June 27, 2022

How to Make Your COTS Solution Successful

Cropped shot of diverse coworkers working together in boardroom, discussing how to improve your COTS (custom off-the-shelf) solution.

If you’ve decided to go with a COTS (commercial off-the-shelf solution) and it isn’t all you hoped, you’re not alone! We tend to see this happen a lot, and the good news is that your COTS solution is not a lost cause – just keep reading.

When choosing between a COTS or custom software solution, we usually try to steer clients away from COTS and toward custom. However, in most cases, the custom option is discarded for being too expensive and lengthy of a process to implement. If you’re still weighing your options and haven’t actually chosen a COTS solution yet, there are many common myths associated with COTS and custom solutions which make it even more difficult to determine which option is best for you. If you need a refresher on the pros and cons of each, check out our blog post on COTS vs. Custom here!

BUT, if you have already purchased a COTS solution and are determined to make it work, this is the post for you! We completely understand there are circumstances in which choosing COTS makes sense, for example, if the COTS system or tool you are implementing will serve the purpose of supporting internal processes that help the organization run but are not critical to the core business model. Or, maybe you’re a smaller organization that cannot afford the upfront investment associated with custom, and the approachable price point of COTS is intriguing. Whatever the reason that you chose a commercial-off-the-shelf solution may be, our tips are certain to help you make your COTS solution as successful as possible! 

This post will cover…

  • Six Common Challenges of Poor COTS Implementation
  • The Root Cause – Why is Your COTS Solution Failing?
  • You’ve Uncovered the Problem With Your COTS Tool – Now What?


Six Common Challenges of Poor COTS Implementation

From many years of working alongside our clients to find solutions to their COTS issues, we’ve probably seen it all! If you’ve implemented a COTS software solution, you might be encountering some of these common challenges listed below.

  1. Poor end-user adoption – Your employees (who are most likely the users of your COTS product) are not using the tool you purchased. They may say that this is because it’s hard to use, they can’t easily find the information they need, but ultimately it comes down to poor usability. If the COTS product was highly intuitive and easy-to-use, your users would be delighted to have something that makes their day more efficient. 
  2. Resistance to learning new functionality – Another challenge which you may see when your COTS solution isn’t working is resistance from employees to go through training. You might even hear complaints about users feeling like learning a new tool falls outside of their job description, they don’t have time to learn a new tool, and they need to focus on doing their actual work rather than, for example, learning how to use a timesheet app.
  3. Lack of training and enthusiasm from hiring managers – If there is no direction or encouraging push from higher-ups to adopt the tool, it comes down to individual motivation. This might seem like a change management or organizational culture issue, but in fact, the root cause (discussed below) is even simpler than you think. When people aren’t excited to use a solution and hiring managers don’t advocate for the tool, no one ends up using it. If the tool is hard to use, no one is going to take the time to learn it and roll it into their day-to-day.
  4. Not maintaining standards/poor compliance – In an effort to teach others how to use this tool, your IT team may have spent countless hours developing documentation and user guides containing screenshots and step-by-step explanations of how to use the tool. However, more often than not, end-users are not reading this documentation and subsequently aren’t following standards for how to use or set up the tool for their department. This creates a lack of consistency across business units–making the tool even more confusing and hard to use. As a result, your COTS solution can end up being a hodge-podge of useless and out-of-date content. 
  5. A high number of IT tickets related to COTS – When your employees don’t understand how to do something, they often default to calling the service desk for help. This creates a high volume of low-value requests, which blocks up your IT team when they could be focused on more strategic and meaningful requests for the organization. If your employees aren’t calling the service desk, you can bet they are asking their tech-savvy colleagues for help, in turn pulling them away from their work and contributing to productivity issues elsewhere.
  6. Functionality of the tool is not being fully utilized – You might notice when you look at your usage statistics, that there are a handful of features that are being used consistently, but the majority of the other features are entirely untouched/unused. This might be because there is one feature like uploading timesheets that is a requirement of their job in order to be paid, so even if that feature is painful to use, they are motivated to adopt it. As for the rest of the unused features, your employees have probably found workarounds and other SaaS-based tools that they like better which clutters up your tech stack and creates security risks.

