Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

15
Aug
2014

Founders Week: The Importance of Taking Time Out

by Cain Ullah

As I mentioned briefly in my blog post discussing the launch of the Badger Academy, I went to a retreat back in January to take some thinking time away from work. I was cut off from the outside world. There was no internet. Mobile phones were not allowed. Writing and talking was even banned. It was pretty extreme. But it proved to be an enlightening experience not least for coming up with a plethora of new ideas, many of which were strategic ideas on how Red Badger could be improved.

Out of the back of the retreat, I had lots of ideas, a Red Badger Charity Division being one of them. As discussed in greater detail in the Badger Academy blog post, the Charity Division was all about improving our ability to develop from within, developing young talent to become senior leaders in their field. After 6 months of developing the idea in my spare time and with my colleagues, the charity division has now been superseded by Badger Academy, but the objectives have passed verbatim from one to the other. The mechanism through which we achieve the objective has changed.

This isn’t the first time that cutting myself off from the outside world has resulted in new ideas. At Burning Man, an art festival in the middle of the Nevada Desert which is totally cut off from any wifi or phone signal, I thought about bringing in Non-Exec Directors to help advise Red Badger. The move to bring in Mike Altendorf as a Non-Exec is one of the best things we have ever done at Red Badger. He has helped us to become a much more mature business, faster, stopped us from making mistakes (that he had made in the past) and helped us to re-shape how we do sales.

Building product as part of a pitch (via a Hackathon) was also thought up at the same retreat as the Charity Division this January. This new lean approach to sales “The Proof is in the Pudding” helped us to win the biggest project in our history in May.

I think you get the point. Cutting off wifi and phone signal is important in fostering creativity. It’s become such a distraction in everyone’s lives. If you sit on a bus on the way to work and look around you, everyone’s head is buried in a digital screen. On the bus, people contemplate less, do less book reading and less talking to each other in general. However, more important than just cutting yourself off from wifi or the telephone, taking time out is about giving your mind the space to think creatively and you can’t do this with the distraction of everyday life; internet or no internet.

I’m not saying we wouldn’t have gotten to these decisions or ideas  anyway. I expect Mike Altendorf would have joined our ranks eventually anyway. Or we might have started a Badger Academy eventually. I just don’t know. What I am sure of, is that it would have taken much longer had I not taken time out to just think.

Red Badger Founders Week

Reflecting on the value of the time I have had to myself, I have been doing some reading about it. It seems that taking time out is not uncommon. I watched a great 90’s documentary called “Triumph of the Nerds” in which Bill Gates talks about setting aside a week every year to read all of the books that he had in his “to read” list.

So I suggested to Dave and Stu that the three of us take a Founders Week, to do some more strategic thinking away from the day-to-day of running the business. After I suggested the  idea, it became apparent that Dave had also already been considering taking a week, but to himself, not the three of us together. When suggesting we do it together, both Stu and Dave were sold immediately.

Dave sent me this link: Take a Bill Gates-Style “Think Week” to Recharge Your Thinking on Lifehacker. The article by Michael Karnjanaprakorn talks about Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates all taking regular think weeks in the past. It links to some great articles “Creative Thinking Matters” which focuses specifically on Bill Gates’ “think weeks”, what he used to do during the week and how much innovation evolved out of Microsoft as a result.

There is also a health aspect to taking time out. Michael Karnjanaprakorn is starting “Feast Retreats”. He says, Feast Retreats are for 20 people (max) where he will ban cell phone/WiFi usage throughout the weekend. “My goal is to share what I learned during my time off with The Feast community. There will be lots of yoga, healthy eating, and personal development to show the value and power of taking time off.”

All of the articles I have read about the power of time off can’t speak highly enough about the value it brings in promoting creative thinking, innovation and an increase in company productivity.

So, Stu, Dave and I are taking our first “Founders Week” at the end of November. We are going to book a cottage somewhere just outside of London, switch our phones off and take some time to ourselves. We’re not sure exactly what we’re going to do yet, but we all have books we want to read that we just haven’t had chance to yet, we’ll eat healthily and probably do some workshops. Apart from that, it’s just an opportunity to take some time to think, reflect and generally relax our minds.

The benefit I am sure will result in a rapid generation of new ideas that will impact Red Badger for years to come.

