Data, Data, Data

A common conversation I’ve had with clients (prospective & otherwise) goes along the lines of  “we want a system that can predict X for our users/customers based on Y inputs”.

This may be an e-commerce system which estimates manufacturing lead times on screen whilst users places orders, or an ERP which schedules development runs & hence employee schedules based on incoming sales estimates.

in 85%ish of the scenarios however my response goes along the lines of “Yep, totally possible, but have you the statistically reliable data required to make the estimates/decisions you’re looking for?”

The productivity revolution brought on by the development and integration of applications designed to make employee/user/customers lives easier has had an enormous impact on industries ranging from healthcare to education but at it’s center it still relies on the traditional identification, collection & analysis of key data sets.

Take for example the first example above of on-screen estimates based on product lead times. It turned out that the organisation had never rigorously collected data on the differences in work orders, bills of materials or productivity for each variation of the product they offered.

Hence to deliver the customer experience their users deserved they needed to run a each variation through statistically relevant manufacturing runs (under the six sigma paradigm) to produce the data required.

The lesson here is that an organisation should always be looking at the data they’re collecting and attempting to predict their business’s future requirements in terms of its use.

For the love of an API

We (as in Webbased) have always prided ourselves on customer service; we do whatever we can to design & build solutions that can slip into clients existing processes as a hand to a glove.

But with our dedication to ‘product – solution fit’ our overheads have always been rather high. Providing consultancy, development & support for complex bespoke systems is no mean feat!

Hence in the quiet of summer (I wish…..) we’re looking to optimise, streamline and generally attempt to cut down on the time spent on those annoying jobs that take up so much time.

First up: Customer Support

We’ve used Fogcreek’s excellent FogBugz software for our case management pretty much since inception; loving it’s ease of use, SVN integration & e-mail handling functionality among other things.

However what it’s always lacked is a decent client front end (quite surprising given the number of plug-ins available). Once an issue has been raised, clients are issued case number ect. but it’s then up-to-them to manage their responses (often with the aid of headache inducing spreadsheets).

So with the aid of Fogbugz’s well document API and  a little code time from a friendly neighborhood developer we built the below rather nifty 6 page application to display cases raised by clients and give them an easy method of responding.

case_list

 

case_detail

 

Now clients can automatically view cases raised by themselves (or by us with access given) along with a simple process to update us (or vice versa) without digging through Outlook for that case reference you remember seeing but can’t quite recall where you saved it to.

It may sound like a small thing; but given how frequently we’re engaging with clients (and how complex certain projects are) a back of the envelope calculation has put us at 100% ROI within 2 weeks of rolling this out to our clients.

Sometimes all you need is a decent API, a good idea & a PHP Dev environment to hand for good things to happen.

Khan University

I’ve been a fan of the concept of e-learning for a long time, making use of Code Academy in particular on and off as my motivation waxed and waned.

However it was only a few days ago that a I truly began to appreciate some of the positive impacts that e-learning has/will have on existing education systems.

A friend has been diagnosed with dyslexia; she has problems reading for long periods and comprehending complicated texts, not to mention note taking during lectures while trying to understand the concepts being discussed.

Khan Academy

During a discussion with another friend on the various paradigms of learning Khan Academy was mentioned and its wide library of video lectures.

Within a couple of minutes she’d been able to login find her subject of interest (Medicine) and crack on with her learning.

While the Khan Academy may not officially provide college/university level courses at present we discovered that the introductory lectures are generally of such high quality that they’re easily a match for the first and second year university text books, with reading on particular subjects filling in the gaps.

So what does this mean to my dyslexic friend?

  • Better understanding: she can pause and rewind videos to cover sections she struggles with
  • Improved revision/Notes: Lecturer going to fast? Just pause and catch up with your own notes
  • More time on advanced topics: pick-up the fundamentals quickly and use the time saved to read-up on advanced topics or the lecture’s content in more detail.
  • Access anywhere & any time: Got 5 minutes between a lecture and the start of a shift? Pull out your tablet and catch-up on a topic

If similar content was rolled out to whole cohorts of students the possibilities for improving learning are endless, for example:

  • Allow students to learn at their own speed
  • Use teacher time more effectively for group/class activities or discussions, workshops or demonstrations.
  • Link lectures into other materials such as web applications or third-party videos/texts simply and easily.

 

Vodafone

With Verizon’s massive Bond Issue to purchase the remaining 45% stake in Verizon Wireless from Vodafone, I couldn’t let the diagram below pass by without comment.

