Archive for December, 2012

18
Dec
2012

From Exchange to Google Apps for Business

by David Wynne

Since Red Badger started we’ve used a hosted MS Exchange Server from Rackspace and of course Outlook. The service has always been excellent; the uptime, the support and the speed. Never once have we really had cause for complaint, so why move?

Well here at Red Badger we’ve always had a belief in being technology agnostic and always trying to use the best tool for the job, and that belief applies to everything we do, not just the software we create. What hardware/software people choose to use at Red Badger is for them to choose, and our install base has changed quite a bit over the last couple of years. As it stands Windows is now in the minority, with Ubuntu ahead of it and Mac being the most common, as such the need to have a more flexible mail client has become more pressing. Outlook be it on Windows or Mac, is an effective enough tool but on Ubuntu it’s obviously not an option.

MS took an odd decision many years ago, that practically no other software company in the world would be able to take. They decided that they would only really make Outlook Web Access (OWA) work in Internet Explorer. If you’re using any other browser you’re in for a very cut down, plain text, experience. The decision to do this speaks more to IE’s incompatibilities than anything else, and an admission from MS that to get a rich web app to work consistently in all browsers is a costly affair. It was a terrible decision and in a world where web apps are becoming the norm it has left them at a great disadvantage. I’m aware that with Office 365 this situation has been improved somewhat, but oddly in Chrome on Ubuntu you still get the “light” OWA client.

The crappy OWA experience really kick started our interest in moving away from hosted Exchange Server and to trial Google Apps for Business and boy are we glad that we did.  Let’s make a little comparison between the two services (specifically Hosted Exchange with Rackspace vs. Google Apps)

No licencing cost for Outlook
2GB vs 25GB per mailbox
£10 vs £3.33 per user per month
Google Groups for company-wide mailing lists and discussion
Google Chat for company-wide instant messaging vs Lync? (no thanks)
Outlook Web Access vs. Google Mail Web-client
Google Hangouts for group video conferencing vs Skype’s premium Group Video
Google+ for internal social sharing (ie. Yammer)

The list goes on… in fact the list is pretty much every major Google service, but just for you and your co-workers. When you actually put all of Google’s apps together in a company ecosystem it’s really quite surprising how effective they become in helping to bring your companies communications together. And of course, as it’s Google everything works like a charm in whatever browser you happen to be using – with Google the browser is a first class citizen which looks like a much better bet today doesn’t it?

10
Dec
2012

What is user-centred rapid prototyping? Part 1: Discovery phase

by Sari Griffiths

We were talking about how user-centred rapid prototyping works the other day, and thought it will be an interesting thing to share with the wider world. 

So what is it?

Rapid prototyping

First, let me attempt to define rapid prototyping in the context of Red Badger.

It can come in various size and forms, from 2 days to 8 weeks, depending on the propositions we want to test. The final format can be anything from paper prototypes to fully functional products.

Sketch

Basically, it is a short burst of project to launch a concept in its purest form. The aim is to create a minimum viable product (often mentioned as ‘MVP’) – that is the smallest possible construction you can get away with in order to prove this concept.

Remember the early days of Twitter? I don’t think it was a rapid prototype project, but it’s a good example to illustrate what an MVP is.

Twitter started off with just an ability to post a 140 letter message, follow others and not much else. (It’s the days of a lol cat fixing their servers if I remember correctly.) But these simple propositions were what Twitter was all about. It was the minimum viable product. 

Rapid prototype projects aim to uncover the very essence of a concept and to create a small collection of features and user experience that best represent this essence.

Why essence only? Because sometimes you just have to try it to see if something works, especially if it’s something new. And the last thing you want to do is to discover that it just doesn’t work after spending months designing and developing.

The minimum viable product allows you to start learning as early as possible (For example, it might be user reactions or data performance you’re looking for) so you can start improving. You can still build more features on top later, and you’re in a much better position to judge what to add once the MVP started its lifecycle, than building everything upfront not knowing potential glitches.

It also helps you to really focus on a concept. It’s easy to lose sight of what you set out to achieve in projects because there is just soooo much you can do. If you can’t pin down a MVP, is there really a concept worth exploring?

The things to remember: you can rapidly prototype because a MVP is so focused. It’s not the other way round.

Discovery phase

Explore wider context

If it is appropriate for the proposition we’re testing and its timeline allows us, we usually kick-start a rapid prototype project by exploring and pushing our concept a bit further and it’s a vital part of the whole rapid prototyping process.

This might sound strange as what we are trying to do is to narrow down.