18
Feb
2014

JLT World Risk Review – Rapid Innovation

by Cain Ullah

Afghanistan Country Dashboard

We have recently delivered a project for Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT) to re-design and build their World Risk Review website. We’re currently in the final hardening sprint, doing some bug fixing and UAT. We’ll be able to talk more about the benefits in a case study, once the site has been live for a while and we can look at the analytics. In the mean-time I want to discuss some of the great bits of innovation (both tech and process) we have produced in delivering this project, which was just 8 weeks in total with only 6 weeks of development. 

What is World Risk Review?

World Risk Review is a country risk ratings modelling tool that JLT founded in 2006, providing corporations, banks and other organisations involved with international trade and investments with an assessment of short to medium term country risk. This allows users to build well informed strategies to manage political, security and economic risks. 

JLT is the only Insurance Broker to have invested in this capability in-house so they required a really modern website that would allow users of World Risk Review to have an intuitive and highly informative experience when consuming JLT’s expert advice.

What did we do?

World Risk Review is made up of three key areas – peril ratings data for each country, key insights (articles, insights, reports and blogs) and news. Red Badger’s role was to make these three areas easily accessible, engaging and informative. With more and more devices being used in the financial services sector, it would also need to work on tablet and mobile. So as well as being visually rich, the site would also need to be lightweight with regard to page size so that it remains speedy on mobile devices.

Heatmap

We designed the site using a visually rich set of dashboards to allow users to consume the data in a really intuitive way, compare different types of data and perform country comparisons. This is underpinned with easy navigation throughout the site via the dashboards and a flexible and fast search function.

How did we do it?

The site is effectively made up of two applications. The main website and a custom built admin console which consists of an analytics section as well as a custom built content management system (CMS) that provides the ability to do inline editing of content, preview of changes and deployment straight into the live environment.

I am not a techie, so I’ll ask the developers of the site to produce some more technical blogs with more detail (They promise me these are to follow!). However, below is a brief outline of how we delivered the project.

The tech

For the visual dashboards we used D3.js. D3.js is a JavaScript library designed to bring data to life using HTML, SVG and CSS. It is based on web standards. It is efficient, flexible, lightweight (which means it is fast) and the animations and interactions look and feel beautiful. The front-end is then underpinned by a Node.js server application stack (Any JavaScript run outside of the browser is run on Node.js including the admin console, APIs and Livescript – see below) and a powerful search function built using Elasticsearch. We have built an incredibly fast search based on tags, allowing flexible filtering of data with some advanced features such as “did you mean” suggestions.

My co-founder Stuart is a huge fan of Component (read his blog) so the website is built using components in almost every way you could use them, from just packaging bits of JavaScript, through custom UI elements (such as the autocomplete tag field which we vastly improved – public repo can be found here. We also improved the datepicker component – public repo here) to whole pages being rendered by a hierarchy of components. All client side JavaScript we use in the website is packaged as components, including the visualisation code. The benefit of building a site in this way, is that it is ruthlessly efficient and every bit of code that is contained in the application has a use. You build lots of little tiny modules that are great at doing one thing and then you hook them all together.

We also switched from CoffeeScript to Livescript to compile our JavaScript by writing in a functional way. The developers on the project find it really nice to use. It has tons of little tools for the typical boring tasks you do all the time and also has a lot of functional programming features, including the amazing prelude-ls, which make it ideal for data processing, such as the static site generator (see below). 

Last year we re-built red-badger.com as a static site. We loved the results so decided to follow a similar technical architecture for World Risk Review. The static site generation architecture deploys the site at the time that content is updated so that when users access the site, they are accessing a very simple static page rather than requesting content from a database for each action. The result is a website that is more secure and can serve pages much faster than traditional Content Management Systems (such as Drupal). The site is deployed to an Amazon S3 bucket and distributed via Cloudfront to 51 edge locations around the globe. Originally we were using Docpad as our static site generator (as we had for red-badger.com) but we found it started to really slow us down so we built our own static site generator which brought down the time it takes to generate the HTML from the source markdown documents and Jade layouts from about 90 to about 6 seconds . This allowed us to work much faster and also enabled us to build a CMS where you could preview your changes almost in real-time. Having tested the application around the globe, it is incredibly fast wherever you are, with as little as 10 milliseconds and no more than 300 milliseconds to the first byte.

