The Zen approach to designing a business system

Part 1: How obese is your system?

Obesity is not good. Not even in your business. When starting to use a system, like Zoho Creator, to run business operations, many times I find that business owners are in such a hurry that they want the system up and running as quickly as possible. And Zoho Creator being the really simple (yet powerful) tool that it is, it gets very easy to ‘think’ you are up and running by just drag-and-dropping few fields into forms and replicating the paper version of the form! But just being up and running is akin to eating food just to fill the stomach; your stomach will become full but what you have eaten matters, isn’t it? Let’s look at what I mean, with an example.

Here’s the case of a bakery Kisses-&-Cakes, owned by Julie. They prepare custom fancy yummy cakes for special occasions like weddings.

Note: this is an actual use case I encountered with a customer; though the names are changed for obvious reasons.

Now with a custom cake order, each order is unique and very personalized for that customer. Manual order entry was very tedious, consuming about 20 minutes to even an hour for each customer. This is because each cake could have several tiers. Each tier could have a lot of custom options like icing, cake flavor, decorations and so on.

Also, some combinations of flavor could have only some icing types that could go with them, and so on. This made the order entry very complex as the person, who’s taking down orders, needs to sit with the customer and go through every tier of the cake and its customization possibilities and help them decide what’s best for them. And since it is more often a really special occasion like someone’s wedding, it becomes very important that you make sure to note every single detail, without missing anything.

Also, the instructions have to be obvious for each and every department involved in baking the cake. Because of so many trivial details involved in a cake order, it is very easy to miss something when cake is being prepared. Earlier they were having one or two staff members (depending on the footfall in the shop and season) to just sit with customers the entire day and enter orders. Here are some sample paper order forms they were using. In fact, the customers had to pre-book their appointment and then only drop in, because order entry was so cumbersome and time-consuming. It was also a constant stress for the bakery staff because they had to be very sure they didn’t miss out on any details.

So, here’s what Julie did. As much as she loved baking custom cakes, she hated manual order entry and the issues it posed to her staff. So one day, she decided to take charge.

It was obvious that they needed a system for order entry. Such a system would improve staff productivity and reduce the probability of mistakes. Not only that, it will be an invaluable time saver; instead of having a customer wait hours to order a cake.

Luckily, she chanced upon Zoho Creator, the online web-based database-based app maker. After creating a Zoho One login, she quickly created an Order Entry Form and drag-and-dropped all the fields that were in the paper entry form they were using so far. She started using it and feeding in all the data. After several months only, did she realize that the data was not the way it should be. The system had become obese … so obese that it had to undergo a weight-loss surgery. So, here’s a redacted version of the form. What do you see?

Breathing Congestion

The design of the data appears congested. Take a look at part of the Order Entry form’s screenshot below:

As you can see, the detail of each tier is congested into this single form. Even if the cake order is going to have, say, just one tier, options for all the tiers will display in the form, empty. And same with the report, as you can see in the screenshot of the report below.

Fatty Liver Disease

The system has become fat and slow. Data is replicated in multiple places and sometimes has different values in different places.

Why is this a problem? Even though you have all the necessary data in your system, since it’s not in the right format, you will not be able to extract meaningful analysis from such data. For example, in the case above, you will not be able to find out easily how many cake orders were received last year for weddings.

Junk Food — Edible, Yet Not Digestible

Inappropriate system design has led to a system which is incapable of breaking down data. Instead, it stores data as is. And the data is not in a ‘digestible’ form. Let’s consider an example from the Bakery App — the ‘Event Location & Time’ field. The values are not digestible. And cannot be sent to any reporting script for churning and analysis, because the values are not enforced to be in a standard format.

In the Orders’ Report, notice that the “Payment Details” column also has similar issues. Remember, that this has a HUGE impact on your business’ revenue; when you can’t track payments effectively, it’s murderous on your business!

… Dragging Along After Several Major Surgeries

The system is not flexible anymore. It is now bulky and may not be able to adapt to the changes in your growing business. You have put in a lot of patches here and there, to make it look like what you want. But patches are patches. Period.

So what did Julie do to get out of this mess? Wait and watch for the next post!

This is a guest post by Priya.Sri, a Zoho Solutions Provider. Passionate about the ways in which software and automation help achieve in the real world, and in making businesses more productive, she publishes articles about best practices for businesses. She has been designing and implementing custom business workflows/apps for small and medium businesses for four years, and brings with her a rich experience of about 15 years in the software industry. For more information, contact