Case Study

Helping Useful Gifts make the move to Shopify Plus

Useful Gifts Homepage

TEAR Australia has been responding to the needs of communities around the world facing poverty and marginalisation since 1971.

They were one of the very first organisations to utilise the “Gift Catalogue” method of fundraising, whereby donors could contribute directly to a specific cause by purchasing “gifts” such as a goat or schoolbooks for people in need of them.

The need for a new ecommerce platform

Adam George, TEAR’s Web Administrator, approached Disco in early 2015. TEAR was experiencing challenges with the platform currently hosting their online gift store, Useful Gifts. The PHP content management system being used was difficult to maintain and had limited adaptability to changing requirements. The hosting also needed to be managed in-house, taking valuable time away from other IT projects.

Adam was therefore looking to move to a modern, built-for-purpose ecommerce platform with a software-as-a-service model. One that could handle hosting (including the traffic spikes that come with yearly gifting season), as well as provide all the standard ecommerce functionality to handle customers, orders, and payments.

Shopify Plus was a great contender for a base platform, but TEAR had a number of unique requirements that weren’t quite met out of the box:

Disco’s first task was to see if there was a way to meet these requirements on top of the Shopify Plus platform.

Researching and designing a solution

Re-inventing the wheel is never fun, so one of the first steps we take when faced with a challenge like this is to see if we can use an existing solution.

Once we’d spoken with TEAR enough to have a deep understanding of what each requirement entailed, we set out to see if there were any existing Shopify integrations or applications that could help us out and save us the time and cost of building out a custom solution.

Sketch of Useful Gifts App
An example of the type of simple diagrams we used during the research and design phase. Creating these diagrams with TEAR’s feedback helped us ensure we understood the problems to be solved, as well as letting everyone visualise how all the different parts of the system would work together.

Unfortunately, our research on this came up empty. Raiser’s Edge, despite being quite a popular CRM for charitable organisations, didn’t have a Shopify integration available. There was nothing on the app store that looked like it would allow customers to create a custom storefront on top of TEAR’s home page, and nothing allowing for the simple task of making donations of a flexible amount.

The ability to create Gift Cards in bulk is a Shopify Plus-only feature, so we weren’t much surprised when this investigation also failed to turn up an existing app.

Given our lack of success here, we decided to scope out what it would take to develop a bespoke solution. We’d spent a fair amount of time discussing requirements with TEAR by this point, meaning we were able to come up with a proposal quickly.

That proposal: a suite of four custom Shopify applications, each one independently tackling one of TEAR’s unique requirements.

The build phase

From the beginning, we knew that the application allowing customers to create their own storefronts on top of Useful Gifts – “Virtual Gift Shops” – would be the most complex and time-consuming of the projects. However, we didn’t want to simply launch into developing it first, as we’d then run the risk of rushing the smaller projects as the launch date came closer.

We decided on a slightly different approach: we’d work on a rapid first iteration of the other three applications first, then move into work on the larger project. This would mean that TEAR would be able to test out those smaller applications while Disco started work on the Virtual Gift Shop project in parallel.

This turned out to be a really useful strategy, especially when it came to the Raiser’s Edge integration – it required quite a number of testing iterations due to a rather arcane and tricky CSV export format.

Mockup of the Bulk Gift Card Creator App
A UI mockup of the Bulk Gift Card Creator application, created in Balsamiq. We much prefer using quick and simple mockups like this that we can iterate on quickly, rather than full-blown pixel-perfect Photoshop mockups.

All four of the custom applications we developed for TEAR made use of Disco’s standard technology stack, which takes the form of a Ruby on Rails application deployed to Heroku. While you won’t see any cutting-edge tech blogs writing about this (it’s a very common approach) we actually see that as a pretty big benefit to clients. The prevalence of Rails and the simplicity of Heroku means that in the event TEAR needs to find someone else to maintain or run these applications, or develops the capacity in-house, they’ll have a much better chance of doing so.

The launch

In the final week of September 2015 – right on schedule – the new and improved UsefulGifts.org was launched into the world. We’d done our best to thoroughly test the site before launch and put the applications through their paces, but even so we were surprised with how smoothly everything went! A couple of minor edge cases were picked up in the first couple weeks of usage, but together with TEAR we were able to quickly identify and resolve them.

Useful Gifts
An example of a “Virtual Gift Shop” running on the launched version of UsefulGifts.org.

At the time of writing, TEAR and the Useful Gifts team is gearing up for the Christmas period - the busiest time of the year for charitable giving. Disco will be on-hand over that time to make sure everything running’s smoothly and that TEAR is best able to fulfill its mission of helping others.

We’ll be updating this case study in a few months with a report on how successfully everything went!


Disco helped us successfully move Useful Gifts to Shopify by delivering several challenging and unique customer-facing and back-end apps. Flexible, prompt and communicative, Gavin is a pleasure to work with. He’s thoroughly professional and knows his stuff. We highly recommend Gavin and Disco.

Adam, UsefulGifts.org