We have also set-up continuous delivery using Travis CI and Ansible. This is incredibly important for how we develop software but it also underpins how we have architected the CMS. Using continuous delivery allowed us to commit changes into a staging environment many times a day and made them available to test immediately. In the production environment, once the project is live, the content editor will be able to deploy their changes in the CMS straight into the live environment. The custom CMS is built on Git. An administrator can view the site as if they are a user, but can edit any element on the page, save it and then review comprehensive line-by-line changes to each document (or add new documents such as news items). Once they are happy with the changes, a publish button will commit to Git and will deploy into live. It allows multiple users to edit the site at the same time without stepping on each other’s toes and merges their changes in a smart way, so content management is not a race of who saves first anymore. In order to build in-line editing we were looking at a number of options such as CreateJS. However, we again decided to build our own editing tool using Javascript components for YAML and Front-matter.

The final piece of the puzzle and by no means the least important, was to build in analytics. Using the power of Elasticsearch, we built a tag based analytics tool that allows JLT to monitor user behaviour on the site. They can add custom tags to each user (such as “watch list”), filter, sort and search. This gives JLT a quantitative view of customers behaviour to allow them to adapt their future strategy around what their customers want.

The process

Given that we had only 8 weeks to deliver the project of which 6 weeks were for development, we decided to use Kanban as the methodology of choice, reducing as much friction in process as possible and allowing the developers to do exactly that – develop. The backlog was tightly managed by Sinem (the project manager) and the product owner from JLT who was deployed full-time to sit with us in our office every day. I cannot stress how important it was having the product owner integrated into the team full-time. We managed user stories on a Kanban Board and although physical boards are great, the developers managed all tasks in Github. This reduced duplication of effort, increasing productivity. Stand-ups each morning were held around the Kanban board, talking about what we had been doing at story level and we were focussed on getting stories through to delivery as soon as possible so used WIP limits to streamline the process.

To ensure quality control, we used Github flow to manage the process of building new features, ensuring that no piece of code is deployed without first going through code review by a 2nd pair of eyes. There are some simple rules to Github Flow: 1) Anything in the master branch is deployable. 2) To create something new, you create a new branch off of master. 3) You continue to commit to that branch locally until your feature is complete. 4) When you think your feature is complete, you raise a pull request. 5) Another developer then reviews your code and upon sign-off it can be merged to master. 6) Continuous Deployment then deploys your changes immediately.

When delivering a project at this speed, it is paramount that your features are tested properly. To do this, we integrate a tester into the team and get them to test as soon as a feature is deployed. In the past we have used separate tools such as Youtrack as our bug management system. However, in this project, we switched to Github issues. Having one central place for the developers to see all features and bugs together in Github has most certainly helped productivity of the team.

Summary

In just 6 weeks of development we achieved an incredible amount. We had an integrated team of Project Management, UX, Design, Dev and Test, all dependent on constant communication to get the job done. We built an exceptionally well designed, useable site on a really innovative tech stack. The use of Kanban, Github Flow and Github Issues proved to be an incredibly productive way to deliver the project. It was a very intense environment of rapid delivery but was lots of fun too. JLT were a great client not just in allowing us to be innovative with our tech and process, but also in the efforts they put in to make this collaborative. We couldn’t have delivered so quickly without their constant involvement.

As always, there is room for improvement in our process and the tech team are looking forward to new technology emerging such as those contained in the Web Components spec. Our project retrospective has highlighted some areas for improvement and we will continue to iterate our process, always pushing to try and provide our clients with better value. We have loads of great ideas about how the World Risk Review site can be improved in future phases but after 8 weeks, it is currently in a great place to deliver a far improved experience for both JLT’s customers and their admin staff.

 

14
Oct
2013

Robots, pedal bins and dTrace: The 2013 Great British Node Conference

by Stephen Fulljames

display_GBNC

If there’s a common theme from the popular London Node User Group evening meet-ups, from which the Great British Node Conference has evolved as a full day event, it’s that the Node.js ecosystem appears to be approximately 50% useful production tooling and 50% wonderfully insane hacks – with both sides of the personality aided by Node’s asynchronous nature and ability to process data I/O very quickly.

This ratio felt like it was also borne out during the conference, the first big event to be held at the brand new Shoreditch Works village Hall in Hoxton Square. The event space itself was great; fashionably minimal with rock-solid wifi and on-site coffee shop. The only slight niggle being that the low ceiling height meant the presentation screens became partially obscured by those seated in front, but with two projectors on the go you could usually get a clear view of one.

