Hourglass: Transparent Timekeeping

How a simple conversation with a client about time-keeping led to some late nights, reflection on project tracking & a simple progressive web app…

Good morning/afternoon/evening (delete as appropriate)!

My name is Bryce Wilson; Lead UI developer for the UK Design Team based in Edinburgh. I currently work across multiple projects and platforms and it can be hard to track what I work on and for whom. For the client, it can be frustrating when they can’t get a fixed timeline on my availability.

Around the same time I was coming to the end of ‘yet-another-notepad’ scribble of loose time keeping, I had a chat with one of the project managers for a fantastic client I work with.

He was concerned that he wasn’t able to have a visible overview of all the contractors and consultants in his team. This is primarily down to the flexibility the project offers to the team; early starts, late finishes, working from home on occasions etc.

This screamed out an opportunity to fill a few needs with one deed:

  • Upskill myself on a few new technologies I’ve been itching to try
  • Get rid of my legion of notepads with illegible cave drawings and scribbles
  • Supply a very cool and awesome client with a solution that will enable them to continue providing us with a flexible working environment
  • Demonstrate to the wider community a landslide of user-centered design approaches being developed daily within the UK Design Team (headed up by Luke Jeavons) such as:
    • User Journeys – A visual representation of a path a user may take to reach their goal when using a particular product or service.
    • Usability Testing – To validate the effectiveness of the design and the way the user interacts with the system. This can highlight potential inconsistencies and issues with the product or service.
    • Wireframes – A visual guide that represents the page structure, as well as its hierarchy and key elements.
    • Interactive Prototypes – To show how interactive elements will work. Enables the product or service to be visualised, tested and validated before further development.
    • + much more

After speaking with some fellow upstanding colleagues, I took it upon myself to define an MVP backlog of simple requirements:

  • Allow access to a ‘clock-in’ system via any device and bypass any requirements for an installation
  • Login with work email
  • Allow manual entries of working hours
  • Allow a clock in/out feature
  • Keep it simple, avoid that (points in horror at existing time reporting tools in the market)

Given this was a pet project I didn’t want to overreach and take focus away from day-to-day within the Compass project and the Design Team so I gathered my weapons of choice and began.

Frameworks & Services

In order to maximize the time and effort spent getting this from farm to fork:

  • Contentful – an AMAZING headless CMS that has insane API control and access. I have utilized this to store and retrieve data in a fully secure environment
  • Vue.js – The MacDaddy of JS frameworks. I work with Angular, React, Node, etc and Vue.js slays them all dead. End of.
  • Element.io – A clean and simple Vue.js orientated components library for all the basic needs
  • Azure – The Sopra Steria single sign-on application front
  • Heroku – Free and simple app hosting with CD/CI Pipelines
  • Custom Node.js API Service – I have developed a customised API service to enable continuity of other applications I have created (regardless of framework) to knit together user and information

It started with a few hours in the evenings while my expectant wife lay on the couch binge watching Forensic Files (If I suddenly disappear, you know who to point the finger at!) I melted into my coding chair and got to work.

A few nights in and it begins to take shape; implementing simple features such as project and team control which is operated in the Contentful Dashboard. This allows me to add additional projects as they come up.

The first release of the app to my inner circle highlighted some interesting results:

  • Observation: One user found it difficult to navigate their way back to the current week & also found it time consuming to try to get to December for example, to input time
  • Suggestion:
    • Implement a ‘jump-to’ week selector where it displays the week information; allowing the user to easily jump forward or backwards in time
    • Always have ‘current week’ at the top of list to highlight the current week
  • Observation: Initial version did not allow for non-project codes such as holidays, training or meetings to be logged
  • Suggestion:
    • Allow time to be logged to ‘non-project’ codes through the same interface
    • Allow team leaders to see these days on the team leader view. This allows the project leader to see upcoming days where we might not be utilized. It’s no fun for the client sifting emails and syncing calendars to see why ‘Dave’ hasn’t shown up today!

