’s key function should be the “human interface,” whose function is to ensure the software development process stays within the project’s defined parameters. This person has the authority to say “Whoa” if things start escalating out of control.

While determining the project parameters, the team should consider what is driving the need for a new solution. Is it internal data for employees to use or the ability to draw on that data in marketing presentations to customers? How do the users work with their data? Do they prefer a customer-based system, a forms-based system or a policy-based system? While a policy-based solution may work for an insurance company, insurance agencies would likely benefit from an insured-based system that sorts by contacts and customers.

For simplicity’s sake, a modular software approach may provide the most efficient, cost-effective solution. A module is a separate unit of software that can stand on its own, yet connect with other modules.

The team members should sit down with the software developer to break down the project’s needs into clearly defined modules and their critical elements. Multiple software developers can work on a modular solution concurrently, each on a different module, while utilizing the same concepts. This ensures that all modules will fit together. Then, if a change must be made in the future, only that module will have to be updated.

A high priority should be given to maintaining a consistent user interface across as many disciplines as possible. The interface must be understandable to every user or it will lead to a level of complexity that quickly becomes overwhelming, making the interface unusable.

In many cases, an off-the-shelf modular software product fits the bill. If it can be modified to your office environment easily, it isn’t necessary to go through the time and expense of developing a customized product. Companies can pay only for the functionality they need.

By the same token, companies should remain focused on their own needs and not get too caught up with the latest technology trends. Think twice before rewriting your software to make it compatible with the latest data structure. For example, XML, which was touted for years as a “must have” technology, still hasn’t lived up to its expectations.

Using open source code can enhance further the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of software solutions, as proprietary systems involve the expense of licensing fees and upgrades.

The reality is, with any kind of software development project, an agency is entering the programmer’s world. There is an abundance of technical solutions to the many issues facing agents–and they always make sense to the software designers. (These exciting features often sound like a good idea as you’re adding them in.)

The key to a project’s success, though, is that the final solution makes sense to the users. Keep the human element, rather than the technology, as the focus of the software development process, and your agency will maximize the benefits that well-designed software offers–simplicity, efficiency and profitability.