So, on to the talks. As mentioned there was a definite split between “useful” and “wtf?” and also between micro and macro ideas. Paul Serby of Clock kicked off with a review of his company’s experience of Node in production use for clients over the last 3 years, which was high level but a great introduction to the philosophy behind adopting Node and some of the successes and pain points along the way. It was interesting, and pleasing, to see that their journey has been similar to our own switch towards Node at Red Badger with many similar learnings and changes to our respective programming styles.

Performance was a big theme of the day, both in Paul’s overview talk and in examples much closer to the metal, such as Anton Whalley’s forensic examination of a memory leak bug in the node-levelup module (a wrapper for LevelDB). Usually hand-in-hand with mention of performance was the use of dTrace – not a Node tool in itself but a very useful analysis tool for discovering how applications are running and identifying the source of problems. The overall picture from this being that while Node can offer great performance advantages, it can also be prone to memory leaking and needs careful monitoring in production.

Other talks at the practical end of the spectrum included Hannah Wolfe on Ghost, a new blogging platform built on Node which is looking like an interesting alternative to WordPress and after a very successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funding should be available generally very soon. Tim Ruffles also took us through the various options (and pitfalls) to avoid the callback hell which asynchronous programming can often fall in to. There are a few useful flow control modules available for Node already, but as the Javascript language develops native features to help with async flows – known as generators but acting in a similar way to C#’s yield – will start to become available both in Node and in browsers as they adopt ES6.

Over on the hack side, we were treated to the now obligatory sight of a Node-driven quad-copter drone crashing into the audience and then a brilliant demonstration by Darach Ennis of his Beams module, which attempts to give compute events the same kind of streaming behaviour that I/O enjoys in Node. The key difference being that compute streams are necessarily infinite, and the Beams module allows you to filter, merge and compose these compute streams into useful data. The demo was topped off by an interactive light-tennis game adjudicated by a hacked Robosapiens robot which not only reacted to the gameplay but also ran the software which drove the game.

Probably the highlight for me, although its relation to practical application at work was close to zero, was Gordon Williams talking about Espruino, a JS interpreter for micro-controllers. Running at a lower level than the well-known Raspberry Pi or even Arduino boards, micro-controllers are the tiny computers that make all the stuff around us work and typically have RAM measured in the kilobytes. For anyone who ever tried to write games on a ZX Spectrum this may bring back memories! Gordon showed real-time development via a terminal application, also hooked up to a webcam so we could watch him create a pedal bin which opened based on a proximity sensor. Maybe not useful in my work at Red Badger, but I could instantly see loads of applications in my personal interests and thanks to the immediate familiarity of being able to use Javascript in a new context I’m definitely going to look in to Espruino some more.

Overall this felt like a conference where delegates were looked after probably better than any I’ve been to for a long time, with plenty of tea and biscuits, great coffee and chilled water on hand and a catered lunch and evening meal nearby. Whether this was down to the smaller scale of the event (around 150 attended) or the care and attention to detail taken by the organisers I’m not sure, but either way I came out of it feeling enthusiastic for Node (both practically and hackerly) and eager to go back next time.

25
May
2012

BBC Connected Studio – Behind the scenes of Build Studio

by Sari Griffiths

Following the BBC Connected Studio’s first Creative Studio for Homepage, Navigation and Search – attended by Cain and Alex, we were one of nine ideas invited back to work on two days of rapid prototyping to prove our concept at the Build Studio. On Monday 21st and Tuesday 22nd , four of us – Stu, Haro, Can and I – went up to sunny Salford for a couple of days of intense developing.

The background of BBC Connected Studio is covered by Cain in his blog about the Creative Studio, so I will go straight into describing the two days.

Day one

After a smooth registration and a much needed breakfast, we gathered in the bright and airy 6th floor room at Dock House, Media City, Salford. This was going to be our home for the next couple of days.

Adrian Woolard (Project Lead R&D North Lab) got the day started again. Briefing was short and to the point, already feeling the heat of the day. Everyone in the room was itching to get started. All nine teams grabbed a table each and started straight away. Faulty power sockets were sorted out within a minute, and a mountain of sweets and snacks arrived shortly after – though unfortunately without Wagon Wheels (Much to Adrian’s disappointment). ;-)

While we were setting up and getting ready, Adrian and Eleni (Senior Product Manager of BBC Homepage) kindly gave us some brief feedback from the last session as none of us individuals attended the Creative Studio. Many BBC gurus stopped by to chat to us, and especially Ross – the personalisation guru – gave us lots of interesting insights. It was brilliant to talk through your ideas and try to explain concisely, the best way to visualise your idea with clarity.

