Databases and Programming

Websites are good for presenting brochures and sales information, but they are even better for presenting databases and complex information in attractive and easy to use formats.

More and more people expect to get information through web pages using the point and click techniques they have become used to to access data. Dynamically generated pages are needed more and more for all sorts of website. Skill Zone has extensive expertise in developing custom web applications. We don't use off-the-shelf code and try to make it fit. We use our own software and integrate it seamlessly with your website.

Directory Management

Many organisations run directories, such as Trade Associations listing directories of members, and these are so much more useful when stored in a database format and made available online. Although it is a database application, it still needs to look like a well-presented directory as far as the site visitor is concerned. For example, with the Tile Association, a trade association with over a thousand members. we built a system which allows us to take key information from their office databases and assemble it into a fully-searchable online directory.

Another example is the directory of the Association of Qualitative Research (AQR), an important professional association. Its database is run entirely online with editing tools supplied by Skill Zone. Individual members are able to review and correct errors in their directory entries. An unusual feature of this application is that the online database is also used to generate files ready for use in a DTP system used to prepare the much-in-demand paper version of the directory.

Directory search challenges

Google-style searches are not always appropriate for directories where, instead, you need to be able to search by category of information. In the directory we built for the Viewing Facilities Association directory, we were told that "Location, Location, Location" is the absolute top search criteria. Sensible searching by location is always a challenge for databases. We built a system for the VFA which allows the user to pick a town name or other major location point such as Heathrow Airport and show the facilities nearest to that location.

Large-scale database applications

The largest databases we work on are the Drinks Industry databases for CGA Strategy comprising hundreds of megabytes of data and thousands of photos. We have built a custom application which allows subscribers to search CGA's database of UK's licensed premises according to criteria such as location, market segment or trading style and to obtain statistical summaries, detailed CGA reports or spreadsheet data for the selected outlets. It is a multi-user system and it has to be fast and really easy to use.

Article repository databases

We developed an online archive of articles for Grainger Consulting, a financial services house. They compiled numerous advisories and information notes which have lasting value but do not fit the traditional structured database format. We have built a database of XML documents for them, along with indexing tools to allow the articles to be sorted in meaningful ways and for subscribers to quickly find relevant articles and have them presented in clear and well-formatted styles.

Online shopping using baskets

The shopping-basket model is widely used on the web but our implementations are always secure, neat, elegant, well designed, and easy to use, as in this shop built by Skill Zone for Great Northern Books. We made sure that information on postage, returns policy and so on was all clearly spelt out. We particularly addressed usability issues, issues that can so easily lead to loss of online sales on poorly designed websites.

Complex online transactions

There are many online selling applications where the shopping basket approach simply isn't appropriate and where off-the-shelf packages simply don't cut it. An example of this is our application for Butterworth's Cycle Insurance which needs to get details from the user about their age, location and the value of the equipment they are seeking to insure, and produce an accurate quote tailored to that customer with the option to purchase online. We have also developed specialist sales solutions for customers running theatre bookings, college course bookings and online job advertisements.

Sales support systems

Some products are not practical to sell online, but the website can be a marvellous sales support tool. One of our customers, Boatfinder Brokerage, sells top quality canal boats and narrowboats. The Boatfinder website is used to compile sales materials and let customers quickly see which boats are new to the market, the specifications of the boats, photographs of the interiors and so on. Online tools are provided so that Boatfinder can update the database themselves, at any time of day or night.

Another good example of this is the site we built for Ninja Corporation, a manufacturer of specialist toys and pop-up products. This site presents the Ninja Corp product database as a very attractive series of information sheets but rather than being an online selling point, it is primarily designed to provide information supporting the distributors and retailers of Ninja products.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

The web is an ideal way to strengthen bonds with your clients, and to improve the service levels you give to them. We developed a CRM system for Centre Design, a company based in Newcastle with blue chip customers nationwide. Centre Design's customers can log into the workspace and see the latest versions of the designs and plans that Centre Design are drawing up for them. They can record their own feedback in the workspace which goes back to the design team and is overseen by the account managers. This simple and easy-to-use system ensures everyone is looking at the same version of the plans and greatly improves project management.

Online Data Collection

The power of a database can only be exploited if you have raw data to go into it. With the VFA we helped them bring together a lot of separate documents into a single coherent database. With CGA Strategy we have constructed a data entry system which allows field workers to enter audit reports online from their laptops and have clean data downloaded to the office databases for later processing. With the St Helens Rural Economy Survey we created an online questionnaire allowing them to replace a large paper form with data collection via the Internet.

If you need a custom application for the web, if you need to present a database in imaginative and user-friendly ways, if you need solid reliable software engineering, then you need Skill Zone.

  THE VIEWING FACILITIES ASSOCIATION: An intelligently-formatted entry from the VFA database of members

THE NINJA CORPORATION: A record card from the Ninja Corporation's product database

GREAT NORTHERN BOOKS: The order form at Great Northern Books, illustrating how clarity of layout can be used to increase buyer confidence

BUTTERWORTHS CYCLE INSURANCE: Explaining exactly how the premium was calculated in the Butterworth Cycle Insurance application