All in the <head>

– Ponderings & code by Drew McLellan –

– Live from The Internets since 2003 –


Selling Software Online

17 February 2004

Having recently switched to a different operating system, I’ve been in the market for a lot of new software lately – both free and commercial. That means I’ve been visiting the websites of a lot of software developers in the hunt for tools for a lot of different purposes. Finding the right tool for the job often isn’t easy.

FAO: Software Developers

With every software site I hit, there are two things I instantly look for – not as a web developer, but as an end user. The first is a short statement about what the software is and what it is used for. Not what features it has, or what awards it’s won, or even how much it costs, but what it’s used for. When I need to know the specific features I’ll go to the features page, but for my initial glance, I want use-cases.

The second thing I look for is screenshots. They say that a picture paints a thousand words, and never is it more true than in the case of screenshots. These tell me a number of things. They tell me if the tool has a well designed interface – from any screenshot it should be possible to easily grasp what you’re looking at. You also get a feel for the quality of the graphical site of the UI - more important to some than others. You get a good look at the menu bars, the tool bars and all the panels – from these you can very quickly assess whether the functionality you require is provided. A good user interface speaks for itself – so let it speak to your potential customers.

Another tip: unless it’s a major selling point of your software and addresses a real need in comparison to your competitors’ products, don’t tell me that your software is ‘easy to use’. Unless I’m incredibly drunk, I simply will not believe you. The only way I’m going to make that decision is by trying it out for myself. Offer me a trial and show me some screenshots.

The other thing to watch is tone of voice. If you’re not good at writing copy, borrow, beg or hire the services of someone who is. Cold technical facts do not sell software. A warm, positive and honest voice does. Tell me what your software does, let me know how cool it is, but please don’t bore me in a monotone drone.

Consider these simple, common sense suggestions and your customers will thank you.

- Drew McLellan


  1. § patrick: i find myself searching for product screenshots as soon as i hit the page. if a product looks clunky and old, i’ll be much less inclined to use it. if it’s clean, polished and well-thought out, i’m much more interested in trying it out.

    good write-up. if i were in the software biz, i’d copy/paste it for later reference. ;)
  2. § Brandon: Good write up. Comes into well thought these days, as I too have acquired a different operating system. Though I’m more inclined to navigate toward the freeware, I’m going to be more than willing to pay for a good sql db manager/query builder/reporter for os x. If I ever find one does what I need it to.
  3. § Jesse Rodgers: Nice write up…

    ...and if you find a good mySQL db manager, let me know ;)
  4. § Drew: Guys, I use CocoaMySQL. It’s on VersionTracker. I like it :)
  5. § markku: I strongly agree with points one and two. It is really helpful if the information regarding what the software does is readily available. And screenshots can make or break a download. If the UI looks crappy, it must be crappy. :)

    Another nice homepage-ready information is the list of operating systems supported.
  6. § Brandon: I’ve been running the latest CocoaMySQL build since about two days after I got the iBook. And while it provides a great interface for even a sql novice like myself, it hasn’t helped me in my queries.

    I’ve been using some pretty straight forward queries, ahem, taken from those built by MS Access from Office 2004 and I keep getting syntax errors that don’t make sense. Mostly because I don’t know sql.

    CocoaMySQL fits the bill perfectly for me – except the one major and only drawback is that for a guy like me who needs to generate reports – but doesn’t know sql – it could truly use a query building function.
  7. § Bruce: I never try to see awards. Serious software vendors do not try to win awards. According to me, trial download is mort important thing. Why some software vendors do not provide trial downloads? Do you know why?
  8. § Edward Wittlinger: I sell software online and thought this man hit the nail on the head. I have seen nice sales based on step one and two.

    Our site for review is

    K-12 software applications.
  9. § Paul: Drew
    Can you give some examples of companies (websites) that sell business software, that you feel have got it “right” with regards to their online website.
  10. § Jaykishan: i want to my cell software which was made by me for online cyber treasure hunt…logical game for kids !!!
  11. § whitepacific:

    Yes, these are great points that so many software vendors (and web developers) miss. These points show that most people who buy software know what they are looking for before they buy. Before they download or buy a product, their decision is based on very simple descriptive information. When I buy online, I also look for a small summary of the product and some screenshots. It’s not complicated, but so many developers miss that. Many software sites Ive been to have a tendency to say too much. And most sites make you dig for the screenshots and summary paragraph that tells you what the software actually does. Strange how so many miss that.

