How to evaluate a productivity tool for your business

A productivity tool can be a practical and useful resource for any entrepreneur.

But with such a variety to choose from, how do you choose the right productivity tool for your needs?

Picking a tool at random can be fraught with potential pitfalls, while spending too much time poring over facts and figures can be foolish.

In many cases, the best course of action is a middle-of-the-road approach.

Here are five guidelines to follow when evaluating a productivity tool for your business.

Identify the problem you want to solve

Productivity tools are built to solve problems. It is important to keep in mind that not every tool can solve every problem and not every problem can be solved with every tool.

That’s why it’s critical for you to clearly articulate the problem you want your business to solve. You will be more successful in finding a tool that meets your needs.

State your problem clearly in a statement, as in: “I don’t have a reliable way to create, organize, and store to-do lists.” Your solution will of course be the opposite of your problem statement.

Once you’ve identified your problem and solution, you can brainstorm features you’d like to have in the tool. If you’re feeling really creative, you can divide your preferred features into must-have, cool, and bonus lists.

The next step is to look for tools that solve your problem and have the features you want.

Consider room for growth

A good tool will not only serve your current needs, but also your future needs. A tool shouldn’t be so limiting that you have to upgrade or replace it in a few months.

Look for a tool that positively enables growth and expansion in your line of work. Some common elements to consider include data storage, reporting, information classification, device sharing, and number of users.

You should also evaluate whether the tool has any planned feature updates, software patches, customer service and technical support upgrades in the coming weeks and months.

Research integrations with existing tools

Check if a tool integrates or works successfully with existing tools, programs and applications in your business.

Find out if the integrations are internal, require a third-party application, or are under heavy consideration for future updates and releases.

If you’re using a trial or free version of a tool, consider running your own integration tests. Hands-on experience is a great way to test functionality and feature limitations.

Sometimes what appears to be a simple task can be more complex in action and vice versa.

Reveal the details of the user interface

No matter how fancy or well-designed a tool may be, you’ll be less likely to use it if the user interface is annoying, awkward, or otherwise confusing. A tool you don’t like will be a tool you won’t use!

Be sure to rate your tool’s user interface. Layout, screen readability, colors, font size and type are all good places to start. Check for ease of data entry using keyboard, mouse and dictation. Look for the tool’s ability to sync data and back up to cloud and/or local storage.

Likewise, specify the tool’s ability to sort, update, search, retrieve, report, and archive information on desktop, tablet, and smartphone versions.

Accurately monitor potential tools

It’s a smart idea to keep a written record of your productivity tool research. Doing so will allow you to objectively review your notes both now and in the future as your business grows.

Any tracking method will do. You can enter details into a spreadsheet or write notes by hand in a notebook. Track potential tools, as well as their unique features, facts, numbers and estimates.

If you’re using a trial or free version of a tool, note all aspects of your interactions, from tool features you love or hate, to the user interface and your experience with customer service.

You can then use this information to help you finalize your decision on choosing a productivity tool.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com writers are their own and not those of Inc.com.

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