The thing is, how can you tell where to focus if you don’t have a bigger picture? How wide and where we explore is mostly depending on the concept – we might look at competitors, technologies, theories and papers.

And one area we always look at is the audience. 

Persona

All user experience we explore will be underpinned by personas.

A persona is a typical profile of a targeted user base. Each project can have any number of personas – some clients have already defined who the personas are, some not. These profiles are an amalgamation of real people who were interviewed or surveyed to represent different types of audience.

Personas tend to have names and look as if they exist. What work do they do? What magazines do they read? Do they watch sport? Do they like shopping? Friends and family commitments? How do they spend their day? These details bring them to life and help us get into their mind-set. 

User journeys

Once we have personas, we can look at their journeys in and out of the potential concept. 

Where is the touch point? Emily might be using this on a train on her mobile, while Luke might be using this on a desktop at work during the lunch break. Is there any features they’d like? How can this concept help them more?

We then focus on developing user experience around these user journeys. Simply because these are the places our audience will want / need to be.

Branding

Understanding of branding is important at this stage too. I’m not talking about logos, typography and colours, but about brand values and personalities. (If you want to know a bit more about branding, here is the one I’ve written earlier about branding)

While we are working on the BBC Now project, we often asked ourselves “Does this feel like the BBC?”. Established brands are like personalities on their own right, the audience will feel odd (or probably something worse) if they do something completely out of character. 

Or it could be about the first impression. One of the other projects we are currently working on aims at kids. Do we want kids to feel comfortable? Or do we want them to feel they are challenged? Is it about learning? Or wonder and discovery?

And focus again

While we look at personas, user journeys and branding, time constraints are the last thing on our mind. But once they are explored, familiar with the personas point of view, it’s time to discuss what the most compelling element of this concept is.

We create a list* of features and stories that each describe snippets of user experience, and we order it based on how essential each item is. And so, features and stories near the top will constitute the bulk of the minimum viable product, ready to be tested and developed.

*This list is called a ‘product backlog’ in Red Badger as we run all projects in agile project management methodologies. 

User testing to validate the concept

Again, it’s depending on the project, but once the concept is boiled down, it’s a perfect time to touch base with users if a timescale allows this to happen. We can show ideas in paper form and ask questions. Or create a quick and dirty prototype for them to play around with. Or it may be a large scale A/B testing (the audience are randomly shown one of the options and you can decide if A or B is better by looking at the statistics of click through etc) with real audience.

With BBC Now, we created a Flash prototype that looks reasonably realistic, so that the user can focus more on detailed interactions than trying to imagine hypothetical situations. Whereas for the project with kids, we showed them user journeys in scamps (hand drawn sketches) to encourage more creative input. 

User testing at this stage help us confirm that we’re focusing on the right area and answer any questions raised during the discovery phase. 

By this time we’ll have developed a set of scamps or wireframes of key user journeys and visual design style to go with our backlog.

And finally we are ready to start developing!

Continue to What is user-centred rapid prototyping? Part 2

7
Dec
2012

BBC Connected Studio Pilot the story so far

by Sari Griffiths

We are now well into the second phase of BBC Connected Studio’s pilot project ‘BBC Now!’, developing away. (If you haven’t heard about Connected Studio, check out this blog post “Connected Studio: the first pilots” by Adrian Woolard.) The first phase has been about exploring what’s possible then distilling, finalising and crystallising our concept until we have something we are happy with.

What is BBC Now?

We have written a bit about the project already in other posts, but here is a quick summary of what BBC Now is all about:

The project was born out of BBC Connected Studio for Homepage, Search & Navigation in spring 2012. Our challenge and what our concept is all about is how to make BBC Homepage more dynamic and lively – giving visitors greater exposure to the content the BBC can offer and making that content more ‘real time’.

Our project champion Eleni has written a blog post about the concept and findings, so I am going to tell you a little bit about our approach in the discovery phase.

Exploring wider context

We kick-started this project by seeing just how far we could push our concept. This might seem an odd thing to do – after all it’s a rapid prototyping project and time is tight so we could only do a fraction of what we discussed. But for us exploring the possibilities is a vital part of the whole process.

Think of it this way – rapid prototyping is not just about being quick. It’s about being really focused on testing a specific proposition. We believe the only way to pin down the most important aspects of a concept is to explore the wider – if not the whole – picture. What would we wish for if we could wave a magic wand?

(Update: if you’re wondering what is rapid prototyping, I’ve just published another post: What is user-centred rapid prototyping? Part 1: Discovery phase.)

