A great way to build software

Many posts on this blog are about products Digital First creates from scratch. We find out new user needs, and often conclude that it’s easier, cheaper and better to build for ourselves.

I wanted to write about an example where we haven’t done that, and why it’s still a great fit for us.

Brighton & Hove City Council manages about 1800 volunteers across different services. They help with digital literacy, conserve the city’s precious parks and a lot more besides.

The way the council manages volunteers varies from service to service. We wanted to make it easier to become a volunteer, and improve day to day support. Plus, with new data protection regulations coming into force in May this year, it was time for a spring clean.

My colleagues Sam, Rich and Annie looked at many options. They ultimately settled on an off the shelf service called Volunteer Plus. It ticked most of the boxes from a features point of view, and the price was competitive. The biggest single factor in our decision was their commitment to work in an agile way.

We bang on about agile a lot here. It’s really important. When we find a genuine user need, we should respond to it quickly. The ideal is shipping something that day, or that week. Let’s make something right now that responds to the need we’ve seen, and ask real users to try it. Rather than theorising about the best solution, we’ll know for sure what works and doesn’t.

The creator of Volunteer Plus, Luke Pipe and his company Pipe Media, love this approach. We share a Trello board where I describe and prioritise needs I hear about. Luke and I discuss ideas, and sometimes Skype to sketch and work out the best solution.

We’ve done three releases of Volunteer Plus this way, covering onboarding of volunteers, a new simplified sign up form and bulk actions for admins (such as send an email to a group, or mark hours worked, or expenses claimed).

Managing a volunteer using our new Volunteer Plus software

We’ve started thinking about major future releases, including rostering of volunteers, and an app they can carry. Like every other part of this project, we’ll start simple and build from there.

I think this is the right way to build complex software that truly responds to users. Do you have a project that works this way? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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