Reaping the Hard Miles

A few seasons into Forensic Files (my wife at this point now knows how to dispose of a body in 50 different ways, just saying) and we start to have something testable!

As the app is cloud based I fired out a link to a few trusted amigo’s and it seemed we were pretty close to the mark!

With the intended users now having something tangible in their hands, the next goal was to give the client the keys to the kingdom – an external (or internal) team leader view.

A non Sopra Steria user can be set up within the system to retrieve all entries which are assigned to their project, including holidays, sickness etc.

Given that a lot of our teams are also internal, a Sopra Steria employee can also have a team control panel if they are assigned a team leader role.

The Verdict

After picking a handful of users to test the app, we took a period of 1 week to collect initial feedback and log any issues.

Each user was asked to carry out specific tasks and report back, for example:

  • Successful and unsuccessful clock-in/clock-out experiences
  • Test on different devices and networks (firewall etc)
  • Log upcoming holidays

The feedback from actual ‘live’ usage resulted as:

  • Request ability to add ‘half-day’ non-project events
  • Improve performance for older Android phones (now complete)
  • Return to same week that a logging was added to (now complete)

The client is very happy with the outcome so far and has adopted this very early MVP into the projects daily routine!

There is still A LOT to add to Hourglass but given its been about 40 hours of development from a single developer and some fantastic sound advice and guidance from the UK Design Team – I reckon it’s not half bad!

If you would like to ask any questions, please get in touch :

bryce.wilson@soprasteria.com

A sneak peek inside a hothouse sprint week extravaganza

Most public and private sector leaders are acutely aware that they are supposed to be living and breathing digital: working smarter, serving people better, collaborating more intuitively. So why do front line realities so often make achieving a state of digital nirvana feel like just that: an achievable dream? The world is much messier and more complex for most organisations than they dare to admit, even internally. Achieving meaningfully digital transformation, with my staff/ customers/ deadlines/ management structure/ budgets? It’s just not realistic.

That’s where the Innovation Practice at Sopra Steria steps in.

I count myself lucky to be one of our global network of DigiLab Managers. My job is not just to help our clients re-imagine the future; anyone can do that. It’s to define and take practical steps to realising that new reality in meaningful ways, through the innovative use of integrated digital technologies, no matter what obstacles seem to bar the path ahead.

This is not innovation for the sake of it. Instead, our obsession is with delivering deep business performance, employee and customer experience transformation that really does make that living and breathing digital difference. Innovation for the sake of transformation taking clients from the land of make-believe to the tried and tested, in the here and now.

The beautiful bit? The only essentials for this process are qualities that we all have to hand: the ability to ask awkward questions, self-scrutinise and allow ourselves to be inquisitive and hopeful, fearlessly asking “What If?”.

Welcome to five days of relentless focus, scrutiny and radical thinking

The practical approach we adopt to achieving all this takes the form of an Innovation Sprint: a Google-inspired methodology which lets us cover serious amounts of ground in a short space of time. The Sopra Steria version of this Sprint is typically conducted over 5 days at one of our network of DigiLabs. These modular and open creative spaces are designed for free thinking, with walls you can write on, furniture on wheels and a rich and shifting roll-call of experts coming together to share their challenges, insights and aspirations. We also try to have a resident artist at hand, because once you can visualise something, solving it becomes that bit easier.

The only rule we allow? That anything legal and ethical is fair game as an idea.

Taking a crowbar and opening the box on aspiration

Innovation Sprints are the best way I know to shake up complex challenges, rid ourselves of preconceptions and reform for success. I want to take you through the structure of one of the recent Sprints we conducted to give you a peak at how they work, using the example of a Central Government client we have been working with. Due to the sensitive nature of the topics we discussed, names and details obviously need to stay anonymous.

In this Sprint we used a bulging kitbag of tools to drive out insight, create deliberate tensions, prioritise actions and, as one contributor neatly put it, ‘push beyond the obvious’. That kitbag included Journey Maps, Personas, Value Maps, Business Model Canvases and non-stop sketching alongside taking stacks of photos and videos of our work to keep us on track and help us capture new thinking.