User testing

We were given access to a fantastic user testing facility at BBC in Salford to test out our early thinking. With archetypal rapid prototyping this is something we wouldn’t get an opportunity to do until the end of the project.

Having gone wide initially, we were able to hone in on a series of reasonably focused features that we wanted to test with users. We decided the best way to maximise the feedback we got was to create an animated Flash prototype with some functionalities, rather than creating a paper prototype.

As we were testing BBC homepage, we knew one of the most important aspects of user testing was to keep the content as real as possible, so that the lack of realism didn’t become a blocker and we could be sure we were getting a more natural response to the concept.

(If you are a UX or a designer, I’m sure you know all too well how easily people can become fixated by random typos, the mismatch of image and text or latin as a placeholder. Something written down is always easier to talk about than generic concepts of ‘layout’ and ‘experience’…)

We tried to capture a snapshot of what’s going on the day before the testing, frantically cutting some images and adding text in xml.

The testing was very beneficial. We had many interesting insights. Some positive, some negative. All contributed to make our list of features more focused and informed for the next phase.

Learn fast and learn cheaply

With an organisation like the BBC, there are understandably very strict sets of rules and guidelines that have to be adhered to. It affects all areas of project, from UX to development. But being a pilot, we are given a lot more freedom, which is great.

We often say that rapid prototyping is about ‘fail fast and fail cheaply’, but the important message behind this statement is to understand that, ‘fail’ leads to ‘learn’. We all learn from mistakes, and it’s the quickest form of learning.

So try something new and see what happens!

5
Dec
2012

Life in Ubuntu

by David Wynne

As a man who has spent his entire life using and making a living from working with Microsoft Windows, be it desktop or server, dipping my toe in the water of another OS has always been something I’ve frankly tried to avoid. However there comes a time in a developers life when you have to realise that the grass may well be greener on the other side and if you want to play with some of the more interesting emerging technologies, then unfortunately Windows is not where it’s at right now.

Having developed under Windows for years and years, it has nearly always been the case that the interesting stuff comes to Windows later or not all. Ports are often many releases behind their original counterparts. Application servers/platforms “can be made to work on Windows” usually with a few caveats, reduced functionality and/or using unsupported versions. It can often feel like you’re putting in a ton of upfront effort to simply get on some degree of parity before you can actually start being productive. You’ve got to ask yourself, why am I putting myself through all this pain?

With the latest few projects we’ve been working on, our desired tech stacks have included Node.js, Varnish, nginx, neo4j, redis, mongoDB, Vagrant and Chef. Nearly all of these technologies play natively in the *nix world and you can have the latest and greatest up and running in minutes.

Ubuntu opens up that world without the need to purchase new hardware.

The Installation Experience

As my laptop is about 1.5 years old now, my install of Windows had hit that point where the only way to get it running properly again was to rebuild – I started out with a clean install of Windows 7 followed by a dual boot installation of Ubuntu. Why not Windows 8? Well… why put yourself through the pain of the clunky “modern UI” on a laptop?

Historically Windows has usually been pretty good at finding most of the device drivers out of the box – although on my ThinkPad T420 it failed miserably for reasons unknown and I was left manually downloading network device drivers from the Lenovo support site, not to mention doing the Windows update dance.

Ubuntu on the other hand got everything – even the hardware keys and 3G modem (both missed by Windows). The in-built mic actually performs better under Ubuntu than it does under Windows, pointing at dodgy Window device drivers as opposed to poor hardware. Genuinely impressive stuff.

The Desktop Experience

Whilst Ubuntu isn’t as polished as Windows or OSX it’s not bad, not bad at all. I’ve predominately been using the Gnome window manager which has multiple desktops and a number of very well thought out shortcut keys, most of which stem from common patterns you’re already used to, that really increase productivity. Gnome’s sales pitch is that it is “designed to stay out of your way, minimize distractions, and help you get things done” and it certainly does – apart from a thin status bar running along the top of your screen, the rest of the real estate is for the stuff you’re doing. If one were being unkind about Windows 8 – you could describe it as simply a new window manager for Windows rather than any sort of paradigm shift in the underlying OS.

The biggest plus point has to be one of the best package managers and terminals in the business in which you find yourself spending an increasing amount of time. Once you’ve picked up a few basics and get used the common patterns, the speed at which you can pick-up and configure something new increases at an alarming rate – it’s a very rewarding experience. Oh and of course you get SSH for free, which makes managing your cloud servers a snap – no more remote desktop or PuTTy.

