How to Optimize Your Workflow with Airtable (And an Alternative)

November 15, 2022
min read
Lizzie Davis, Growth Marketer, Stacker

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At their core, workflows (like all other processes) are collections of data about rules, people, deadlines, and goals.

This makes Airtable — a solution built to hold data and represent the relationships between it — a popular choice for teams that want to clarify and improve their workflows.

Typically this involves mapping out the workflow, bringing it into Airtable, and using various features to optimize it.

But while Airtable can work for simple workflows, it comes with one serious limitation: All collaborators you invite to your Airtable workflow have access to the entire base it's built upon.

As a result, Airtable isn’t a viable option for:

  • Complex workflows that involve outside participants, like customers or freelancers.
  • Any other workflows built on top of data that shouldn’t be seen by all collaborators.

Sure, you can build different Airtable bases for such workflows, but that requires a lot of manual work and contradicts the whole idea of streamlining your work.

That’s why in this article, we’ll show you two ways to optimize your workflow:

  1. Use only Airtable to map out and improve your workflow (suitable for simple workflows).
  2. Use Stacker in combination with Airtable or as a standalone tool to ensure all participants have access only to the workflow data that’s relevant to them (suitable for all kinds of workflows, including ones involving external teams and users).

Stacker can help you build all sorts of useful no-code apps — like project trackers, CRMs, and client portals — and optimize your workflows. Start a free 30-day Stacker trial today.

How to Optimize Your Workflow with Airtable (Examples and Templates)

For this section, we’ll be using Airtable’s Agile Workflow template to show specific examples.

However, the tips and ideas we share can be applied to any workflow, so feel free to use another template (like the product operations or marketing campaign tracking template) to start from scratch.

Write Down Your Workflow’s Goals, Steps, and Key Information

Before you get into Airtable or any other tool, you have to define your workflow’s goal.

For example, our Agile workflow’s goal may be to apply the agile methodology so that our product development process is organized and focused on users’ wants and needs.

With your goal in place, it’s time to map out the steps needed to get there, as well as the information that contributors, stakeholders, and leadership will need.

Again, here’s how that may look for our Agile workflow:

Step 1: Create a backlog with user stories.

Information needed: A description of each story, plus who’s involved in it and which tasks they’re working on.

Step 2: Do sprints to execute certain tasks.

Information needed: Each sprint’s start date, targeted release date, and user stories.

Step 3: Perform standups to assign tasks, get updates, and reflect on your progress.

Information needed: Name and type of standup, participants, and the sprint that was discussed.

You can write down all of this on a piece of paper, put it in a spreadsheet, or even turn it into a design with a tool like Figma.

Organize the Information in Tables and Connect Your Workflow

Once you have the details written out, it’s time to organize them into Airtable tables, records, and fields.

Note: If you have your workflow information in a spreadsheet (e.g., Google Sheets or a .csv file), you can import it into Airtable.

For example, our agile workflow has four tables: Backlog, Sprints, Standups, and People.

Agile Workflow: Backlog in Airtable

Inside each table, information is organized into records and fields. Records are the Airtable equivalent of a row in a traditional spreadsheet, while the fields are the columns.

This is your chance to include all relevant information about the workflow in one place, as well as add links, attachments, and other details — so take the time to think and include everything.

You can use linked records to describe the relationships between data in different tables. For example, our “Sprints” table includes references to all three other tables in our base.

Agile Workflow: Sprints in Airtable

This allows us to enter or change data throughout the entire base from a single place, which saves time and helps avoid mistakes.

Make Relevant Information Easily Digestible

This step is about ensuring each collaborator can easily find and work with the data they need. You can do this by changing how your workflow data is presented in two ways:

1. Create Views. Airtable supports different view types, including a grid (the default), Kanban board (for visualizing tasks as cards), Gantt chart (for visualizing related activities over time), and more. These are easy to create but aren’t fully customizable since you can’t add or remove elements.

Sales CRM: Opportunities Views

2. Use the Interface Designer. This is a relatively new feature that lets you build a custom UI on top of your Airtable base. You can tailor the interface to your needs using pre-made elements and a drag-and-drop editor. While more time-consuming, this option is also far more flexible.