Before we started, we outlined a framework for the five days in the conjunction with two senior service delivery and digital transformation leads from the Central Government Department in question. This allowed us to distil three broad but well-defined focus areas around their most urgent crunch points and pains. The three we settled on were ‘Channel shifting services’, ‘Tackling digital exclusion’  and ‘Upskilling teams with digital knowhow and tools’.

Monday: Mapping the problem

We kicked off by defining the problems and their context. Using a ‘Lightning Talks’ approach, we let our specialists and stakeholders rapidly download their challenges, getting it all out in the open and calling out any unhelpful defaults or limited thinking. In this particular Sprint, we covered legacy IT issues, employee motivation, citizen needs and vulnerabilities and how to deliver the most compassionate service, alongside PR, brand and press challenges, strategic aims and aspirations and major roadblocks. That was just Day One! By getting the tangle of challenges out there, we were able to start really seeing the size and shape of the problem.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: Diving into the molten core

This is where things always get fluid, heated and transformation. We looked in turn at the  three core topics that we wanted to address, following a set calendar each day. We would ‘decode’ in the morning, looking at challenges in more detail again using ‘Lightning Talks’ from key stakeholders to orientate us. Our experts shared their pains in a frank and open way.  We then drilled each of our key topics, ideating and value mapping, identifying  opportunities to harness innovation and adopt a more user-centric approach to technology.

At the heart of this activity we created key citizen and employee personas using a mixture of data-driven analysis and educated insight. An exercise called “How might we…?” helped us to free-think around scenarios, with key stakeholders deciding what challenges they wanted to prioritise for exploration. We were then directed by these to map key user journeys for our selected personas, quickly identifying roadblocks, testing or own assumptions, refining parameters and sparking ideas for smarter service design.

On each day we created Day +1 breakaway groups that were able to remain focused on the ideas generated the day before, ensuring that every topic had a chance to rest and enjoy a renewed focus.

Friday: Solidifying and reshaping for the future

On our final day, we pulled it all together and started to make the ideas real. We invited key stakeholders back into the room and revealed the most powerful insights and synergies that we had unearthed. We also explored how we could use the latest digital thinking to start solving their most pressing challenges now and evolve the service to where it would need to be in 3-5 years’ time. Our expert consultants and leads in automation and AI had already started to design prototypes and we honestly validated their potential as a group. Some ideas flew, new ones were generated, some were revealed to be unworkable and some were banked, to be pursued at a later date. We then discussed as a team how to achieve the transformations needed at scale (the department is predicting a rapid 4-fold growth in service use) while delivering vital quick wins that would make a palpable difference, at speed. This would help us to secure the very senior buy in our clients needed for the deeper digital transformations required.  To wrap up, we explored how we could blueprint the tech needed, work together to build tight business cases, design more fully fledged prototypes, strike up new partnerships and financial models and do it all with incredible agility.

Some photos from the week

Fast forward into the new

My personal motto is: How difficult could that be? When you’re dealing with huge enterprises and Central Government departments devoted to looking after the needs of some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in our society, the answer is sometimes: Very! But in my experience, there is nothing like this Sprint process for helping organisations of all stripes and sizes to move beyond unhelpful default thinking and get contributions from the people who really know the challenges inside out. With this client, we were able to map their challenges and talk with real insight and empathy about solutions, in ways they had never experienced before. We were also able to think about how we could leverage Sopra Steria’s own knowledge and embedded relationships with other government departments to create valuable strategic synergies and economies of scale.

A Sprint is never just about brainstorming around past challenges. It’s about fast-forwarding into a better, more digital, seamless and achievable future, marrying micro-steps with macro-thinking to get there. It’s an incredibly satisfying experience for all involved and one that delivers deep strategic insight and advantage, at extreme speed. And which organisation doesn’t need that?

Let’s innovate! If you’d like to book your own hothouse sprint week extravaganza or just want to know more about the process, please get in touch

Is DevOps dead?