Where Ubuntu falls down is the lack of mature/polished desktop apps and in terms of pure “business” productivity, life is quite a bit harder.

We recently decided to migrate away from MS Exchange to Google Apps for Business (more on that another time) but before we did, the lack of a decent desktop mail client that would play with Exchange Server was a major pain and given that Outlook Web Access is a travesty, that represented a major drop in productivity. Compared to Outlook the alternatives available on Ubuntu (Thunderbird, Evolution) are pretty lacking.

Whilst there some genuinely great open source efforts such as LibreOffice, GIMP and InkScape; there just isn’t the same mass market competition that really pushes the quality bar that you’re going to find in the Windows/Mac world and you will find yourself making compromises.

Thankfully the ongoing maturity of web apps often provides a truly cross platform solution to the lack of some desktop apps. Some of the Chrome Web Store apps are excellent. TweetDeck for Chrome has proven itself to be a solid replacement for MetroTwit. The lack of a Amazon Kindle app matters not a jot, with the Kindle Cloud Reader which is excellent and allows for offline reading in Chrome. Google Mail and Calendar both support offline usage in Chrome too, including search.

System suspend/resume is a lot quicker and more reliable than Windows and given that Ubuntu isn’t infected with the Windows slow-down effect, the need to physically power-down becomes quite a rare thing.

It’s not perfect and does have glitches and occasionally crashes and getting some bits of desktop software or pluggable hardware to work/install can require a little black magic that is generally going to rule the non-techy out from using Ubuntu seriously on a day-to-day basis. When you’re not connected to power, the battery life isn’t as great under Windows, an area that hardware manufacturers and MS probably spent a lot of time tweaking and balancing to improve.

I’ve only really found myself needing to reboot into Windows when Word or Excel come calling. You can get a reasonable distance using LibreOffice to review documents, but when it comes to editing in those formats then you really need the real thing.

From a development point of view however, life is pretty sweet and there is much to enjoy. With Chrome, the Terminal and Sublime Text 2 in your pocket there’s not a lot that can’t be accomplished in a quick and light manner. I easily spend 90% of my time in those 3 apps, thanks in no small part to the gradual maturity of web based apps reducing the need for the desktop software.

@dwynne

3
Dec
2012

Rapid Prototyping Incubator – Training Shaken Up

by Jon Sharratt

Thoughts

So as the year is closing out and we head towards 2013 I started to think about what I might be able to do in regards to the £2,000 training budget that we get here at Red Badger.  

At Red Badger we are a growing company and to start schemes such as Google’s one day a week (20% time) to innovate is not particularly viable (not yet anyway …).  The other point about having one day a week to work on your own products is that you may not have an idea or products that you feel you can really work on.  I feel it turns the time into being a little be wasteful and really only focuses on things you can do in your discipline.

So rather than forcing the issue and trying to find a training course that ‘could’ be a good fit and not getting much value.  I have formulated an idea around the ethos of how we have run some of our previous rapid prototyping projects such as BBC Now!.  

Additional to this I recently discovered show on Bloomberg called TechStars where start ups spend three months in an incubator scheme to raise investment and get their company off the ground (Episode 1).

The new Red Badger scheme is formed from mixing rapid prototyping with an incubator type event…..

Idea

I put forward the idea to the guys here at Red Badger to allow any employees to embrace and innovate internally by allowing investment in our own ideas when we have them.  The application process being that we can book any internal resources to develop our ideas using the training budget as a catalyst investment over the two days (in a rapid prototype format) and end up with a (M)inimum (V)iable (P)roduct.

The event itself is to be a very informal affair and a great laugh with a specific focus on delivering the MVP.  Beer, food, crank on the tunes and start developing!

This is great for many reasons as it allows any person of any discipline within Red Badger to get their ideas off the ground and test the market.  Red Badger can then see if these ideas are worth investing more time after the MVP is in the wild and being tested by users, they also then have ownership for any successful ideas that get off the ground and prove value.  

We are a consultancy here at Red Badger and my opinion is that this scheme lends itself very much to bringing our team together, company culture and aspirations as a business.

It is important to note that the ideas can be absolutely anything, not limited to that of internal or improving Red Badger processes.

Future

I want this to be a very transparent process to show successes and more importantly failures of running this type of event.  This scheme in its own right is an ever evolving process and has never been done before so there will be plenty to learn.

The first project that has got approval is scheduled to go ahead at the beginning of the New Year.  I will post up the planned agenda for the event in the coming weeks.  I would be interested in any thoughts and ideas people might have with a scheme such as this (good or bad).