Houston App: System overview

Houston, is a mobile application replacing the radio communication system previously used by the Transports Publics Fribourgeois (TPF). Houston is a system using existing data network.

The system is spread over more than 200 busses, 30 team leaders and the operation center. It covers the needs of three types of users: the operators, the bus drivers and the team leaders (Houston: a mobile app to replace a radio communication system).

The major components

So how’s Houston working? Here is an overview of the major components. Houston is a distributed system composed of:

  • Two Mobile Apps that fulfill the specific need of bus drivers and team leaders
  • A Web Client used by the operators to create any type of call
  • A Cloud Communication Platform to establish Voice over IP (VoIP) and standard phone call over the Public Switch Telephone Network (PSTN) without having to deal with the complexity of building and maintaining a communication infrastructure. The cloud platform used in this system is Twilio (more details on that later)
  • A Public API: implemented by a backend server used as a bridge between mobile apps, web clients and Twilio. It is connected to a database that stores user identities and bus planning. The database also keeps traces of all performed calls.

A deeper look inside each component of the system and how each of them interacts together will help to understand why Houston was a huge challenge.

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How to start an inno project and build commitment your team?

You have a vision, you gathered a team and you even have a budget. And now, how do you get your team started? List your team’s expectations, build a common understanding, and let your team take on responsibility. You also have to come to terms with the fact that the project involves uncertainties.

We have the ambition to create a tool that provides micro-learning to train cognitive biaises. Today we have a prototype. Last spring, we had only a vision to lead us. As told in a previous post, one of my colleague detected a need in an industry and an opportunity for us to create a new tool. He gathered a small team and invited us for a kickoff meeting. We were all motivated. How could we proceed?

During the kickoff, we jolted ideas around, and used sticky notes to draw the project. It was important that we all had a common understanding of the tool we wanted to create. This kickoff meeting was also the moment when we created a team spirit and built personal commitment.

Ownership, responsibility and role

As motivated as I was to play my part, I needed to understand how I could contribute to the project and how much time it would involve. We started by writing down the outputs we expected from the meeting. The expectations were various.

Our expectations for the kickoff meeting

Kevin expected us to take ownership. The initial idea came to him and he wrote a paper about it. He expected us to work as a team and take ownership. This is what he means by ‘Co-sign Whitepaper’.

To me ownership meant responsibility. The moment I commit to a project means that I stop saying ‘Kevin’s idea’ or ‘Kevin decided’ or ‘Kevin meant’. I start saying ‘we think’, ‘we decided’. It also means that I committed myself to play my part, make time to work on the project.

I needed to understand, the role that I would play, in other words how, with my competences I would contribute to the project. This is expressed as ‘Where do I position myself?’ From the beginning we are a multidisciplinary team. We have learnt to contribute with our respective skills. Understanding my role leads to better planning. If I understand my tasks and how I relate to the other team members, I can organise my agenda and be available when I am needed.

During this meeting we also decided how we would communicate about the project to our stakeholders’, which at this point, were internal. We finally defined the next steps and decided the content of the next workshop.

Map the idea – understanding with drawing

We were sitting down, listening to Kevin. Sitting around a table is so limiting! Ideas cannot express themselves, they keep eluding and the energy slowly runs low. We couldn’t see what Kevin was explaining. After a moment of deep concentration, I tend to relax a bit, which means that I am not being this concentrated. At some point, we were all running low on energy. Thus we started drawing.

White walls are a blessing. Someone starts drawing and you can add up your idea, then everyone can see and add his/hers.
It started with a sketch, and step by step it became like a map. A map of the idea, where we could navigate, see the stakeholders, start apprehending who we needed to talk to, what we needed to understand, what remains unclear, what is our role, our strengths and weaknesses.

Let your team take ownership by drawing together the idea.

It very much looks like this: drawing, talking and gesturing. When you stand, the flow of ideas wraps you up and before you realize it, you are ‘in it’, you take ownership and you belong. You stand and draw together. It has nothing to do with sitting and looking at someone talking, you are part of it.

Drawing of our project

Our drawing got more complex while our understanding of the situation got clearer.

Be kind to your blue side and deal with uncertainties

Have you ever heard of the DISC assessment? That test attributes colors to people after a test. I never took it myself, but I often heard some friends refer jokingly to it. When they refer to the ‘blue colleague’, they talk about his preciseness, attention to detail and his capacity to be systematic. As I started this project, I realised that part of me, that I will call my ‘blue side’ backed off, because it was unconvinced. My blue part tends to refrain the overly enthusiastic and risky part (I don’t know the color of this side yet ;-)

In other words, during this meeting, my blue side realized that there is a huge part of unknown in this project. When you start an innovation project, you have to be aware of the fact that some uncertainty and risk will always be present. During my studies and work life, I have been trained to try to avoid mistakes and evaluate risk. I usually try to have a fairly good idea of the success I expect  from my actions before I perform them. Starting an innovation process is the contrary of this. It is jumping in the unknown and imagining something that does not exist… yet. You need to be open-minded and accept the risk and unknown.

To conclude: we mapped the project and I accepted the probability to fail

It was time for me to accept that mistakes are part of the game and to come to terms with the probability of failing. An innovation process is made of ups and downs, test, success, mistakes and iteration. The risk is part of the game.

During this first meeting, we mapped the project and the stakeholders It gave us the necessary common grounds to start working together. To draw the project allowed us to clearly see the expertise we needed. We planned the next steps and organized the first workshop where we would invite other experts. The project had officially started.

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Houston: a mobile app to replace a radio communication system

Bring your company radio system to the 21st century using VoIP and mobile applications to improve communication quality while reducing costs.

