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

Streetworks – the unwelcome face of utilities

We’ve all been there – sitting in the car or on a bus wondering why we’re stuck in an endless queue of traffic, inching along at a snail’s pace. Then the temporary lights and cones appear, along with engineers in high vis jackets. Roadworks! ‘Utilities’ are digging up the road, causing all this disruption.

The public despair at the associated inconvenience, but at the same time we expect our utilities to be available 24/7, so they are a necessary evil. As a society, we cannot function effectively without them, with the volume involved being quite significant:

  • Estimated costs of traffic delays caused by streetworks to UK plc each year = £4.3bn
  • Annual number of streetworks undertaken by utility companies each year = 1.5m

Utility companies, their contractors and service providers, are acutely aware of the disruption caused and are constantly striving to reduce the impact through the adoption of new technologies, more efficient processes and increased staff competency. Balancing all this against the backdrop of maintaining regulatory compliance and of course minimising operational and/or penalty costs, is key.

So why is this such a costly challenge for Utilities? After all, surely it’s just digging a hole, carrying out a repair or an infrastructure project and filling the hole back in again, isn’t it?

If only it were so simple. Just like the proverbial iceberg, the general public only see the tip, or in this case the size of the hole! The parts that go unseen are the myriad of preparation and planning activities that have to take place before a single cone hits the highway. Risk assessments, method statements, noticing/permitting requirements, provision/collation of utility drawings, to name but a few. Mistakes here can cause a streetworks job to go badly wrong and have consequences for brand reputation, cost and regulatory non-compliance.

The important area of preparation and planning cannot be ignored when looking to drive streetworks efficiency and productivity improvements and to help drive down cost.

At Sopra Steria we’ve developed an outsourced ‘Safe Dig’ service to help realise the benefits from these desired improvements, and have seen savings through:

  • Reduced back office costs and improved efficiency in the transactional processing
  • Fast high quality service driven by metrics
  • Scalable service with low risk transition
  • Electronic drawing files – drawings can be accessed in the office or in the field via mobile devices
  • Robust management information system and analytics support informed decision making

How do we do this? Ask me by getting in touch by email or visit Safe Dig for more information.

 

Why the utility industry has lots of synergy with the insurance sector

If we had a choice none of us would “choose” to spend our hard earned money on utility bills – gas, electricity and water. Whilst all essential services, they just don’t have any aspirational value to us living in the developed world. A huge amount of infrastructure and capital investment has been made over the past decade assuring our utility services in the UK, so we tend (rightly or wrongly) to expect these services to “just work” and be there when we need them. This makes it difficult for utility companies to create a relationship with us – their customers – as most don’t want, or see, any value in having any contact or a relationship with our utility companies.

Typically, there are four journeys we will take with a utility company:

  1. To register or amend our details, or leave the provider. Currently for water companies this can be a relatively rare event given the current lack of competition and choice in the industry and we see our water bill more like an additional tax
  2. To query our bill. For gas and electricity companies, this is the most likely reason we will contact a utility company today, as the majority of the industry still runs on estimated bills. The planned roll out of Smart meters, however, will dramatically change bill queries, which in turn will drive down customer interactions
  3. To complain – the most frequent reason for us to contact utility companies! According to the Institute of Customer Services the utilities industry remains rooted to the bottom of the UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI)
  4. To report a fault, for example, when a loss of service occurs. This is the time when we expect and demand a high level of engagement, given the inconvenience the service loss will cause

These “customer” journeys tend to be very similar with the insurance sector. A small amount of contact occurs at the time when we register for an insurance policy, amend our details or exit. We might query the price at the time of renewal, although more and more, we do this through price comparison web services. The insurance industry ranks higher for customer service than the utility companies in the UKCSI so customer complaints tend to be fewer in number, but do still occur. And, when we have a problem – typically an event has occurred where we need to make a claim – we expect that claim to be processed with ruthless efficiency and by staff who show huge empathy to our circumstances.

This final customer journey, processing a claim, is one where the insurance companies have invested in heavily to differentiate themselves. Expensive advertising by insurance companies will often focus on how they manage claims, recognising the distress we may have at such times. Therefore, utility companies should invest in their people, processes and systems as well to provide much needed support during a loss of service – a very stressful time, particularly for vulnerable people.

Finally, insurance premiums, like utility bills, are ones we would all prefer “not” to pay but we know we “need” to ensure we have insurance policies to cover our loved ones, property, vehicles and possessions.

Utility companies should aspire to benchmark themselves against the leading insurance companies. Aspiring to align themselves with the best in class customer service organisations, such as John Lewis or Amazon is a flawed strategy – the companies at the top of the UKCSI all offer a product or service that we “want” rather than we “need”. Perhaps this is why British Gas has picked an insurance industry veteran, Mark Hodges from Aviva, to be their new Managing Director?

Dawn of the Utility Triple Play?

With the fast approaching water retail competition for business customers coming to fruition in April 2017 a number of interesting dynamics are potentially going to materialise. Notwithstanding the initial challenges all the existing water companies will have to grapple and come to terms with around transforming their businesses in anticipation of market go live, one key dynamic will be new entrants into the market.

New market entrants, who potentially could be waiting in the wings? Who might be investigating moving into the water retail market? Straight away certain sectors spring to mind who are already operating in these types of market space, and as such already have much of the required infrastructure in place and understand the dynamics of how to successfully operate in these competitive market spaces. Typically, companies in the electricity and gas retail space along with telco operators, who would appear to be the likeliest new players?

As if to validate this point, Ecotricity, although ruling themselves out of entering the water retail space, for now, citing their requirement to concentrate on their core energy business, does illustrate the point that new market entrants are giving consideration to entering the new water retail market.

In light of these potential new entrants, and more importantly the areas they already operate in, could we see, what up to now has been a typical telco space offering, the ‘triple play’ (ie video, voice & data)? Could we see a new entrant to the market who offers a utility triple play of electricity, gas and now water to business customers as a bundled service offering? Is this a natural progression of the now common dual fuel offering?

This type of offering could present some interesting differentiator dynamics, especially in the areas of tariff innovation, and thus cost along with perceived customer single point of contact benefits for all utilities. When looking at different business customer demographics it’s quite easy to see the utility triple play offering appealing to the larger volume SMEs, where cost and simplicity would be key drivers in the provisioning of utility services. Large volume water users and multi nationals will present more of a challenge as they will be looking at a larger criteria of requirements than SMEs, so any potential new entrant looking at offering a utility bundled service will face the challenge of needing to broaden out their offering accordingly.

It will be interesting times ahead – monitoring over the coming months the emergence of any new entrants into the market, their background and planned strategies and, who knows, maybe we will see the Dawn of the Utility Triple Play!