In certain circles, DevOps has become a dirty word – an outdated, ‘of the minute’ trend that was banded about in the tech world without anyone having a solid idea of what it means. It’s very easy to say you’re doing DevOps, but often, everyone is on a different page.

For many, DevOps has stopped being something to shout about – it’s what we expect as a minimum and it’s business as usual. In a fast-paced digital world, taking months to deploy your code or respond to customer feedback is no longer good enough. With the likes of Amazon deploying code an average of every 11.7 seconds, the expectations of customers are shifting.

Having a successful DevOps strategy isn’t just about having the right tools available, or having everyone sit in the same room – it’s about a complete cultural and procedural overhaul. Done right, DevOps can make life much easier for everyone and attract the best talent. Done wrong, DevOps is just another failed experiment that will get teams frustrated and falling back into time-consuming habits.

I’m working with who?!

One of the major obstacles to successful implementation of DevOps is cultural change. Siloes between operational, development, design and security teams should be broken and replaced by a product team, requiring a redefinition of roles and responsibilities. These teams should have cross-functional skillsets, and be small and self-organising. Thus, training and assessing the skills of the workforce is essential.

Whilst a pilot project can be a low-risk way of starting to implement DevOps, scaling this strategy can be difficult and slow. This is a major hurdle preventing large organisations from achieving the agility and speed that allows them to compete with the tech giants.

Create a flow

Improving workflows requires coordination between application delivery and backend infrastructure. Standards for each phase of the project – building, testing, delivery and monitoring – must be defined and agreed by the whole team. With the right approach to governance, a balance can be struck between flexibility and quality assurance.

Automation is the key to unlocking efficiency through DevOps. Using technologies such as microservice architectures will help to form a deployment pipeline for each service and lower the risk of code changes, whilst using Infrastructure as Code will increase the efficiency and repeatability of the build process.

Tic tac tool

Finally, whilst tooling isn’t the only thing taking you from monthly to weekly deployment, agreeing and using the right toolkit will ensure an efficient workflow. Whilst there are innumerable available tools, agreeing a toolkit that covers release, configuration management, orchestration, monitoring, testing and containerisation will ensure the team is able to provide robust service delivery and adapt to users’ needs in real-time.

The end goal

Of course, the real game-changer is the speed of delivery. Creating an efficient DevOps workflow is pointless if we are not considering the outcomes. But given the speed of change in technology, DevOps is about more than efficient operations – it’s about keeping up with your customers.

Call it what you will – continuous delivery, DevOps, or tech in the modern era – DevOps practices will be the line between those who survive the pace of digital, and those who don’t.

Sopra Steria collaborates with The Scottish Government for a DevOps Hackathon

Today we are welcoming The Scottish Government Department of Agriculture and the Rural Economy (ARE) to our Edinburgh DigiLab for a DevOps Hackathon.

We are hosting this event in a similar manner to the internal hackathons we did a couple of months ago and we are very excited to have ARE on board to take them on this journey with us, using DevOps technologies including Red Hat OpenShift.

Today we will be providing a developer’s perspective, getting our hands dirty with the basics of DevOps using OpenShift and walking the attendees through a variety of tasks from the creation of projects and build of applications through to the use of pipelines for application deployment as well as processes to assist with application/environmental maintenance.

The attendees in our office today range from infrastructure analysts to technical management and developers – an open invite was distributed throughout ARE and we are very pleased to have a variety of skills on-board.

We are looking forward to sharing our knowledge of the platform with ARE and we hope to run a series of these hackathons, so watch this space!


Shehzad Nagi, Senior Technical Architect
Caitlin Toner, Architect

How the Equality Act 2010 affects you

Most of us use online services such as banking, travel and social media everyday with little thought as to how we can access or use them. However, this isn’t the case for many users, including employees.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 legislation, which previously provided protection against direct discrimination, has been updated to the Equality Act 2010 (except Northern Ireland). The Equality Act became legal on 6 April 2011, and changes the law to brings disability, sex, race, and other types of discrimination under one piece of legislation.