Looking to chat through your COTS challenges in more detail? We can help.

Book a Discovery Call Today!

The Root Cause – Why is Your COTS Solution Failing?

The truth of the matter is this: The root cause of the issues listed above is actually quite simple. The most likely cause of low adoption, lack of willingness to be trained, and poor compliance to standards is that you’ve implemented a tool that is 1) Not intuitive and easy to use, and 2) Not meeting the needs of your users. 

Essentially, your COTS solution provides a poor experience for users and as a result, they don’t want to learn how to use it or make an extra effort to change their current way of working to adopt the new tool. 

Let’s break these two points down a little further.

  1. COTS solution is not intuitive and easy-to-use

The tool you’ve implemented, while robust in terms of features and functionality, is likely not the sexiest user interface out there. In fact, your users may find it difficult to navigate–where they can’t find the content they are looking for. They may find that seemingly easy processes are buried under several clicks, or even worse, the processes themselves are clunky and hard to use. While this type of user experience used to be acceptable, your employees’ expectations for great, user-friendly, and seamless experiences are HIGH, thanks to the growing number of consumer applications and websites out there. This means that if the COTS solution they have access to at work isn’t as easy to use and navigate as what they use at home to chat with friends on social media, purchase flights online, or order food, then they aren’t going to use it. 

So, even COTS products used for work must provide a great user experience and follow UX design best practices.


  1. COTS solution is not meeting the needs of users

It’s likely that when your organization implemented the COTS solution, they didn’t take a human-centered approach to initially understand your employees’ needs and workflows, and then customize the tool in a way that suits them. Implementing a COTS solution is no different than taking on any other human-centered design initiative! The human-centered design process is a philosophy in which the design of better user experiences is rooted in uncovering the user’s needs, behaviours, characteristics, pain points, and motivations through ethnographic research. Following the HCD process means designing products (and services) the right way, and focusing first and foremost on people’s needs. This begins with building empathy, conducting in-depth research, and uncovering insights that can directly influence product improvements.


You’ve Uncovered the Problem With Your COTS Tool – Now What?

We wouldn’t leave you without an actionable solution for better implementation of your COTS product! 

  1. Discovery Research The first step in righting the ship is to set up a UX research activity to better understand why the tool isn’t meeting your user’s needs, and determine what they actually need instead! Start by creating a plan for discovery research and consider methods like user interviews and surveys to gather as much information as possible. The discovery phase is super important, and without it, you’re merely guessing at what your end users need and making assumptions about their challenges (and you know what they say about assumptions!)
  2. Usability Testing – This is another important activity to consider. Usability testing will allow you to observe users as they interact with the current COTS tool and identify critical usability errors that should be fixed. There are a few different ways to go about conducting usability tests and different testing tools to consider. Usability testing provides a ton of insight into where things are going wrong and how they can be improved. Outline your findings and design recommendations into a detailed usability test report and share it with your team and stakeholders. These design recommendations can then be turned into user stories and prioritized in a feature roadmap. 
  3. Technical Discovery – Next, we suggest you investigate how much customization is actually possible with your current COTS tool as customization abilities vary across different solutions. This should be done by your IT lead, technical architect, or software developer. 
  4. UX Design – Finally, you need to bring in a UX designer to redesign elements of the interface to make it more intuitive and to solve the issues that came up in your discovery research and usability testing. A UX design firm, like us, will work to ensure your product is easy-to-use, and eliminate that clunky, hard-to-navigate interface that was causing your employees so much trouble.

All of the findings you gather from these four activities can be used to renegotiate your terms with your COTS vendor and customize the user experience. Doing this will result in higher adoption rates, a lower call volume to your service desk, and fewer documentation requirements. Because guess what? When you have an intuitive application, you don’t need to “train” people or create lengthy user guides, they simply use the tool in the way it was intended.


We hope this blog post showed you that even if you’re struggling with your current COTS solution, there could be a light at the end of the tunnel! A COTS solution is known to have its pitfalls post-implementation, but there’s usually a good explanation as to why these challenges are presenting themselves, and we bet that our tips on how to make your COTS solution a success will help you take action and make improvements!