We spent the rest of the morning reviewing what was available code/data wise, and planning what we were going to do. In terms of concept, we decided to be single minded and focus on one aspect of Cain and Alex’s original proposal, that evolved into “Discovering new content in real time”. In terms of code/data, we decided to start certain areas from scratch (rather than using the homepage code that the BBC provided) using Node.js alongside using the data provided as is. It was a difficult call, but given the time frame, we felt that would be the quickest route to what we wanted to achieve.

After a good lunch, we were running at top speed. Actually the whole room seemed to be running at top speed. There were lots of conversations and frantic tapping of keyboards. You could almost hear the hums from everyone’s brain working. We were all blinkered, totally focused on what we were doing. Everything must be done by 4pm the next day!

By the time we left the building, you could probably see some steam coming out from our (and everyone’s) ears… We had some much needed drink and food, then straight to bed!

Day two

bbcphotoAnother beautiful sunny day.

All teams were given a slot to talk to the audience in the morning to see what they thought of our concept. As Stu, Haro and Can were developing away, I picked up the task to take the audience through some flat visuals.

The audience responded to the idea very positively, and it gave us great insights. Some confirming our convictions, some giving us new ideas.
“It would definitely change the way I use the homepage”
“If it’s like this, I don’t mind logging in”

Encouraged, we worked through the afternoon, and before you knew it, it was 4pm. We were all still buzzing as we sat down for the presentation session.

Nine teams presented in a friendly atmosphere, all listening intently, exhausted but proud of what they achieved in such a short space of time. We were also keen to finally find out what all the other teams had been doing around us.

We presented some visuals to explain our concept along with the prototype. Stu wanted more from the prototype – as he always does having such a high standard! – but I thought what we achieved was just right as a proof of concept.

I personally really enjoyed presenting which I don’t usually. Talking to so many people before hand helped me hone what to say and the very positive atmosphere at the presentation undoubtedly helped too.

That was it. It was brief beer time then home time.

So what did we think?

These were a frantic and fantastic two days and it was amazing to see that everyone achieved so much. After all it was a sort of a competition, but it was such a positive and buzzing atmosphere, it didn’t feel like it.

It was a shame we had to run to catch our (very delayed) train at the end. It would’ve been lovely to catch up with everyone over some drink. But hey, I’m sure our path will cross again.

Big thumbs up and thanks to the BBC Connected Studios team. It was run very smoothly and everything seemed to go to schedule. We enjoyed every minute of it.

If you are thinking of attending the future events, go for it. It’s exhausting but so much fun!

http://www.bbcconnectedstudio.co.uk/

9
May
2012

BBC Connected Studio – a fun day of innovation

by Cain Ullah

WP_000670On Friday last week (that is the 4th of May 2012 just in case you are reading this in 2013) we spent an excellent day up in the BBC’s plush new MediaCity, Salford offices with a bunch of BBC folk, other start-ups and generally bright, vibrant people. The cause was the first instalment of the BBC’s Connected Studio. First, a little about what the Connected Studio is and then I’ll tell you some more about the day.

BBC R&D are looking at innovation all the time with the real possibility that some of the very cool new tech they are currently working on not surfacing for another 10 to 20 years.The Connected Studio is an initiative to look at how the BBC can innovate just a little beyond the existing roadmap for digital. The intention is to do this in a collaborative manner with BBC staff working with invited external digital agencies, technology start-ups, designers and developers to participate in generating new ideas, concepts, features and functions . Find out more here.

The main focus areas each having their own creative studio days are 1) Homepage, Search and Navigation 2) Weather and Travel 3) BBC Children’s and 4) The Olympics. There is a reasonably detailed engagement charter detailing the steps to achieve the goal of generating ideas and moving them rapidly through concept to proof-of-concept to pilot. Each focus area will start with a Creative Studio day. This is a one day event (the first being 4th May. More on that later…) to facilitate ideas and concepts. Out of the ideas pitched at the end of the day, a number of the companies or individuals will be invited back to the Build Studio. The build studio is a 2 day innovation workshop to develop ideas and proof-of concepts much like a Launch 48 (although you already have the concept by this point). The objective is to have a working PoC at the end of the 2 days. Of these PoCs, up to five will be invited to work on a 6-8 week Pilot Build for which there will be up to a £50K budget. The BBC then has an exclusive option for a 6-12 month period to take forward any successful pilot it chooses for full product development.