One major change is that the Equality Act 2010 now includes perceived disability and in-direct discrimination, making it easier for claimants to bring successful legal proceeding against businesses and public bodies.

What it means

The Equality Act essentially means that all public bodies or businesses providing goods, facilities or services to members of the public, including employees (For example: retail, HR, and councils) must make fair and reasonable adjustments to ensure services are accessible and do not indirectly discriminate. Being fair and reasonable means taking positive steps to ensure that disabled people can access online services. This goes beyond simply avoiding discrimination. It requires service providers to anticipate the needs of disabled customers.

Benefits of compliance

UK retailers are missing out on an estimated £11.75 billion a year in potential online sales because their websites fail to consider the needs of people with disabilities (Click-Away Pound Survey 2016).

In addition, 71% (4.3 million) of disabled online users will simply abandon websites they find difficult to use. Though representing a collective purchasing power of around 10% of the total UK online spend, most businesses are completely unaware they’re losing income, as only 7% of disabled customers experiencing problems contact the business.

How to comply with the Equality Act

The best way to satisfy the legal requirement is to have your website tested by disabled users. This should ideally be undertaken by a group of users with different disabilities, such as motor and cognitive disabilities, and forms of visual impairment. Evidence of successful tests by disabled users could be invaluable in the event of any legal challenge over your website’s accessibility.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is the international organisation concerned with providing standards for the web, and publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), which are a good indicator of what standard the courts would reasonably expect service providers to follow to ensure that their websites are accessible.

WCAG provides three ‘conformance levels’. These are known as Levels A, AA and AAA. Each level has a series of checkpoints for accessibility – known as Priority 1, 2 and 3 checkpoints. Public bodies such as the government adhere to Priority 2 – Level AA accessibility as standard.

According to these standards, websites must satisfy Priority 1 – Level A, satisfying this checkpoint is a basic requirement and very easy to implement. Priority 2 – Level AA, satisfying this checkpoint will remove significant barriers for customers. Finally, Priority 3 – Level AAA, is the highest level of accessibility and will ensure most disabled customers can access services, and requires specific measures to be implemented.

Read the Equality act 2010 quick start guides to find out more about how this affects you.

Have you heard the latest buzz from our DigiLab Hackathon winners?

The innovative LiveHive project was crowned winner of the Sopra Steria UK “Hack the Thing” competition which took place last month.

Sopra Steria DigiLab hosts quarterly Hackathons with a specific challenge, the most recent named – Hack the Thing. Whilst the aim of the hack was sensor and IoT focused, the solution had to address a known sustainability issue. The LiveHive team chose to focus their efforts on monitoring and improving honey bee health, husbandry and supporting new beekeepers.

A Sustainable Solution 

Bees play an important role in sustainability within agriculture. Their pollinating services are worth around £600 million a year in the UK in boosting yields and the quality of seeds and fruits[1]. The UK had approximately 100,000 beekeepers in 1943 however this number had dropped to 44,000 by 2010[2]. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in beekeeping which has highlighted a need for a product that allows beekeepers to explore and extend their knowledge and capabilities through the use of modern, accessible technology.

LiveHive allows beekeepers to view important information about the state of their hives and receive alerts all on their smartphone or mobile device. The social and sharing side of the LiveHive is designed to engage and support new beekeepers and give them a platform for more meaningful help from their mentors. The product also allows data to be recorded and analysed aiding national/international research and furthering education on the subject.

The LiveHive Model

The LiveHive Solution integrates three services – hive monitoring, hive inspection and a beekeeping forum offering access to integrated data and enabling the exchange of data.

“As a novice beekeeper I’ve observed firsthand how complicated it is to look after a colony of bees. When asking my mentor questions I find myself having to reiterate the details of the particular hive and history of the colony being discussed. The mentoring would be much more effective and valuable if they had access to the background and context of the hives scenario.”

