Eyes wide open: selecting an open source tool wisely

Selecting the right digital tool for your organization is a fun challenge (for the right person). The tool needs to strike the right balance between functionality and cost, and be available on the timeline you need. An open source tool may be a great option, and can present some interesting advantages.

For the purposes of this article, open source means that the source code is publicly available, and anyone can use the digital tool if they have the technical skills. Proprietary digital tools have private source code and can only be used if you purchase or license the tool. As you read through the following sections, think about whether your organization prefers proprietary or open source tools, or whether it is open to either kind of tool. Each of the areas explored is relevant for proprietary tools as well, but the specific questions and advantages may be different.

Functionality & design

The functionality and design of a digital tool will determine the successful adoption of your tool. This is true for proprietary or open source tools.

Questions to consider: Does the tool do what your users need it to do? Will your users actually like the tool?

User adoption is heavily influenced by design and can be a significant challenge for open source tools. The majority of the contributors to open source tools are programmers who are less focused on user experience and interface. If the new tool is hard to use and doesn’t look professional, people may not actually use the tool even if the functionality is amazing. Have a few of your regular users and power users review any tool before committing.

Initial cost

Open source software is not necessarily free. Some open source projects are licensed in such a way that only certain uses (or types of users) are free, and you will most likely need to have a technology expert set up the tool for you.

Questions to consider: Beyond any licensing fees, how hard is this tool to set up? Will you need customization? Who will perform that customization?

Open source tools may have a huge advantage with customization if programmers are available and familiar with this tool. A quick Google search as well as exploring forum(s) discussing the tool will help to uncover resources. I also like to do a geography search to see if there are developers in my city who may be able to help, but you may not need to meet with developers in person. Depending on the size of your organization, you may have experts on staff who can help with the initial setup, and you should involve them early in your process.

Ongoing costs

Questions to consider: How hard is the tool to maintain when updates are released (and just about any tool will have updates)? Are there developers available to help with updates and any future customization? Will there be any hardware maintenance or hosting costs?

If there are licensing fees, are they ongoing? This might be a place where an open source tool is less expensive than a proprietary tool, particularly if maintenance is not terribly difficult.

Trust and privacy concerns

Adopting any new tool that will help manage sensitive information will have trust and privacy concerns.

Open source code may actually be more secure than proprietary code because many people are evaluating and testing the code. However, this requires a robust community of contributors (and code reviewers), and applies better to something like WordPress (popular website software) or MediaWiki (the software that runs Wikipedia) than a project that three people work on occasionally.

Questions to consider: Who has written the code? Are they experienced developers? Are they going to stick around to make sure the tool keeps working and address any future security issues?

I like to see a community of people, ideally with a mature organization involved as well, supporting an open source tool for multiple years. You may decide that you very much want to support a new project, and start using a newer tool, but be aware there is a very real risk that the project will be abandoned.

One of my favorite open source tools is WordPress. This is a tool that I’ve used for website management for over seven years, and I’ve generally been very happy with my experience. When I first started considering WordPress, I had some initial concerns around functionality and design. I wanted a simple tool for managing website content that the average user could comfortably use with some training. WordPress was less robust and user friendly than it is now, but was more usable than the alternatives of Joomla, Drupal, and some of the other Content Management Systems (CMS) available at that point. I could also see that there was a very active development community and decent documentation on WordPress.org. Initial and ongoing costs were not too significant because I had access already to a webserver that could run WordPress and the technical programming skills to make any customization needed. In fact, WordPress is easier to maintain (and hence less expensive) now than seven years ago, and the development community is even more robust. There have been occasional issues with WordPress security, but the developer community is proactively addressing these concerns through regular updates. WordPress is a great match to my particular needs and resources.

For each of these areas—functionality and design, initial and ongoing costs, and trust and privacy concerns—the answers should be apparent with a little online research. If you can’t easily figure out who is working on an open source tool, how long the tool has been around, and whether developers are available to help customize and maintain the tool, then the tool is probably not a great fit.