There is a total fund of £1m to develop concepts throughout the year, with an additional £1m of BBC staff time.

That was a quick overview of the overall concept of The Connected Studio I’ll take you through the experience of participating in the first Creative Studio.

The Creative Studio

We were limited to 2 attendees, as I believe was every other company. So I attended along with one of the UX Consultant’s in our network Alex Ng. The Creative Studio on 4th May was all about Homepage, Search and Navigation. Prior to the day we had been provided with a creative brief so knew that the focus was to explore the potential uses of customisation and personalisation.

You have the option of booking in advance, a 15 minute closed pitch with the BBC and a third party. This is for those that already have a developed idea and want to protect their IP. Everyone else presents in an open session, the time you have to present largely depending on the number of people presenting.

Arriving at MediaCity between 9-10 for registration (I left my house at just after 5am) you get a good breakfast before getting started at 10.

The new BBC Office has lots of space that has been built to foster collaboration and creativity. WP_000669We were situated in an events space that had been segregated into a number of areas for the main presentations, break out areas for collaboration and another presentation area for some presentations by some key BBC experts that were open to all if they chose to attend.

Adrian Woolard (Project Lead R&D North Lab) got the day started, introducing us (probably about 60-70 people half of which were the BBC) to what the Connected Studio is, the vision unveiled by Raph Rivera and what was expected of us. James Thornett and Clare Hudson then introduced us to the current homepage and it’s journey to now, their strategic objectives and the challenges they face. At 10:40 we were ready to go and had a 4pm deadline to be ready for the presentations.

We had developed a few ideas into one concept on the train up to Manchester so requested a closed pitch on the day but they were full. So, it turned out soon after that we had a 2 minute slot to present in the open session in front of the audience and the camera. Not nerve racking at all! As we already had an idea we went off into our own little space to develop it further, prepare wireframes and a presentation to fit into the 2 minute time slot. Other people gathered around the “ideas wall” to collaborate with others who up to now, had only half an idea and wanted to create a team to work up some ideas on the day. Others went to speakers corner where various BBC experts were waiting to answer any questions.

Supporting the open spaces were a number of 15 minute “expert” presentations in the morning. The agenda was as follows:

  • 11:00 – 11:15 – Audiences: Simon Williams (Audience Planning Manager)
  • 11:15 – 11:30 – Market Analysis: Tim Fiennes (Senior Market Analyst)
  • 11:30 – 11:45 – Homepage Tech: Tom Broughton (Senior Technical Architect for Homepage)
  • 11:45 – 12:00 – UX&D: Steve Gibbons (Head of User Experience and Design)
  • 12:00 – 12:15 – Personalisation: Phil Poole (Senior Project Manager: Personalisation & Social Platform)

I didn’t attend all of the morning sessions as I was deep into developing our idea but both the Homepage Tech session and the Personalisation session were very useful. Both gave an insight into the current state of their topics plus a view of the roadmap ahead. Especially interesting was Tom Broughton discussing their ambitions to implement a Triplestore to allow semantic search features – something that was prevalent in the idea we were presenting.

A very nice free lunch was available from Midday and then the afternoon session was focussed around developing the presentations whilst those that had closed pitch sessions were presenting in a private meeting room. Linda Cockburn, a creativity consultant that led the BBC’s Creative Network for 5 years, did a presentation on how to present and then there was an opportunity to present your pitch back to her and real members of the Homepage audience to get personalised feedback prior to the 4pm deadline.

At 4pm we were all ushered to the presentation area where a number of plasmas, a microphone and a cameraman awaited. There were twenty-three 2 minute presentations. The whole day (as expected from the BBC) was run to strict timelines, the excellent event production team running a tight ship for everyone involved including the 15 minute morning expert sessions. So, the pressure was on to fit our presentations into the 2 minutes, some of which were cut off because they ran out of time. All-in-all there was a high quality calibre of presentations with some excellent and varied ideas produced. Some were digital but to my surprise most were hand drawn presentations on flip-board paper and there was one presentation told in the form of a story.