LiveHive integrates the following components:

  • Technology Sensors: to monitor conditions such as temperature and humidity in a bee hive, transmitting the data to Azure cloud for reporting.
  • Human Sensors: a Smartphone app that enables the beekeeper to record inspections and receive alerts.
  • Sharing Platform: to allow the novice beekeeper to share information with their mentors and connect to a forum where beekeepers exchange knowledge, ideas and experience. They can also share the specific colony history to help members to understand the context of any question.

How does it actually work?

A Raspberry Pi measures temperature, humidity and light levels in the hive transmits measurements to Microsoft Azure cloud through its IoT Hub.

Sustainable Innovation

On a larger scale, the data behind the hive sensor information and beekeepers inspection records creates a large, unique source of primary beekeeping data. This aids research and education into the effects of beekeeping practice on yields and bee health presenting opportunities to collaborate with research facilities and institutions.

The LiveHive roadmap plans to also put beekeepers in touch with the local community through the website allowing members of the public to report swarms, offer apiary sites and even find out who may be offering local honey!

What’s next? 

The team have already created a buzz with fellow bee projects and beekeepers within Sopra Steria by forming the Sopra Steria International Beekeepers Association which will be the beta test group for LiveHive. Further opportunities will also be explored with the service design principle being applied to other species which could aid in Government inspection. The team are also looking at methods to collaborate with Government directorates in Scotland.

It’s just the start for this lot of busy bees but a great example of some of the innovation created in Sopra Steria’s DigiLab!

[1] Mirror, 2016. Why are bee numbers dropping so dramatically in the UK?  

[2] Sustain, 2010. UK bee keeping in decline

Everything is connected. Don’t innovate in isolation

…These are the words Alberta Soranzo left the audience with as she drew the final keynote speech of this year’s UX Scotland conference to a close.

Alberta, who was recently appointed Director of End-to-End Service Design at Lloyds Banking Group, strives to make a real impact on the financial outcomes of people by taking a look at both the big picture as well as focusing on the very small things, which she believes ‘matter a lot’.

Alberta stressed the importance of nurturing diverse talent and stated that it is vital to foster a culture of continuous learning within a design team. This is something that resonated with me as a culture we are striving to cultivate here at Sopra Steria — through hiring a diverse range of people from a whole range of different backgrounds and with differing areas of expertise. However, most importantly, each of these individuals share a desire to learn and continually improve. This allows the design team to avoid the previously mentioned isolated innovation which Alberta warned about and work as a team to grow and develop.

Those who attended UX Scotland may well have met the various members of the Sopra Steria team who were there – either during the various workshops and seminars on offer or at our stand in the foyer. Some may even have entered our interactive competition which invited people to ‘step into out customers shoes’. Through sponsoring the stand we were afforded the chance to speak to a whole host of interesting people during our time at the conference, including a couple of people who have since interviewed for and accepted roles within the Service Design team at Sopra Steria.

Over the course of the three day conference we got the chance to experience a number of great talks by a range of different speakers. We were given the opportunity to hear from leading industry experts such as Jared Spool and Dana Chisnell. We were also able to take part in the various workshops on offer which allowed us to develop our existing skills as well as learning new ones.

With many of the talks and workshops occurring at the same time, there were understandably frustrating moments where we were unable to attend all the talks that we would have liked to. Thankfully, with so many members of the team present at the conference, we were able to minimise the effects of timetable clashes by spreading ourselves across the events which occurred at the same time. By taking notes during each session, team members were able to report back and share their knowledge with the team who were unable to attend.

Our Service Design team listening to Jared Spool’s keynote speech
Our Service Design team listening to Jared Spool’s keynote speech

 

This notion of shared knowledge strikes right to the core of what Alberta Soranzo was talking about during her Keynote speech. By avoiding innovating in isolation, and looking at development at a wider level, it allows the team to grow and develop their skills at a greater rate.

By allowing everyone to benefit from the knowledge gained at events like this, we help cultivate the culture of continuous learning and as the old adage goes, allow the team to become more than the sum of its parts.

What do you think? Do leave a reply below or contact me by email.