    I will take your advice to heart my friend, as I too am starting a small software company. I build small web site applications that allow you to manage images and files online using your exisiting web site. Check it out when you get a chance:

    Any input is welcome!

  12. § Cyrok:

    Great comments on what people look for on software sites. I am in the process of setting up an online software store, (templates for elearning developers). I am trying to sort out how to set up the storefront.

    There are complete ASP models. Yahoo Merchant Solutions seems to the be the cheapest but I think that I need to also purchase a 3rd party software for putting in all of the typical features of an online software store (i.e., trial downloads).

    Any ideas on the best way to start up a software/media download store? Thanks.

  13. § zedric:

    this is great info. just in time for me. m a vb developer. the last 3 years been developing a comprehensive hotel management system covering all the departmenrts/modules (front office, back office, restaurant, bar, stores, healthclub, business centre and accounting/finance). its ok n hav sold quite well locally. i really want to put the systems online n sell. This is great information for me; i will take the first two points (use/purpose and GUI/screenshots) very seriuosly. and the 3rd one Trial Versions. you can check it out at in a months time. i use MySQL db n its great DBMS, one secret for success with MySQL avoid queries in db, buid queries in code n call parameters.
    better tips and/or advice are wellcome.
    thanx guyz.

  14. § Misco:

    This is actually a great article which I have used as an inspiration for my new blog site on the same topic. The site is:


    I hope to provide totally free information and down to earth advice for anyone interested in selling software online.

  15. § Ilka Brookes:

    Great advice. I am in the process of re-working my website ( after learning HTML and dreamweaver. My site is my store for my consumer software for wedding planning and I initially outsourced all the design and development. Three years into it, I am learning how to make the changes myself and wish I knew all this before!! Any other advice always welcome. Ilka

  16. § Matthew:

    Interesting topic here, I have patented the solution to solving a big common problem for SEO because I got tired of checking all of my link partners for good search results if they were following by the rules or breaking them, so I decided to create XPELO® which is the only Security Software for Link Partners that checks any website for banned links. Do you realize how long it takes to validate an entire website full of link partners doing one link every 15 seconds? Now I am able to check any website I want in just 1 minute or less and see which link partners have been naughty or nice.

    The biggest achievement for me personally is that I am able to give the power back to website owners too who go out and hire SEO agencies to trade links for them on their website. Never before was there ever a way to see if an agency who was hired are trading banned links, so XPELO® creates 100% transparency in the SEO link exchange marketplace. I also decided to offer a FREE 14-day trial download so anyone can test it out, check their websites for banned links first. I use it almost daily to check every one of my websites and my link partner websites too. I can also use it to see how many pages, and which outbound links my competitors are using too.

    There are a ton of SEO products out there, but not one of them except actually locates, identifies, and validates every one of your link partners.



  17. § Chad:

    Thanks to your article I designed my software’s site in a way that I think quickly lets the customer know what the product is, shows screenshots, and a small list of features. Was wondering if this type of page is what appeals to what you described? Here’s the address to the site:

    Thank you for this article.


  18. § Matthew:

    When we developed our system we done some usability testing letting people that doesnt know much about selling software online to look into it and while they did we recorded everything they do while observing the face expressions while they do it. after we thought we have the perfect UI its still took another 4 rewrites to get it to perfection, but now people that play with it feels that they worked on it for years after 20 minutes….would recommend everyone to do it.


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About Drew McLellan

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Drew McLellan (@drewm) has been hacking on the web since around 1996 following an unfortunate incident with a margarine tub. Since then he’s spread himself between both front- and back-end development projects, and now is Director and Senior Web Developer at in Maidenhead, UK (GEO: 51.5217, -0.7177). Prior to this, Drew was a Web Developer for Yahoo!, and before that primarily worked as a technical lead within design and branding agencies for clients such as Nissan, Goodyear Dunlop, Siemens/Bosch, Cadburys, ICI Dulux and Somewhere along the way, Drew managed to get himself embroiled with Dreamweaver and was made an early Macromedia Evangelist for that product. This lead to book deals, public appearances, fame, glory, and his eventual downfall.

Picking himself up again, Drew is now a strong advocate for best practises, and stood as Group Lead for The Web Standards Project 2006-08. He has had articles published by A List Apart, Adobe, and O’Reilly Media’s, mostly due to mistaken identity. Drew is a proponent of the lower-case semantic web, and is currently expending energies in the direction of the microformats movement, with particular interests in making parsers an off-the-shelf commodity and developing simple UI conventions. He writes here at all in the head and, with a little help from his friends, at 24 ways.