With the project Houston, we took the challenge of replacing the old radio network of the Transports Publics Fribourgeois (TPF), a swiss public transportation company by a system using existing data network and running on mobile applications. This solution solved the problem of maintaining a dedicated radio network. It also improved both the global quality of the communication and the availability of the system.

Initial situation: communication based on radio system

Since decades, employees of the Transports Publics Fribourgeois (TPF) have been using standard radio to communicate between them. The radio system is meant to cover the needs of the users. It is spread over more than 200 busses, 30 team leaders and the operation center). There are three types of users, with specific needs:

  • The operators – working in the operation center – use the radio to speak to a specific bus driver, or to broadcast messages to all or part of the running busses.
  • The team leaders are dispatched at different locations. They use the radio to manage daily events – such as the replacement of a driver – or to inform many drivers of a change in the network – for example in case of an accident.
  • The bus drivers use the bus radio as the main means of communication while driving. They can call other busses, the team leaders or the operation center.

 

Logo TPF

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The exciting day I started an innovation process for a learning tool

We currently address the need for a modular framework for bite size learning, and we are now investing to create the next level micro-learning system. Innovation ‘for real’ is nothing like you might expect. It does not happen like an apple falling off a tree: good ideas do not fall from nowhere. You have to be open to challenges, to be motivated to work with the team and in a ‘safe’ place, an environnement where trying is allowed.

How to be open to innovation?

You have to be open to new challenges, which is difficult even close to impossible if you are stressed out or under tight deadlines for example. During my first year at Liip (2016), I undertook many projects that had started before I had arrived. As a result, I had little time for planning or strategies, I undertook what was already started. During this first year, everything was new, I was in the turmoil of an event, or in a middle of a project, my whole energy was focused on current tasks.
Before Christmas 2016, my knowledge of the enterprise and the field had exponentially expanded. It allowed me to grasp the necessary bigger picture of my enterprise’s needs and challenges. Simultaneously, many projects came to an end, as a result, I was not under tight deadlines. In other words, I was open to new challenges and ideas. I had cognitive capacity to take on new challenges. When Kevin, a colleague I barely knew, approached me, I welcomed his project with an open mind.

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Great User Experience in E-Commerce starts with understanding customers!

How can we make an online shop that stands out better than overflowing competitors? Indeed online experience is offering useful information such as a comparison among several products with reviews. Researching became a typical behaviour for customers before making a decision. And there are even more interactions than only selling products on online shops.

In this article, I will describe the key practices how to capture customers needs in E-commerce by understanding them.

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The Liip.ch accessibility certification: a quick look back

Liip entered 2017 with a big success: liip.ch [1], our main website, has been certified as WCAG 2.0 AA compliant by the Access for All foundation.

Where it all began

Historically, Liip has always put great care into web content accessibility. We consider it as an important feature of any web project, for all kind of users, regardless any disability.
Of course, most of the time, customers are simply not aware of the topic at all and this is where we try to first make them know about it and then actively participate.
Depending on the sensibility of the customer, this may take long. But in the past, we have already helped a few of them to achieve the certification.

Ironically, though, our own website was not certified so we decided to start the official certification process in 2014. Without starting from scratch but using our freshly revamped website as a base.

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Why bother with User Testing? Part 2 : Answer 5 common objections

User Testing is essential, just like I explained it in my last blog post. But your client / boss refuses to pay for this option. No, sorry, this is not an option. At all. They will argue that there is no money , that there is no time left, that the product is super simple, they already know the users…

1. Why bother with user testing? We perform well!

Client: no need for this, our product is great, we’re not leaders for nothing.

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Designer: Oh really? If you never test it with users, how can you be sure that they don’t struggle regularly on your product?

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User Testing Part 1/2 : Why you should perform them – The risks you avoid

If the team working on a project is competent, why should it be bothered with user testing? Because user testing does not mean that anyone is not competent enough. User testing is about avoiding risks and improving a product.

Great teams sometimes deliver wrong products

Yes, why?  We perform WELL, we are talented designers, Product owners, Product designers, we know our business, we are good enough so that we don’t design unusable stuff… Therefore, our clients can rely on us for delivering simple, intuitive and cutting the edge experiences through great products…

However, there are terrible websites online. There are terrible products on the shelves, there are garments that just don’t fit what they are supposed to, there are tools supposed to simplify our lives, but they are just bringing more complexity to our lives.

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The fears about innovation and Users’ loyalty – how can a UXer help? Part 2/2

Innovation and changes are risky meanwhile necessary. UXers can support change and deal with risk management. Discover in 3 steps, how UX can help dealing with these fears… and help bringing innovation.

In my last blog post, we realized that companies are faced with an ambiguous situation, between innovation and users loyalty. Meanwhile users want  cutting the edge experiences and dislike learning news things.

1: Deal with these bad feelings concerning change in companies

I have bad news. If your company is struggling at innovating, maybe it is because it is excellent at killing good innovation ideas. Big companies are expected to innovate, but managing people in such companies just freak out at the simple idea of dealing with edgy ideas.

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The fears about innovation and Users’ loyalty – how can a UXer help? Part 1/2

Innovation – what a buzzword! The request for innovation is everywhere, in every request for proposal, even on the lips of some end users. As if companies that do not innovate go bankrupt. End users want exciting experience, and reject change at the same time. It is an ambiguous situation.

Let’s innovate while keeping users happy ! But how?

Innovation: Risky but necessary

Innovation is everywhere! Is every existing thing not good enough and has to be improved? As if we required on a daily basis cutting the edge and exciting experiences! May it be only for pouring coffee in our mugs, or for giving feedbacks to developers who implemented what we co-designed with a client, or for completing a survey, booking a room, making a conference call…

The users of a product know what’s wrong with a product, what is not working properly, what takes too much time. In other words, they know what could be improved. It might be risky  for a company to take the leap, because end users might dislike the change.

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