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How you can design your own internal business app for your team.
When software first came out, you
had
to build work tools for yourselves from scratch. Then out-of-the-box solutions came to market which were already mostly built: business users just had to customize them and train the team. Recently, a new wave of tools have come into the hands of makers, and these tools have building blocks so that makers can design their unique ways of doing things.

When I first learned about these types of tools like Coda, I got excited about the possibilities of what I could do with them, but quickly realized that I needed more skills and experience in building solutions to compete with the apps we were already using. So after seven years of working at software / service product companies and using out-of-the-box tools to run the company, implementing and customizing 50+ internal business apps, and building / launching over a 100 Coda docs across various use cases and client industries, I've begun to document what works and doesn't with internal apps.


Work, your way

It’s funny. You can work for a product company with talented product managers, designers, engineers, customer experience champions, marketers, and sales folks, and, unless you’re working at Salesforce or Atlassian, you're rarely building a product that you get to use daily. Instead, you use some other company's idea of what should be a CRM, project tool, or meeting app, all while having product rockstars on your team secretly (or not so quietly) thinking about ways to improve or change it. Their dissatisfaction results in wonderfully built docs and sheets, as those programs provide surfaces flexible enough for the people who are actually doing the work to build their own, unique way of doing things. And, with product skills, these docs and sheets feel so close to apps.

Unfortunately, these tools aren’t designed to scale or be connected in any meaningful way ー they come with the same building blocks and concepts from desktop word processors and spreadsheets 40 years ago.

Coda is unique in that you can take some of the simple affordances of docs and sheets, but you can build tools that work for your team: meeting systems, 1:1 trackers, OKRs connected to your product roadmap. See what the current community of makers are building in the
, and if you have a keen product eye, you can start figuring out the patterns that work when teams design and build their own tools.

This guide is my attempt to elucidate the best business app patterns (and things I've seen in other's docs) and share how to incorporate those into your (soon-to-be awesome) Coda doc — a doc users love working in and stakeholders appreciate insight from.

But first, the patterns of out-of-the-box business apps.

Adaptable patterns of out-of-the-box business apps

What’s cool about most business apps is that they follow the same pattern for a successful user experience and system design that scales. Strip away the branding, any strong points of views that the software product company has infused, and the UI, and you're left with a core set of principles. Fortunately, when you’re designing your homegrown doc /tool / app, you can apply these principles into the unique way you do things:
A
warm welcoming
to and within the app with clear direction on the steps a user should take to interact and be successful with the app.
Core of a business app is a
set of tables
, the discrete things you’re tracking and there's an order of the columns.
Different users get different views
. End users focus on taking action on their work and stakeholders see the big picture.
Information hierarchy follows a
front stage
for the workflow and a
back stage
for the setup.

We also did a webinar about this here:
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1. Warm welcoming

Successful out-of-the-box business apps welcome new users across various channels with specific instructions and call to actions (CTAs) for how to be successful using the app.

Learn how to do it in a Coda doc

EXAMPLES 👇

Salesforce

Asana


2. Everything's a table

Under the hood, business apps are basically just a collection of tables, the things you’re tracking. If you're coming from the land of databases, one could argue (I do) that business apps are just pretty and easier-to-use relational databases that are branded and connected.

There are a
for
that are pretty detailed and slightly dry, so let's go with 2 principles for now:
There are no duplicate tables in the app (on the backend). If you see the table twice in any app, one of them is a view of the base table.
In a table, you order the core, unique, more important items on the left, the less accessed items to the right, and the actions on the far right.

Learn how to do it in a Coda doc

EXAMPLES 👇

Quickbooks

Jira


3. Different users get different views

Everyday users get a homepage to launch from with the ability to quickly add data.

This view gives end users immediate context for how to interact with the doc by creating a space designed specifically for them where they focus on their own work. Most end users will be adding data (usually related to themselves) and updating their own info, so creating a page for them will allow them to get in, do their work, and get out in the easiest and fastest way.

Learn how to do it in a Coda doc


EXAMPLES 👇

Asana

Greenhouse

Salesforce


Stakeholders (often managers) see reports with aggregate and highlighted info.

Folks who aren’t part of the core operation but essential to the success ー the Head of Delivery for client projects, hiring managers for applicants, VP of Product for the Product team, Head of Sales for Growth ー will want insight into how the team / process is performing. They want aggregates, summaries, and gists of what’s going on so that they can guide the team, ask the right questions, and make strategic adjustments where needed.

Learn how to do it in a Coda doc

EXAMPLES 👇

Accelo

Greenhouse


4. Information hierarchy: front stage vs back stage

Apps traditionally have a flow from top → bottom or left → right (as with most other things like how you read a document or navigate a website).

Generally, the pattern is as follows:
Home page and personal space where every user starts off
Reports for managers and stakeholders
Team views for folks to collaborate and work together
Admin and setup also known as the "back end" or "back stage"

Learn how to do it in a Coda doc

EXAMPLES 👇

Asana

Salesforce and Greenhouse

You can do it

So we've gone across the universe of business apps and their design patterns that make them stand out amongst their fierce competition. Now it's time to roll this new insight and understanding of the world (at least the business app world) into your own Coda doc.

Apply the four principles of best of breed business apps and make docs that users love, that scale as the operation and team growths, and that leadership sees as a key part of any organization.



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