Putting Zoho Creator to the business user test - a view inside the projects at Michigan Medicine

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed March 11, 2022
Can we bring business users closer to app development? Can we make a difference for those business users - without involving IT? Perfect questions for a talk about real world Zoho Creator use cases, with Mikhail Zolikoff of Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan Health.

Zoho Creator - Zolikoff, University of Michigan
(Mikhail Zolikoff talking Zoho Creator)

As your (hopefully) favorite aspiring curmudgeon, you know that writing about product releases isn't my thing. But Zoho found a way around that, by hooking me up with customers instead! Clever way to lure me in.

Last week, we noted the launch of the Zoho Creator Platform via another customer story, this one by my college Phil Wainewright: Zoho Takes on Current Low-Code Market Gaps with New Creator Platform.

I may not love writing about product releases, but here's what does move me: why does it matter for customers? Peel back some very enthusiastic low-code pronouncements by Zoho; crucial trends back them up. Amongst a zillion features, the Zoho Creator platform:

  • Allows business users to "low-code" apps, with little or no IT involvement.
  • Gives coders a way to build apps faster, often in collaboration with business users. Wainewright calls this "co-coding."

We can debate how much low-code is needed in all scenarios. We can debate how easy these tools are for all business users. But here's the worthy mission I take from Zoho Creator: when IT and business work together on app development, good things happen. When business users start creating their own apps without IT, even better things happen. Yes, that might sounds ridiculously obvious, but even with decades of enterprise IT behind us, it hasn't been easy to achieve. It hasn't been easy to break down the IT/business divide, or make app building easy.

Zoho Creator in action - the University of Michigan story

So how far have we come? Customers should be the ones to answer. I hopped on a video chat with Mikhail Zolikoff, Clinical Informatics Specialist with the University of Michigan. But wait: to get a handle on Zolikoff's use of Zoho Creator, we practically need a time machine. As he told me:

Let's do some time travel. I started using Creator back in 2005, when it first came out. I was working for a friend's startup - it was basically an Internet Service Provider, and we used it to manage deployments. It worked quite well; it was easy to deploy, easy to create.

Zolikoff's user of Zoho Creator didn't stop there. Prior to joining the University of Michigan, he used it at Lyft: 

Then in January of 2020, right before COVID, I started working for Lyft, on the bike and scooter side of the business. They were already using Creator very extensively, to manage the station maintenance for all of the bikes. So, in eight markets across the United States, 6000 stations and 300 employees - all, for the most part, using the mobile app to interface with Creator. And that is where I really cut my teeth on Creator.

Zolikoff started with the University of Michigan at the Center for Entrepreneurship. He picked up with Zoho there:

I recommended that initially Zoho CRM be used to manage the variety of programs at the Center for Entrepreneurship... CRM was good for a while, but as you know, a CRM is built as a sales pipeline. We needed full customizability. So we ended up pivoting all of that work in CRM to Creator, and I helped launch and develop that at the Center for Entrepreneurship.

Once again, Zolikoff brought his Zoho Creator lessons with him:

Now in my current role, I work for Michigan Medicine. I'm what's called a Clinical Informatics Specialist, which is a fancy title for data-in, data-out, massage it and make it look good from a UI/UX perspective.

Before using Creator, Excel templates were the labor-intensive norm:

Prior to implementing Creator, my supervisor was doing what most people do, generating a lot of Excel templates by hand, emailing the templates out. People were filling out those templates, emailing them back, and then merging all that data together to do something with it.

Manual errors and tedious Excel chores are never fun:

Of course, there's the inevitable death of 1,000 cuts from all of the updates. 'Oh, I forgot to update cell seven,' you know, 'Page seven, can I change that from green to blue?' My supervisor, who is a higher pay grade than me and is supposed to be doing more strategic program management work, was basically doing administrative busy work.

Zolikoff took a chance, and recommended Zoho Creator:

I was hesitant to recommend Creator, because it wasn't necessarily my job to sort the management of administrative data; my job was initially supposed to be for the management and presentation of clinical data. However, as you know, with most organizations, if the operational trains aren't running on time, well, the other things can't work. It doesn't matter whether or not you're shipping avocados, or shipping pomegranates.

Zoho Creator in action - self-service data and reimbursement dashboards

One payoff for recommending Creator? Zolikoff didn't have to wait for IT; he could get right to work. In August of 2021, that's exactly what he did:

Like most projects, I started building it with a general framework in mind, but it has very much gotten more robust, and has gotten more functionality... I've taken all the lessons I learned while running Creator at Lyft.

Six months in, what kinds of Creator projects are in the hands of business users? One big item: self-service data updates:

We work with a bunch of physician organizations across the state of Michigan. Each of those physician organizations has a bunch of contacts, and those people have a variety of roles. We're talking about 800 contacts, across 15 different roles. Yeah, could I create an Excel template where you fill in first name, last name, contact and email, and then a drop-down in the Excel sheet where they could choose their role. I surely could.

But what happens when that person has multiple roles? What happens when that person wants to update some of that information? What happens when someone leaves and someone new comes in to replace them? Without Creator, it's a bunch of emails back and forth.

A Creator app solved that:

Now, they can log into the portal, and we give them free range to update what they want: change this, change that, reassign this role to this person, remove a person, add a person. It all seems very basic, but without Creator, it just sucks up hours and hours of time. Whereas with Creator, it's all self-service.

Self-service is a potent use case. Where did Zolikoff go next? Into "value creation" and dashboarding:

That's worth more basically, in that there's money tied to it; there's more at stake; there's more skin in the game. It's called value-based reimbursement. Basically, if doctors do X, they get Y amount of dollars. And we track all that. They can go into their dashboard, and see their progress. If they're like, 'Well, what am I missing? What am I not missing? Do I need to do X? Do I need to do Y? Oh, I need to do two more of X.' With Creator, it's just ;click here,' and bring up a form. They can fill out the form and boom, they submit it, and then it goes back to the dashboard.

The wrap - lessons for Zoho Creators

We talked about the constant challenge of business user adoption. Even when there are better platforms like Creator, and better apps, it takes a certain savvy to lure business users out of their trusty-crusty inboxes - and their Excel spreadsheets.

How is Zolikoff winning business users over? App by app. Zolikoff sees opportunities for Creator to have even more business-friendly UI interfaces in the back end of Creator, and even less use of Deluge, Zoho Creator's online scripting language.

With his deep experience, any lessons to pass on to other "creators"?

  • Use as few forms as possible - make your forms as general as possible.
  • Lump common things together, don't make things that are specific. Use the power of Deluge, and all of Creator's workflow capabilities, to hide and show things in a form or report - based upon user needs. 
  • Take advantage of bi-directional lookups - "There's a lot of power in bi-directional lookups," and being able to pull data from either direction based upon the need. "That in itself has really made our instance of Creator that much more powerful, when I can write a report from either direction and pull what people need."

In terms of converting business users, Zolikoff may soon have the opposite challenge: Zoho Creator envy.

We now have other groups inside of Michigan medicine who are interested in using it, based upon seeing how we're using it... Now that they can see how we could set up a portal, have our users login securely, make updates by themselves, view their dashboards with live data - without having to email us.

Looking ahead to the new release, Zolikoff is excited about the enhanced staging and sandbox environment. For testing, "I really could use it," he says. The mission continues:

I don't see administrative busywork as productive. I see it as reductive, if that's a word. It's about convincing people to get out of their comfort zones, which people are slowly starting to see... I'm making progress.

Of course, that means more Zoho Creator work for Zolikoff:

 A good chunk of my time is taken up managing Creator, which is good because I love doing it.

I guess that won't be a problem then.

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