When evaluating any SaaS application for my clients, I've conditioned myself to rank the app by the following categories, in order.

User Experience

Does this app look easy to use? I know this is extremely subjective, but it works. If an application looks like it was designed 10 years ago, it probably was, and probably works like it was made 10 years ago. It also says something about the company if they don't place a high value on their UI. If they don't take the time to be well designed on the outside, you can be pretty sure the inside of the app is a total mess.

Then, try a demo to actually use it. Are there silly UX issues with their form fields? When you enter a phone number and submit, does it say, "please enter your phone number in the following format xxx-xxx-xxxx." That one kills me. Or if the credit card form makes you choose, "Visa" before you enter a number? You can automatically detect the credit card type from the card number, so a less than stellar designer is on the job.

It's surprisingly difficult to execute a good user experience, and user interface is only one piece, but is a canary in the coal mine for how the company values the execution of their product as a whole.

This matters because every little thing that can trip up a user is going to impact whether the application gets used or not. Good UX goes a long way for keeping support down due to confusion and user error.

Data Portability

If something goes wrong, the software becomes too expensive, or you start to outgrow the system, can you take your data with you? More specifically, can you export your data to CSV or Excel?

While software evolves over time, so does your business. And just because a particular app works today, doesn't mean it will work for your business forever.

So, when you're evaluating a new app for your business, place a high priority on your ability to hit the eject button if you need to.

Extensibility

Right in line with portability, do you have the ability to add custom features and integrations should you need to?

Things to look for:
  • An API. Not only the ability to get data in, but also the ability to get data out. APIs are way harder than they seem to architect and maintain, so, just because a company has one doesn't mean it's any good.
  • Third party apps that have been built using the API. The tell tale sign of a poor API is that no one has bothered building anything with it. We know that Trello has done a good job with their API, just google: github.com trello
  • Integrations with other applications you use. These integrations might be written by the software maker themselves, third parties, or could be put together by an API service like Zapier.
  • A plugin framework. This one may be a little antiquated, but is sometimes very necessary. An example of this is the Salesforce One platform that allows developers to write code that is executed inside the Salesforce app. Always wanted a button in Salesforce that does something custom that only your business would need? This is how you'd do it.

Implementation

How long does it take to get this app set up, and whose job is it?

Depending on the application, implementation can take anywhere from 10 seconds to years. The vast majority of set times are in the minutes to hours, but reasonably complex systems can take a serious amount of time.

If you're evaluating an app that controls a major business function, or multiple business functions, OR is costing in the thousands of dollars per month, be sure to ask a sales rep how long it's going to take before your client will be ready to use it.

Pricing Model

How is the application priced? Is it per user(seat) who uses the app, per activity in the app, or some other combination of factors? Apps selling to the same market generally price themselves similarly, so even if the model is different for a competitor, you can probably get the app maker to match the price their competitor is offering.

If the application's pricing is nowhere to be found, you can be certain it costs more than $1,000/month. There's some sales wisdom that claims buyers need to speak with someone on the phone before they are willing to spend $1,000, and there may be some psychological reason to back that up.

No matter what, try to get on the phone and negotiate a better price. It's pretty popular right now to automattically offer discounts if you sign an annual commitment because it creates more predictable revenue and looks better to investors.

Maturity

Simply put, how long has the SaaS company been in business, and is it reasonable to expect they'll stay in business?

You can judge this by simply looking up how old the company is on Crunchbase, how much funding they've received, if any, and what kinds of customers are endorsing them.

The last thing you want is to implement an app for a client and have the company be out of business in a year. It's tough to predict, but that's where data portability can save your butt! ;)