Live More new Guides on the way! Get notified by signing up to CAST's newsletter..

Contributed by

The Key run a skills development challenge which helps young people find their voice, grow their skills and complete social action, assisted by partner organisations.

Use this Guide if you want to create a low-code application that your staff and beneficiaries can use to enter activities and see their progress in real time. The Key used Zoho Creator to do this for young people on their programmes, saving 75% vs a custom-built application.

Steps to monitoring project activity and impact using Zoho Creator

Scope what you think you need. List the problems with how you currently do things. Then list opportunities you see to improve. Combine these into one list then sort them into needs (priorities) and wants.

Prioritising what’s needed is important because it helps you focus on finding a solution that meets the most important needs. This will save you money.

You might need to run a full discovery process including making a problem statement and carrying out user research.

The Key needed a new system for managing Key+ Challenge, their youth-led, skills development programme.

Their existing system was inefficient at:

  • monitoring young people’s activity

  • project management

  • data collation.

Nor did it allow young people to enter their own data.

The Key needed a tool that was:

  • easy for young people to enter data into and for staff to see their progress

  • helped The Key capture data, monitor activity and collate impact.

After scoping out what they needed and gathering quotes for a bespoke build they discovered that was not affordable. So they started again by doing more user research.

Explore different approaches to meeting the need. Talk to technical specialists who can give you impartial advice. Try to avoid those who are tied to one particular type of solution. Trusted contacts can help with this.

You can get free and impartial advice from a digital expert through Digital Candle.

This will help you identify low cost solutions and avoid the assumption that a high cost solution is needed.

Then create a long list of potential options.

Evaluate each one by comparing their features and cost with what you need. Create a matrix or scoring grid to help with this.

Try to create a shortlist. Look for reasons to remove unsuitable options so it doesn’t remain a long list.

Then ask for demonstrations and discussion with shortlisted options to help you explore each system more. Ask if they do a charity discount too.

To help you ask the right questions you could use NCVO’s digital tool chooser.

Make a decision based on value-for-money, not just cost.

The Key realised that a no code solution would be better value and cheaper than a bespoke system.

They chose Zoho Creator because it:

  • Offered more functionality than others e.g. Airtable

  • Offered the most flexibility around their specification

  • Was reasonably priced for what it offered, with flexible pricing according to level of use

  • Has a large client base and a large support team - The Key believed this would make Zoho Creator a more robust, mature and resilient product

  • Is one of a suite of Zoho products that The Key could buy into e.g. analytics and CRM

  • Is a large company and still owned by its founders.

There are different ways to find the right support.

Look again at your list of wants and needs from Step 1. These are what you need the software implementation to achieve for your organisation and users.

It could be that you have inhouse technical support available to do this or you need external support. Consider using contractors instead of big companies.

You could:

  • Ask any technical experts you spoke to in Step 1 for suggestions.

  • Ask the software provider for recommendations.

  • Use Dovetail to identify agencies and freelancers that work with non-profits.

Think about questions to ask them:

  • What experience do they have with this software?

  • What experience do they have on similar projects?

  • What experience do they have working with non-profits or organisations with a similar size, culture or focus to yours?

There will be more questions you can ask. See those The Key asked, below.

The Key employed a digital product manager to help them. This person would become an important interface between The Key and the agencies they considered.

They used both Google and Zoho's developer partner lists. They picked out agencies who were certified in Zoho Creator. Then they looked at the company size and location (country), along with any company accounts and their website.

Some excluded themselves at this point by not responding to their web chat or by not mentioning Zoho on their website, while one had dropped from 5 employees to 0 in a year.

They asked those who did respond to provide a quote. Next they assessed:

  • speed and helpfulness of response
  • understanding of high level requirements
  • experience with similar projects, design and technical suggestions
  • approach to data security
  • day rate 
  • number of days quoted.

They chose a certified Zoho Creator integration specialist agency called A2Z.

“Make sure you feel happy with the developers you choose. Get references and look at work they've done. Understand from the offset how they work, and how involved you'll be. Make sure you're happy with how close you will be to the development work.” - Leah Roberts, Head of Operations, The Key

Low code tools like Zoho Creator are better value than building a solution from scratch but they still need designing and configuring to meet your needs.

Resist giving your provider a full technical brief. Instead adopt an approach where you design a bit, test it, then iterate.

Identify the types of people who will use the software and decide who you need to test it with. Consider what jobs each user type needs to be able to do on the software, but don’t specify how the software should work to help them do the job. That’s the designer’s responsibility.

Setting up multiple projects on The Key's Zoho Creator dashboard for testing

The Key gave A2Z a specification that included user journeys and asked them to build it iteratively.

A2Z would work on a bit. The Key would test it. Then A2Z would iterate it.

The process took 6 months, with lots of staff testing.

They also did a testing session with young people. They only tested once with them because they would use it less than staff.

Configuring enables different users to see different data. This protects each one's privacy and improve usability.

“Doing live testing with real people, not just the design production team pretending to be different roles, helped us see usability issues much more clearly” - Leah Roberts, Head of Operations, The Key

Data protection is important to think about when storing sensitive user data. If your solution also has more than one type of user then you’ll need to design user permissions with care. If you’ve chosen the right digital partner they should be used to designing in this way and have a strong approach to protecting everyone’s data.

Spider graph view showing how a participant rates themselves against a number of criteria. The participant would have used their own login to enter the data this graph is based on.

The Key has 4 user types. They needed to make sure people’s data was accessible to the right user types and protected from the others. So user permissions and data protection became a large part of the Zoho customisation process.

The Key reflected critically about how much personally identifiable information they were revealing to each user type. As they tested the system they continued to tweak and tighten security and permission features.

It’s usually better to introduce new tools to small groups of people rather than everyone at once. This is easier for them, supports a learning culture and enables you to find and spot usage problems before they affect lots of people.

Sometimes staff who have been inducted or trained or experienced in using a new system can become champions who give peer support to colleagues still learning the system.

View of a Facilitator's dashboard. Young people don't have user permissions to view this dashboard.

The Key very slowly migrated users from their old system onto the platform. Doing it this way helped them find more bugs and usability problems.

They onboarded and trained 10 users in their first batch. Every month they added some more. In total they onboarded 283 staff (including many from partner organisations who were using the system too).

Each user took part in a half day training session.

The Key used the opportunity to refresh other elements of their services programme and trained people in those at the same time.

After 6 months they turned off their old system.

Development shouldn’t stop when you launch a new tool or system. You’ll need:

  • A process for reporting bugs and problems

  • Resources to fix bugs within a reasonable timeframe

  • Resources to make improvements and introduce new features, depending on your level of ambition

Being open to feedback helps you adapt the system to people's changing needs.

The Key have continued to follow an iterative process with bug fixes and improvements.

They have had moments where something broke and affected people’s experience. 

They’ve done a lot of tweaking and are constantly thinking about potential new features.

They are now introducing automations to make the system more efficient. This is bringing exponentially more value to the organisation and meaning staff need to spend less time on the system.

There are limits to how much value it can achieve compared to a more costly, bespoke build. However it has dramatically improved how The Key manage and report on their work.

Further information

Contact Leah Roberts, Head of Operations ([email protected])