At the end of the presentations at 6pm, beer and wine were provided (until 11 if you wanted to stick around for that long) for all of the attendees to mingle. Some very interesting people and all in all an excellent day of fun and innovation. The next step is to wait to see if we get through to the build studio (we should hear by the end of this week). The concepts presented will be judged on, Distinctiveness, Relevance to brief, Innovation, Value, BBC public purposes and Connected Strategy (One Service, Ten Products, Four Screens – http://tinyurl.com/connected-storytelling)

Our Concept

Without doing too much of a reveal, our concept was based around turning the home page into a living thing that is more dynamic and more real-time rather than a navigation step that users spend very little time on. Less than 10% of people used the personalisation features in the previous version of the homepage and lots of people will continue to ignore it. With this is mind we introduced various levels of personalisation and testing the idea of machine learning to automate personalisation as much as possible. Once a semantic Triplestore is introduced, this could be taken a lot further.

Our key points were the following:

  • Make the homepage more useful and more relevant
  • Make the homepage more real-time
  • Surface content that uses automated personalisation as much as possible
  • Cater for varying levels of personalisation from none at all to more interactive users
  • Use the semantic web to improve the “discover” features of the site to be specific to you

Here’s one our mock-ups that we presented to give you a taste of what we were thinking:

image

Summary

I doubt we will pitch for Weather and Travel or BB Children’s creative studios due to this being less relevant to the work we do but you never know. If they interest you though, I would highly recommend getting involved in The Connected Studio whether you are a digital agency, tech firm or and individual designer or developer. It really is an excellent day.

Here’s a few links of interest:

2
Jan
2012

HTML5 prototyping with Node and Knockout

by Stephen Fulljames

Over the past couple of months, a small team at Red Badger has been working on a number of HTML5 prototypes for an interesting client. Speed of development and easy iteration have been essential so we’ve taken the opportunity to try out a new technology stack which has given what we were looking for and is exciting the whole business.

Maybe a demanding prototype schedule isn’t the ideal place to chuck away everything you’re used to and start afresh, but actually a lot of the front-end development has built on tools and themes we’ve worked with throughout 2011 and we’ve found that the speed and ease of using Node has more than compensated for the learning curve. So, what have we been using?

Server

Node – Underpinning everything we’ve been doing in our prototyping project; Node is fast, event-driven and built on Javascript. Its been fascinating for myself, as a primarily front end developer, and Stuart with an ASP.net background to see how our respective specialisms are converging on a single set of tooling. The module loading system, NPM, which is similar to Ruby’s Gem ecosystem, also makes it incredibly easy to pick up and play with the many extensions that are out there – and to create your own too.

Express – A development framework for Node, giving RESTful routing and content negotiation. After working with Open Rasta in .net MVC on a previous project, the ease of setting up applications using Express has been a delight.

Jade – With Express providing the application routing and view rendering, we next add Jade for templating. A HAML-style syntax, offering us simplicity and brevity but compiling to really well-formed HTML and easy to use with HTML5 data-* attributes for Knockout (which we’ll come to later). In fact having used Jade for a while now I’m not sure I want to go back to writing “proper” HTML.

Step / Async – Node’s asychronicity takes some getting used to after having worked with linear control flows for such a long time. Imagine AJAX callbacks as the fundamental way a language works – you can’t rely on other parts of your application providing data at the moment you need them, so you need to be able to create queues for parallel and serial execution. Step and Async are two modules we’ve tried out for this, both have their benefits but Async seems to be slightly in the lead for what we’re doing.

Now – The other great benefit of Node is its ability to serve real-time applications, and the Now module takes this to almost magical levels. Existing as a namespace on both the client and server simultaneously, you can call client methods from the server (and vice-versa) to push data instantly as a general or targetted broadcast. Seeing this in action has really convinced us that Node is something to get excited about, and has wowed the client too!

Client

Knockout – We used Knockout on other projects throughout 2011, but with Node’s inherent ability to supply real-time data its really coming to its own. It’s a Javascript library implementing the MVVM (Model-View-View Model) pattern, which should be familiar to Silverlight developers, and makes rich UIs a breeze to update. The new 2.0 version, released during the Christmas break, removes the reliance on jQuery for its default templating which really opens up its flexibility.

Underscore – Described a ‘utility-belt library’ for Javascript, Underscore is another tool that is compimentary to the likes of jQuery and adds a whole raft of functional programming methods to objects and arrays (among other things). It also runs as a Node module so we can make use of it on both client and server, great for code consistency.