It demonstrates well the stupidity of the current international business, accounting & tax laws which makes setting up an overly complicated, opaque & legally questionable structural sufficiently profitable to go this much effort.

Vodafone's Corporate Structure

Vodafone’s Corporate Structure

Ignoring the frankly ridiculous lack of UK tax liabilities maintaining such a structure must cost the company (and thus its shareholders) millions (Stirling or dollars) in accounting/management/auditing costs.

While I applaud the steps taken to overhaul international Tax by the G20 I seriously doubt it’s going to go far enough considering the number & range of companies wide ranging reform would affect.

International Tax law should be structured as to ensure tax is always paid within the country in which the end of sale consumer is located without the ability to shift profits elseware.

Transfer Pricing which I admit does have it’s place in international business needs to be made more transparent with the payment formula issued in financial returns ensuring these aren’t inflated (ala’ Starbucks).

Most of all the Business, Accounting & Tax laws need to be reformed to make it cheaper to maintain a simple, easy to understand & audit corporate structure than to create a Dutch Sandwich or its equivalent.

SUP

After a weekend spent on the water off Whitsands I’m totally sold on Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP).

Although I’ve kayaked for many years; the difference that the extra height gives you is amazing. It means you can keep impressive speed/momentum up with very little effort due to the extra reach available.

Jpeg

The second great advantage is that when carrying your mask & snorkel you can simply pop your head into the water, scout out the fish shoal or whatnot and slip into the water with barely a ripple.

Time for shiny toy shopping I think.

Starting a’Fresh

As the developers of a mildly successful web product used by thousands of students & staff all over the country we often discuss our application’s ‘legacy’. Functionality that was built in the past (possibly years ago) and used on a daily basis but doesn’t quite match the expectations of today’s users.

It may be a page designed using concepts popular in the past but less so today, it could be how users interact with the site (Shifting from PC’s to Tablets or Smartphones for example), it could even by the underlying technology; built to handle much slower internet connections but not to take advantage of today’s surplus bandwidth.

A key comment from our customers for a long time has been over our product’s Homepage. It was too cluttered, too slow and too complicated to use; a simple task such as sending a message to a student took too many clicks, and once sent took too long to confirm.

We listened to all of this and more to develop and (shortly) launch the new homepage.

Before:

WB ILP Laptop Mock

After:

WB ILP iPad Mock

Starting from a blank slate we re-designed the page from scratch using the most up-to-date ideas & technology out there. Amongst many improvements; we sped up the loading of the site by an incredible 90% making navigating between page feel far more fluid, we implemented contextual menus; displaying only the options which are relevant to what users are doing at that moment and massively improved the Search functionality to use the same super smart auto-complete functionality used (for example) on Google amongst many others.

On top of this we’ve totally re-evaluated how user’s interact with the site to ensure it works on touch devices. The homepage now uses responsive elements to scale to your device; if you are on a desktop or laptop the site will take advantage of the extra screen space to display extra information, whilst the same site on a Tablet will remove excess information to provide a clean, touch friendly interface.

Deploying such a major re-design was always going to be a challenge with our existing clients; most people hate change! However by working closely with each client to ensure the new design & functionality matched their requirements we’re already seeing increasing numbers of inquiries into functionality previously underused due to it’s ease of use or just their locations on-screen.

Disconnected

Having just come back from a two week Kayaking adventure across the French and Italian Alps I’m very much aware of the impact of expensive mobile fees on the daily life away from home.

Now I admit; it was quite pleasant to be disconnected somewhat from technology for a couple of weeks, but there are several services which makes this just a pure pain.

Now assuming the EU enacts the Ban on Roaming fees from July 2014 which is currently in discussion the services I’m most looking forward to being able to access while (EU) globe-trotting are.

  1. Google Maps – Offline services cannot hold a candle up to the sun that is this marvellous free service.
  2. Evernote – Ok yes, if you are a paying premium member you can keep ‘offline’ notebooks but for the rest of us trying to keep paper/information to the minimum not being able to access the saved documents such as insurance forms or e-tickets is frustrating.
  3. Pocket- My favourite ‘Offline’ tool for catching up on web-content; pretty useful to have this up-to-date.
  4. Weather – Whatever App you use; its surprisingly annoying not to be able to quickly check on the weather forecast, although running the gauntlet of asking locals with your rusty language skills is fun.
  5. Google Translate- While the Android App’s offline capabilities are impressive, having the full voice command image recognition functionality available would be useful for those tricky restaurant orders.