Do I really need to use a SaaS product for this?

Do I really need to use a SaaS product for this?

When to Choose a Purpose-Built Application Over Spreadsheets or SharePoint Lists


When discussing our products with clients, choosing between using spreadsheets, SharePoint lists, or purpose-built applications to manage data and workflows often arises. This specific question came up a few days ago in relation to Searchlight, and prompted this article. While tools like Excel, SharePoint Lists, and Google Sheets have their place, there are situations where a custom-developed application or a purpose-built Software as a Service (SaaS) product is the more appropriate choice. In this article, we will explore the key factors to consider when making this decision.

The Role of Spreadsheets and Shared Lists

Spreadsheets like Excel are excellent tools for analysis, reporting, simple data processing, and problem-solving. They provide flexibility and ease of use for many tasks. However, they fall short when it comes to long-term data storage due to potential data integrity issues. It’s easy to accidentally modify or delete data without realising it, leading to costly recovery efforts and reputational damage.

Shared lists, such as SharePoint Lists, address some of the data integrity concerns by providing a stronger concept of a record and making it harder to accidentally destroy data. However, as requirements become more complex, the licensing costs for platforms like Power Platform (which is required for more complex use cases) can escalate, and you quickly get into custom development territory in any case.

When to Consider a Purpose-Built Application

There are several scenarios where custom development or the use of a purpose-built application becomes necessary:

  1. Complex Data Model: When the data structure requires multiple tables or entities to represent it effectively.
  2. Intensive Calculations: If time-consuming or complex calculations must be performed on the data.
  3. System Integration: When communication or data transfer with other systems or files is required.
  4. Strict Data Controls: If specific controls on audit, logging, data access, or particular operations are needed.
  5. Workflow Enforcement: When processes or workflows with ordering or timing restrictions must be supported or enforced.
  6. Scalability: If the volume of data, users, or frequency of access exceeds the capabilities of alternative tools.
  7. Data Validation: When strict validation of data entry is required to maintain data integrity.

Backup and Recovery Considerations

While organisations often claim to have comprehensive data backups, it’s crucial to ask deeper questions about recovery scenarios:

  1. Accidental Data Modification: What happens if someone accidentally edits or sorts columns in a spreadsheet, and it goes unnoticed for an extended period?
  2. Malicious Data Manipulation: How can data be protected and recovered if it is deliberately damaged or edited for malicious or fraudulent purposes?
  3. Audit Trail: Can the system provide a clear audit trail of who made specific edits and why, satisfying auditor requirements?

Factors to Consider

When deciding between a purpose-built application and a general-purpose tool, consider the following:

  • Long-term Objectives: Align the solution with your company’s medium to long-term goals and strategies.
  • Concurrent Access: Evaluate the number of users who need to access and edit the data simultaneously.
  • User Adoption: Assess how well the user community will adapt to and follow processes when using the solution, especially in remote work scenarios.
  • System Integrations: Determine if the solution needs to integrate with other systems and whether those integrations should be manual or automated.
  • Complex Logic: Identify any complex computations or operations required, such as emailing, triggering actions, generating documents, or processing payments.


Choosing between a purpose-built application and general-purpose tools like spreadsheets or shared lists requires careful consideration of your organisation’s specific needs and long-term objectives. While spreadsheets and shared lists have their merits, custom-developed applications or purpose-built SaaS products offer robust solutions for complex data models, intensive calculations, system integrations, strict data controls, workflow enforcement, scalability, and data validation. By evaluating factors such as concurrent access, user adoption, system integrations, and complex logic, you can make an informed decision that aligns with your company’s goals and ensures the integrity and efficiency of your data management processes. If it feels like your scenario is an edge case or is in a grey area please do get in touch and we’ll be happy to provide an impartial view.

John Court 30 Jan 24

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