TEAR Australia has been responding to the needs of communities around the world facing poverty and marginalisation since 1971. Last year, they made the decision to move their online gift store to Shopify Plus, and reached out to Disco for help with set-up and customization.
We had a chat with Gavin Ballard — CEO at Disco — to learn more about what was involved in making the move.
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Tell us about Disco.
We’re a small — can I use the word “boutique” without sounding pretentious? No? Okay, we're a “small” company that works exclusively on Shopify development projects. We pride ourselves on having a really deep knowledge of Shopify (we literally wrote the book about it, twice!), and on using that knowledge to build stores that make money online for merchants and keep customers happy.
Why did TEAR approach you?
Adam George, TEAR’s Web Administrator, contacted us in early 2015. TEAR was experiencing challenges with the platform currently hosting their online gift store (Useful Gifts). The PHP content management system being used was difficult to maintain and had limited adaptability to changing requirements. The hosting also needed to be managed in-house, taking valuable time away from other IT projects.
Adam was therefore looking to move to a modern, built-for-purpose ecommerce platform with a software-as-a-service model. One that could handle hosting (including the traffic spikes that come with yearly gifting season), as well as provide all the standard ecommerce functionality to handle customers, orders, and payments.
Shopify Plus was a great contender for a base platform, but TEAR had a number of unique requirements that weren’t quite met out of the box. They came to us in order to find out if it would be feasible to move to Shopify while keeping everything easy to manage and improving the experience for their end users.
What were the unique requirements for the project?
The big one was allowing customers and affiliates to run their own gift store on top of the regular Useful Gifts website. Individuals and organizations like churches would often be running their own fundraising campaigns, and the new version of Useful Gifts needed to support that functionality and help track progress towards particular goals.
In addition, we had a couple of other curveballs to deal with:
Customer and order data needed to be synchronised with Raiser’s Edge, their customer relationship management system;
TEAR Staff needed a simple way of creating large (10,000+) numbers of Gift Cards adhering to particular rules;
Customers needed to be able to make custom donations of any amount to a particular cause or gift shop.
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How did you scope out a solution?
Our first task was to make sure that we fully understood what TEAR needed and that we’d be able to build something meeting those requirements on top of Shopify. That meant research, so we spent a lot of time interviewing Adam and getting details from TEAR, coming up with UI wireframes, and drawing up flow diagrams to make sure that everyone was on the same page.
We really like using diagrams like the one above early in the process to visualize how a solution might look. The act of creating the diagrams helps us identify what bits of information we’re missing, and getting concrete and actionable feedback from clients is much much easier when they have something to look at, consider, and point to rather than just discussing ideas in the abstract.
Once we had gone back and forth with TEAR a couple of times with these diagrams and the specification documents, we had a pretty solid specification for each of the parts of the overall site — something we could take and start working out how to build the actual solution.
Were there any existing solutions you could take advantage of?
We looked! We don’t like re-inventing the wheel, so one of the first steps we take when faced with a challenge like this is to see if we can use existing solutions — something from the Shopify App Store, a theme geared toward a particular purpose, that sort of thing. If we can leverage existing work, that usually results in a reduced cost for the client and means we’re able to spend more of our time polishing other aspects of the project.
Unfortunately, our research in this case came up empty for what TEAR needed. Raiser’s Edge, despite being quite a popular CRM for charitable organizations, didn’t have a Shopify integration available. There was nothing on the app store that looked like it would allow customers to create a custom storefront on top of TEAR’s home page, and nothing allowing for the simple task of making donations of a flexible amount.
The ability to create Gift Cards in bulk is a Shopify Plus-only feature, so we weren’t too surprised when this investigation also failed to turn up an existing app.
Given our lack of success here, we decided to scope out what it would take to develop a bespoke solution. We’d spent a fair amount of time discussing requirements with TEAR by this point, meaning we were able to come up with a proposal quickly.
The solution we came up with was to develop four independent custom Shopify applications, where each would tackle one TEAR’s specific requirements.
What process did you use during the development of the applications?
From the beginning, we knew that the application allowing customers to create their own storefronts on top of Useful Gifts — “Virtual Gift Shops” — would be the most complex and time-consuming of the projects. However, we didn’t want to simply launch into developing it first, as we’d then run the risk of rushing the smaller projects as the launch date came closer.
So we decided on a slightly different approach. We’d work on a rapid first iteration of the other three applications first, then move into work on the larger project. This would mean that TEAR would be able to test out those smaller applications while Disco started work on the Virtual Gift Shop project in parallel.
This turned out to be a really useful strategy, especially when it came to the Raiser’s Edge integration – it required quite a number of testing iterations due to a rather arcane and tricky CSV export format.
What sort of technologies do you use for app development?
All four of the custom applications we developed for TEAR made use of Disco’s standard technology stack, which takes the form of a Ruby on Rails application deployed to Heroku. We use a proprietary Ruby gem that we’ve developed in-house to spin Shopify applications up very quickly. The gem handles a lot of the standard “boilerplate” of Shopify apps and is one of the reasons we’re able to confidently tackle projects like this where we’re building out four new applications simultaneously.
The prevalence of Rails and the simplicity of Heroku means that in the event TEAR needs to find someone else to maintain or run these applications, they’ll have a much better chance of doing so.
What did you think was the most challenging or “fun” part of the project?
I guess you could describe building the Raiser’s Edge integration — which as I mentioned required a lot of CSV fiddling — as “challenging!”
Aside from that, I think the thing we had the most fun with was pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with Shopify’s application proxy feature in the gift shop app. We needed to make sure that the app not only integrated with the front end theme seamlessly, but that it was easy for TEAR to keep up to date and tweak themselves.
So how did the launch go?
In the final week of September 2015 — right on schedule — the new and improved UsefulGifts.org was launched into the world. We’d done our best to thoroughly test the site before launch and put the applications through their paces, but even so we were surprised with how smoothly everything went! A couple of minor edge cases were picked up in the first couple weeks of usage, but together with TEAR we were able to quickly identify and resolve them.
At the time of this interview, TEAR and the Useful Gifts team is just coming out of the Christmas period — the busiest time of the year for charitable giving. So far, all of the applications have held up and gift purchases have been flowing in!
Finally, what’s next for this project?
Well, there’s a saying that good software is never really “done”, and that’s probably the case here considering the success TEAR’s seen with these apps and the move to Shopify. We’ve already started discussing ideas for the next iteration of the app, looking at ways to improve the experience for end users and offer them better ways to fundraise.
This is one of the things that I really like about working with clients on an ongoing basis. Now that Disco and TEAR have spent nearly a year working together, we’ve developed a great working relationship, and can offer a bit more than “just a pair of hands.” I’m looking forward to helping Useful Gifts to bigger and better things in 2016!
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