How to buy software
By Tim Dees
If the processor, memory, hard drive and graphics card are the engine of a computer, software is the steering wheel, accelerator, brakes and navigation system. The best computer in the world is useless without instructions, and software provides those instructions. There is software for almost every task imaginable. Providing specific recommendations requires some knowledge of the proposed use and the array of available products. What follows are general considerations when contemplating a software purchase:
You probably use computers already, and the new software will have to run on those computers or communicate with them in some way. Will information from your existing systems or software “port” to the new package? There is some standardization with data formats, but it’s bothersome and inefficient to have to convert your data to an intermediate form before it can be imported to the other package. For instance, the native *.wpd format created by WordPerfect won’t import directly into Microsoft Word, and Word doesn’t have a built-in save-to-wpd function. Either one will save and import files in Rich Text Format (*.rtf), but who wants to have to do that with every file?
User interface (UI)
The UI is the way the software user interacts with the computer and software. When the UI is mostly icons and graphics you click with a mouse or touchscreen, it’s called a Graphic User Interface (GUI), pronounced “gooey.” Some UIs are intuitive, so most users can figure out the UI with little assistance. Whenever possible, have some actual users try the new software before purchase, and try it under real-world conditions. This means putting it on a mobile computer in a car, if that’s where it will be installed. Tip: any mobile operation requiring two hands or fine motor control will not be well received.
For deskbound applications, some people like keyboard commands where they don’t have to use a mouse, and others like a GUI that uses a mouse a lot. Dispatchers, who are often fast typists, don’t like to take their hands from the keyboard. Look for software that is as adaptable as possible.
One time entry
A study done on one local government’s records management software showed a person’s name, date of birth, and social security number was entered up to 26 times from first contact to discharge from the jail or court system. Each entry was a new opportunity to misspell a name or transpose a number so one record wouldn’t match with another.
Most software used in law enforcement contains information drawn from other files and records. That information should be imported directly into the application, not reentered manually by each user for each operation. Failing to plan for this means your people will work inefficiently, require more time to complete assignments, and grow frustrated with a system that was supposed to save them time and effort.
Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.