Sales CRM: Interfaces

Share Your Workflow with Others

After you’ve mapped out your workflow and designed how it looks, you can begin sharing it with other collaborators.

Agile Workflow Base: Email Invite, Create Link, Share Publicly

On that note, Airtable supports four types of collaborators:

  • Owner/creator
  • Editor
  • Commenter
  • Read-only

Each one has different permission levels, which allow or prevent them from taking certain actions. However, regardless of their permissions levels, all collaborators can see all of the data in your Airtable base.

This is one of the main limitations of Airtable.

So, if you’re sharing your workflow with others, think very carefully about the information in your base, because each collaborator will have access to all of it.

For example, Dr. Garry Bunn, Director of the Office of Candidate Services at the University of Central Arkansas, used Airtable to store and manage student data.

However, this led to a workflow problem — Dr. Bunn didn’t have a way to efficiently share that information with students. But making them collaborators to the base would mean everyone would be able to see each other’s data, which isn’t acceptable.

To solve the problem, Dr. Bunn built a custom Stacker portal for students on top of his Airtable data. Now, students can log in and find the information that’s relevant to them, without being able to access others’ data.

In the next sections, we’ll show you how to build similar no-code apps for your business workflows.

How to Optimize Your Workflows in Stacker (Fully Customizable Interface & Granular Permissions)

Stacker is our tool that lets you create all sorts of useful apps, powered by your data — all without writing a single line of code.

These apps can help you optimize your workflows by automating manual tasks, letting customers log in and find useful information, presenting users with tailored UIs, and much more.

Here are three examples of companies that use Stacker apps to optimize key workflows:

  • Meow Wolf’s app for managing their client proposal workflow. Meow Wolf is an arts and entertainment company that collaborates with artists to create massive projects. Their team used to run artists’ proposals via emails and PDFs, making it really difficult to organize their workflow. That’s why they decided to use Stacker to build a secure portal, where artists log in, submit their proposals, and receive information about them. The data for their app is kept in Airtable, while Stacker handles the front end and permission settings.
  • The Complete DJ Group’s workflow app for streamlining operations and client communication. The Complete DJ Group provides DJs, music, lighting, and photobooth services for weddings and private parties. They used separate tools to manage their sales pipeline, customer relationships, and contractors, which made their workflow too complex. This led them to adopt Airtable, which highlighted another problem — the lack of an easy way to communicate information to their customers and contractors. That’s why they built a secure client portal, which clients can use to view all of the details for their event, as well as request songs for the DJ and update the schedule.
  • Spedal’s secure app for customers and delivery riders. Spedal is a courier bike service specializing in zero-waste deliveries. Their workflow involved using  Google Sheets to enter orders and then texting the address to riders, which meant a lot of manual back and forth. Using Stacker, they built an app that lets customers place and track orders and returns. Riders also use it to log the start and end of each job with their mobile device, as well as upload photos to confirm deliveries.

Here’s how you can build similar workflow apps in three simple steps.

Step 1: Enter Your Workflow Data Into Stacker (Or Connect to Airtable, Google Sheets, and 60+ Data Sources)

Again, you’ll need to start the process by writing out your workflow’s goals, steps, and key information.

But if you already have that information in Airtable (or another tool), you don’t have to re-enter it manually in Stacker or stop using Airtable altogether.

Instead, when you first start using Stacker, you’ll be asked to select where your app data lives.

App Settings and Data Sources in Stacker

You can choose between three options:

  1. Sync Stacker to your Airtable base(s) and Google Sheets data. When you sync these data sources, Stacker immediately builds an app with your workflow data. Any changes you make on the front end are automatically reflected on the back end (i.e., in your Airtable base or Google Sheets), so you only need to update one tool. This is a great option if you already have your workflow mapped out, but need to customize how it's presented and who has access to the data in it.
  2. Use Stacker as a database with Stacker Tables. You can house all of your workflow data directly in Stacker (without using Airtable anymore). With this option, you use Stacker to hold your data, customize how it's presented, and set granular permissions, which reduces the number of tools you’re using.
  3. Bring in data from 60+ different sources. Lastly, you can choose from different types of data sources, including CRMs (e.g. HubSpot, Salesforce, Pipedrive), project management tools (e.g., Asana, Jira, Mavenlink), databases (e.g. MySQL, MongoDB, MariaDB), and much more.

