How do you eat an elephant?

Above: Elephant wall mural photographed by Ben Kerckx.

I was three weeks into my Akvo life when my colleague Emmanuel turned to me and asked: “Jana, how do you eat an elephant?” At the time, I didn’t think much of it beyond the general saying, but it turned out to be one of the guiding principles behind how we improve Akvo Flow. We’ve also used it as an approach to tackling one big opportunity this year: improving how data captured in Flow is exported.

So, how do you eat an elephant?  

Understand your elephant

First, you need to understand the elephant you are dealing with: its size, shape and what it is made of. From our research and user feedback, we knew that improving exports could not be done with one small fix. This is a full grown elephant we are dealing with. Improving exports involves multiple questions, problems, and opportunities. Here are a few pieces of this elephant, just to paint the picture:

  • How can we clarify which export option is the best for your use case?
  • Can we improve the structure of the sheets in order to limit the number of manual processes you need to do before working with your data?
  • How to resolve the issues around analysing data from repeated question groups?
  • How do you know what is happening when exporting or importing data?
  • Can we improve technical complexities in the implementation?
This elephant of ours consists of technical parts, changes to how you interact with Flow, changes to the actual data sheets and more.

Take the first bites

Eat your elephant one bite at a time, they say, but what if your elephant is so large you don’t even know where to start? We decided to first tuck into the pieces that would bring the most benefits to our users and were not overly complex to put in place. In other words, we chose the bite that would be most satisfying while not having to work through hard tissue or slice through bones.

The first bite was therefore around resolving issues that occur when analysing data from repeated question groups. We decided to move from a structure of data that requires a lot of manual work before the data can be used, to structures that fit your use case and limit unnecessary manual tasks. The sheets with answers to repeated question groups are more clearly split, while the data sets without these groups do not contain irrelevant columns.

Secondly, these structural changes to the data sheets come paired with a modern, intuitive design. We learned that there is already a lot of good value in the different export options we have, we just need to present them better.

Our second bite was to move away from the situation whereby you select an export type because you don’t have clear guidance on other possibilities in Flow, to a simple but informative page where you can easily choose which export type is the best for you.


Above: GIF illustrating the before and after of export reports by Linda Leunissen.


Don’t leave the elephant unfinished

Often, we take the first few bites and then move onto another elephant. Don’t leave your elephant unfinished; that is just a waste of a valuable elephant.

With the last Flow release, we tackled a large slice of our elephant, but there is more to come. With your feedback, we will continue improving data exportation in Flow. We aim to further improve the structure of the data sheets, solve issues around other export types, and much more. But as we all know, we will take it one slice at a time, because that is how you eat an elephant.

Jana Gombitova is Product manager for Akvo Flow. You can follow her on Twitter @janagombitova.