Selecting Your Product

by Gloria Metrick

Published in Scientific Computing and Automation*, Issue 12 Vol. 14.; (*Now named Scientific Computing and Instrumentation).
Reprinted with permission.

Preparing for LIMS Product Selection
This might be your first LIMS or your next generation of LIMS. Regardless, you will be wondering how to make the most of the valuable time you and your resources will be spending on the LIMS selection process in order to make the best selection and minimize problems in later phases of your project. Here are a few suggestions.

Getting Started
First, you need a good understanding of your own needs. Some questions you need to ask yourself are:

    • How many laboratories will be included in this project? In what order will they be implemented? How many people will need to be supported in each laboratory?
    • How much of the project do you expect to be done by your own IS staff, if any?
    • Both laboratory and IS personnel are necessary during the selection process, and it is useful to have input from each laboratory that will be using the final product. Get some idea of how many resources can be counted on.
    • Do you understand your laboratory and internal support processes so that you understand why you do things the way you do? Do you know which of your processes are flexible? Have you documented your requirements and their priorities? These will put you in a better position to explain your needs to the vendors.
    • What other requirements do you have besides functionality? For example, are you trying to meet a specific calendar date for production, or prefer to run on a specific hardware platform? It is usually easier to look at the functionality around each LIMS before considering the other types of requirements.
    • What is the financial situation of this project? Be realistic about the amount of functionality you can get for the amount of money you are spending. That is to say, be realistic about which functions are mandatory and which ones you might live without.
    • The more customized your final LIMS is, the more overall resources you will usually need to produce, maintain and upgrade it.

    Creating a List of Vendors
    To create an initial list of vendors, you might try some of the following:

    • Subscribe to the LIMS list server and ask for help from other users.
    • Read industry publications that might have examples of LIMS projects and advertisements for products, such as Scientific Computing and Instrumentation.
    • Ask others in your industry what products they use.
    • Look for those who have implemented similar types of laboratories. Ask them about specific applications they use within the LIMS.
    • Attend conferences such as Pittcon and the annual LIMS Conference. Before you attend, make a list of specific questions you want to ask. Prioritize which questions are most important in case you find yourself running out of time. For the same reason, plan which vendors to see first.

    Call the vendors to have them send you a packet on their products if you do not already have this information. Clarify anything you see in the brochures that you need more basic information on or are not clear about.

    Now, narrow the list down to a “manageable” number. These are the companies that you are seriously considering and will ask for details and estimates from, as well as sales demos. This list needs to be a small enough subset of the original list that you can make comparisons. There is no magic number, but 4-6 often seems to be appropriate.

    RFPs (Request for Proposal) – What are the “right” questions to ask?
    Issuing RFPs gives each vendor a chance to respond to you in a formal way and gives you a basis for comparison. At this point, you should already have assembled your team that will put together this document and work together at least through the selection process.

    When writing your RFP, consider the following:

    • The vendor does not “know” what you want unless you ask for it.
    • When asking for overall functionality, mention in what way what you want to use it for might be special. Do not assume others in your industry are doing exactly the same thing. There are some things you may ask for overall descriptions of rather than asking specific questions, such as, “Give us an overview of the security provided with the system.”
    • Ask for references. Have the vendor indicate what each reference has in common with you. Some references should be of a similar project size, rather than by company size. Ask for some references to be in your own industry and implementing similar laboratories. Get a reference that will be using the same hardware/OS/network configuration, if possible.
    • Make clear what functions you expect to purchase in a LIMS versus those that you expect to obtain elsewhere, such as instrument interfacing or Stability study management.
    • Ask for examples of their software implementation methodology and the experience of the personnel involved. Whether you expect them to provide their own methodology or follow yours, you need to get an idea whether they can operate at your level. Remember that the methodology a company uses to develop their software is not necessarily the same as the methodology they will use to implement the system.
    • Ask if the vendor can assign people with some specific experience in your industry. Ask whether the vendor thinks this is important and why.
    • Ask about the potential timing of your project tasks. Have the vendor give an approximate date for a sales demo. Find out when you could audit the vendor, if applicable. Get a general idea when your project could start if you selected this LIMS.
    • Ask questions on source code availability if you have some reason to access it. The two most misunderstood words in the industry are “customization” and “configuration.” Either avoid them or define them within your RFP.

    Once you Receive the RFP Responses
    Have the LIMS team review the responses to make sure that each vendor understood and answered your questions. If not, go back to the vendors to clarify issues, and ask for further response. Check the references. See if you can find some others on your own, if you did not do this before the RFP process. Call or visit the reference sites. If the reference project is in-progress, call them again later in their process to find out what issues might have surfaced. Consider whether your situations and project size will be similar.

    If they are in your industry, how well did the vendor understand the unique industry issues that came up during installation and does the reference site think this was important? How experienced and professional did the vendor’s personnel seem and what value did they add to the project?

    Ask the references about the overall support they have received. How well does the vendor support the product on a day-to-day basis? How well do they handle the occasional bug? How organized are they with shipping the appropriate upgrade products and materials? Ask about any services you are purchasing, such as project management, implementation or training.

    Once you think you know which vendor you want, have your LIMS team try the product. The Sales demo you saw does not give you enough information to know if it will be what you expect and were promised. Keep in mind that this is a rough example of your final installation. This is a step that companies skip because it is considered an expensive and time-consuming step. Compared to the cost of the entire project, it can be a minute portion of the overall cost.

    This is the beginning of your project and of a validated system. Treat it accordingly. Document all responses and expectations, not allowing any communication to remain verbal. It is easy to forget the details as the project progresses. This will allow you and your vendor to determine if you and they remembered some specific item, and will provide a checklist of what has been promised and what needs to be done when the project goes into its next phase.

    Part of this documentation, of course, is the contract that you will have with your vendor. Try to get copies of their standard contracts during the early stages of the process. It may take awhile for your lawyers and theirs to come to agreement on any changes that might need to be made.

    If the purchase is dependent upon things like passing an audit or physically trying out the system, these types of issues should be indicated as part of the written agreement between the two companies.

    Plan for and Expect Change
    Traditionally, we do not plan that we will leave anything out in the initial selection of the product, that there will be any miscommunications, or that our process will change anytime soon. Although you must make the best effort to be as clear as possible and to cover as many issues as possible, you must prepare for change. Hard work during this phase will minimize but not eliminate it.