    You can also import data from an Excel spreadsheet by uploading a CSV file to Stacker. Note: These sources are read-only. Any changes made on the app front end won’t be automatically reflected on the back end (i.e. on the original data source).

Step 2: Tailor the Layout to Your Needs

Stacker lets you create a custom front end for your workflow data — all without coding or thinking about pixels, aspect ratios, and any other design issues.

As we said, if you’re syncing Stacker to Airtable or Google Sheets, our tool will automatically build a working app, based on the structure of your base(s). This means it automatically brings in pre-built formulas and linked records.

And while Stacker also builds the app’s layout, you can fully customize it to your needs.

For example, you can start by deciding if your workflow UI should be presented as rows, a board, table, inbox, one record only, or as a calendar (shown in the screenshot below).

Custom CRM Calendar View in Stacker

This is similar to Airtable’s Views.

Then, you can further customize the layout by:

  • Adding buttons for important functions like “mark as done”, “approve”, “delete”, “edit”, etc.
  • Dragging and dropping design elements such as widgets, banners, headers, and pipelines.
  • Changing your app's color and adding your logos (or your clients’ logos).
  • Customizing how the data is presented to users by choosing which fields are displayed, using filters, sorting records by a specific order, and much more.
Edit CRM Layout with Stacker

Again, none of this requires any design or coding skills.

If you’re connecting to another data source (not Airtable or Google Sheets), you can also choose between different templates for your app.

Create an app from a template in Stacker

But regardless of if you use a template or start from scratch, all of the customization options we showed above are available at your disposal.

Step 3: Set Granular Permissions for Different Workflow Participants

Again, Airtable doesn’t have a way to set granular permissions, which often prevents people from sharing their workflow data with collaborators.

In contrast, Stacker lets you create granular permission rules for each user at the table, record, and field levels.

First, you can create permission rules, by going to App Settings → Permissions. There, you’ll find a list of every table in your data source with an “Add permissions” button under its name.

Setting Airtable Permissions and Properties in Stacker

Clicking that button lets you create new permission rules that apply only to that table.

For example, you can choose which fields users can read or update by simply toggling checkboxes, as shown in the screenshot below.

Field Access parameters in Stacker: Read, Update, Create for Name, Notes, Property, Customer, Type, etc.

You can also set up User Roles by going to App Settings → Roles → Enable Roles.

Create User Roles in Stacker

Each role can have permissions that determine what data a specific user can see and edit.

For example, say your workflows include both internal and external participants, like freelancers, customers, or partners. In that case, you can create different roles with highly specific permissions for each one.

For example:

  • Freelancers can have one role that only lets them see and update their own tasks and requests.
  • Customers can have another role that lets them see which freelancers are available and make a request to them.
  • Your employees can have permissions to see and update all of the data, or only certain tables, depending on their role.

In fact, Growth Collective — a platform that helps clients hire marketing freelancers — uses Stacker apps to optimize different workflows throughout their business.

Their clients have a Stacker portal, where they can view and schedule time with freelancers, without needing to contact Growth Collective’s team. Freelancers also have a portal to view and edit their own profiles. Lastly, external partners, like the company’s accountants, have separate Stacker portals configured to only display relevant data to their jobs.

Each group of users has different permissions, which lets them get their work done, while only accessing the relevant data for their workflow.

Manage and Optimize All Your Workflows with Stacker

In this post, we looked at two ways to design and optimize your workflow: One that uses Airtable’s native capabilities (suitable for workflows within the same team or department) and one that uses Stacker (suitable for all kinds of workflows, including ones with external users).

You can use Stacker to:

  • Connect to various workflow data sources — like Airtable and Google Sheets — or housing your data directly within Stacker.
  • Customize your workflow UI by adding buttons, changing views, switching colors, and much more.
  • Set granular permissions for what each collaborator can see and edit.

If you’re ready to build your own app with Stacker, sign up for a free 30-day trial (no credit card required).

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