A Word On Templates

Wednesday, 1st July 2020

This is a copy of a post originally posted on my LinkedIn account.

June was a very busy month, not only did we release a Microsoft Outlook add-in to bring emails to the BigChange CRM feature, but yesterday we released a Word add-in to make our customers lives even easier when they build their bespoke job cards and financial documents.

Much like the Outlook add-in, this has been a labour of love for around 10 months, and something which we couldn’t have done without the help of James Brown and Hugo Mathieu.

In this pressure-less, obligation-free blog post, I take a look at the problems we had to solve, and how we solved them. By the way – if any of you are wondering why ‘Countdown’. ‘Word’ is a word, and ‘templates’ is 9 letters – maximum points in Countdown…it’s all beautifully themed 😂

For those of you who might not be aware yet are reading this post, BigChange offers customers an easy to use, 5 in 1 solution for mobile resource and job management. Now amongst other things, we facilitate two main functions.

  1. Producing a ‘JobCard’ (job sheet as it’s also known) in digital format at the end of a job. Some may remember the duplicate, or triplicate pads of paper which were used 20 years ago – it’s a digital version of that. As it’s digital, you can pick from a list based questions, scan barcodes, type answers (so no more illegible handwriting), and even take pictures…try doing that on a pad of paper!. The JobCard is simply a PDF version of all that information in a single document that you can file, or send to customers.
  2. At the end of the job produce an invoice for the work carried out – this also is produced in PDF format and usually contains various line items which include things such as hourly rate, cost of any materials used and other things which you might expect on an invoice such as invoice number, payment terms, and date.

Since BigChange started, as part of the monthly fee we offered customers a ‘standard’ layout for both these electronic document types. They weren’t going to win any design awards but they were, and remain functional in that they provide the information needed legibly, whilst ensuring they are appropriate for all industry sectors.

As time progressed and we explored different markets, our customers wanted to make these documents their own and have them fall in line with their company branding, making changes to the layout to suit their individual needs became more important. For these such requirements, our customers were invited to engage with our Professional Services team, who built (for a nominal charge) the document they were after.

Up until 2016, these were the options we offered. 4 years ago that changed and we launched our Template Editor. At the time, this was groundbreaking as it gave customers the ability to not only create their email templates but simple PDF document designs as well. To ensure that the templates contained the right content we developed a suite of ‘keywords’ so that ‘Date’ inserted the current date, ‘Resource Name’ the name of the engineer who carried out the job, and ‘Job Result’ being the outcome of the job and so on.

It was exceptionally popular. and still is for emails, however as more and more customers joined us, their design expectations also increased, and surpassed the capability we could offer in our online editor. We wanted to allow them to create their own simple documents, those with watermarked images, boilerplate text, logos, and footers without needing to work with our Professional Services Team.

Whilst we did initially have a solution to this, it wasn’t particularly simple, and it certainly wasn’t user friendly. In short, using Google Docs to create a layout and then use that HTML in our online editor, and add the keywords after. Despite some of our customers designing some specular designs using workflow, it had two big drawbacks.

Firstly, if you wanted to make any amends to the layout after – you needed to edit the HTML code itself; something we could not expect all of our customers to know or learn. Secondly, the page dimensions didn’t always render correctly.

In short, the barrier to entry was far too high, which made it challenging for a large proportion of our customers.

We needed to make it easier for them – we needed to solve that problem.

As with most great things we started with a blank whiteboard and wrote down the things we needed it to do, the first thing we wrote down was “Document Editor”.

It then hit us! We shouldn’t spend so much time trying to create our own document editor, we should get our platform to read and understand a ‘standard document’ format. Now that was all well and good, we could ask customers to design a document in Microsoft Word however without the keywords they would be pretty useless.

An invoice without a date/reference and relevant line items is neither useful to man nor beast; same with a job card without job reference, or worksheet questions. For this to work, we needed a way of adding keywords.

Behind the scenes, keywords act as mail merge functions. We effectively take [[date]] (as an example) and when creating the document replace it with the current date. Easy you might think – create a dictionary of all the keywords and give them to customers for them to type.

Well, that would certainly work for some of the simple keywords, but there are more complex, bespoke keywords that can be used. Keywords that allow you to insert the answer from a worksheet question (be it a picture, yes/no, text, etc) or contents of a custom field against a contact (such as customer-specific delivery instructions). These were made up of a mixture of a unique identifier and the name of the field. It would not only be impractical to ask our customers to create this manually but also highly prone to user error. Don’t even ask me how ‘formula’ keywords are created (it’s black magic as far as I’m concerned!)

We needed a way to ‘insert’ keywords – and here entered our second Microsoft add-in.

It’s beautifully simple, its sole purpose is to serve up those keywords inside square brackets and add them to the document, ready for it to be uploaded.

That’s it, I wish it were more complex but it isn’t. Users can design tables, add pictures, text footers all by using Microsoft Word – a document editor the vast majority of people have used.

If the document needs editing, simply re-download a copy from your system (if you hadn’t saved one), make your changes, and re-upload it. What used to take hours (and in some cases days), now takes a matter of moments…arguably even less time if you use one of the many Microsoft templates freely available to get you started.

The question probably being asked is ‘why did this take 8 months then’? Well, it took 8 months from start to finish with other projects being inserted during this time. There was also quite a bit of server-side work that was needed to decode the .DOCX file, process the keywords, and reprocess it as a PDF.

I know I said it last time, but if you were to ask me which were the top three coolest and best features I’ve helped to bring to our customers, this would certainly be up there.

Another problem solved…I wonder what our next add-in will be, and when will it surface 😉

For those of you who have made it this for, and want to see it in action, here you go!

As always if you would like any more information on BigChange and the other amazing things we do, details are below.

https://bigchange.com info@bigchange.com +44(0)113 457 1000

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