Ender – In fact with Knockout and Underscore at work, it was beginning to feel like jQuery had been relegated to just a “ready” utility, DOM selection and effects. That’s a lot of weight for something we weren’t using very much so as an alternative we’re trying out Ender, which allows you to compile your own library from smaller modules – such as the lightweight DOM selector Qwery. And it all installs and builds in a similar approach to NPM.

LESS – A CSS pre-compiler, and another tool we used during 2011, but as a native Node module its integration is now much easier. If you’re developing in a Node environment you can use it to watch for LESS file changes and compile locally (we also use LESS.app on OS X), and then deploy the LESS and have the server startup create a complled and minifed version in production. Alongside Jade and Coffeescript its beginning to feel like compilation from more efficient syntaxes down to browser-readable files is becoming a key element to web development.

The whole picture

As well as this Javascript-oriented development we’ve also been trying out MongoDB and Redis for data storage as part of the stack, with equally encouraging results. And to make project compatibilty and pair programming between our Windows, Mac and Ubuntu users easier we’ve given JetBrains’ Webstorm (and PHPStorm) IDE a thorough test drive – given it has all that familiar Reshaper goodness from their Visual Studio tools its looking like a great combination so far.

It might seem that, with all these Javascript-heavy technologies in HTML5 documents, older browers won’t get a look in. As we’re prototyping on this project perhaps its not important, but actually support is pretty good. Every view Node creates is sent as rendered HTML, just like any other web server, and in fact due to its speed we’re finding that we can make sites less “AJAX-y” than we might otherwise – which of course is better overall for accessibility and discoverabilty. On the client side, Knockout is compatible back down to IE6 and even the ‘magic’ of Now is mobile compatible, with beta support for older IE versions. Of course we want to move away from those legacy browsers as much as any other developer, but if it’s a client requirement this stack can still provide it.

So as a result of these experiences we’re investigating using Node and its related technologies more widely at Red Badger during 2012, its already looking like its going to be an exciting year!

11
Nov
2011

The new Badger

by Rachel Eyres

Rachel in the office

So I’ve joined the team at Red Badger, and now that I’m 2 weeks in I thought I’d share some musings. For those that don’t know me, I’m the new Director of Client Services, which means I’m going to be responsible for all things business development, account management, marketing and  generally helping the team to grow the business. And refreshingly, that doesn’t just mean “make as much money as fast as possible”, but rather focus on interesting, value-adding work which plays to the company’s strengths – use of cutting edge technologies, blended UX and delivery teams, innovation and creativity. So I’ve spent a couple of weeks settling in and doing all the things you’d expect. I’ve been getting to know the team, meeting some of RB’s very impressive clients, telling some of my own contacts about the company’s capability, and the thing I’ve spent the most time on so far is drawing up a business development strategy for the company. This is still a work in progress and needs lots of input from the founders, but it’s starting to take shape. One of the things I love about smaller companies is you can be creative, unconstrained by history and structure, and just come up with some great ideas and go after them.

Here’s what I’ve noticed so far:

The focus – the guys who set up the company are friends I’ve worked with in the past – they were always outstanding and focussed but doing their own thing has amplified this, and their commitment has rubbed off on the entire team. Everyone’s top quality, really into it and switched on. And how many consultancies can you say that about?

The team feeling – usually there’s at least some friction between the UX guys, the developers, the project manager etc. Not here. Everyone seems to instinctively, and through experience, get what each other is trying to achieve and they can genuinely work together. lovely.

The techy-ness – whilst it’s integrated and design focussed, this is a very technical company. The guys are forever trying new things, just to see if there’s a better way, which really pays off.

Just doing it – I’ve spent some time recently at an organisation that provides advisory services on cloud computing and other venerable subjects, which is great but very slow and time consuming. None of that here – we’re just doing cloud, we’re just doing 3d, we’re just doing multi-channel, we’re just doing mobile. There’s no fuss, no-one’s shouting about it and trying to turn it into a pretty picture, it just happens.

So I’m excited, which is a good place to start. The work we’re doing at the moment for customers is very exciting, the focus areas for the next 12 months are pretty cool, and some of the new product ideas the team are thinking about will blow your mind. But more on that stuff later. For now it’s just “hello, I’m here, taking it all in, liking what I see so far…..”