Monday, 23 January 2012

New Year? Wow that was quick!

Good grief 2012 already..er Happy New Year!

Sorry for the radio silence on this blog recently; it has been non-stop for everyone here getting all their projects in before the IT change-freeze. The change-freeze is that magical day when all us programmers take our hands off our keyboards and let the many servers that run Tesco.com just get on with serving customers!

We then switch tack and do everything we can to support the service. Indeed in the days before Christmas many of our staff go and work in store to help our colleagues there.

My in-store job was to help run the newly installed Click & Collect service at the Tesco Extra at Gallions Reach. It's on the Thames estuary not far from Beckton - and yes it's where the large merchant ships of two hundred years had to moor up because the river became too shallow further into London.

It was a fantastic job - customers who had ordered through the online service just drove their car under our Click & Collect canopy at the time they had chosen on the web site. After an identity check, we simply loaded all their groceries from the ambient store and special chillers and freezers into the back of their car while they watched, and off they drove. Several customers on the shift I worked told me it was perfect for picking up the groceries on the way back home from dropping off the kids at school. A couple had become regulars and were known to my store colleagues working at the Click & Collect point, adding to the friendliness of the whole experience.

I took a much needed recharging holiday for Christmas and New Year, then it was a deep dive into the Consumer Electronics Show CES 2012 in Las Vegas to pick out some great themes and trends. Of course I would love to tell you about them but my employer paid for me to go and so my employer is the one who gets my report and presentations. Sorry about that!

The good news is that I can tell you about something I uncovered which caused my jaw to drop to the floor. I can tell you about it because I really can't think of a use in Tesco for it. I can also tell you about because, despite its expense, I nearly bought one even though I can't think of a use for it myself:
It is a 3D Printer.

That is, a printer that builds 3D models in plastic. It actually builds real tangible objects from scratch. You use a 3D graphics/design/CAD application to create an object of any shape as long as no one side is greater than 50cm. Then you press "Print", then you wait about 6 hours… and there it is for you to take out and hold.

So for CES, one of the printers was building a castle out of components, each component individually printed and then joined with other components like huge toy building blocks. The castle was already standing 3 foot high with walls with brick effects, a drawbridge, battlements, and soldiers (each character individually printed). As I watched, the printer was completing some intricate circular detail at the top of a turret it was creating.

The printer works using thin circular strands of plastic fed into a 'print head' which is moved by servo motors. As the print head scans across the space inside the printer, it melts tiny droplets of plastic which is deposited either on the floor of the printer or on top of plastic it has deposited previously. Thus, a model is slowly built up over time as the plastic is built up. I was intrigued how the printer could build the castle archways where plastic would have to be dropped into thin air with no plastic below it. This was solved by a simple case of the model being rotated in its entirety. So to build an arch, it is built upside down. Clever stuff!

Now I'm back in the office I'll get my usual review of the year written up soon - my what a year 2011 was! There's also been an exciting change in our R&D team which I'll update you on shortly. Watch this space!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Tesco demonstrates augmented reality with Kishino

As you have no doubt gleaned from the media by now, Tesco is taking augmented reality seriously as a great way of bringing a great experience of our products and services to customers.

Until now, a lot of augmented reality has been marketing led. The experience you get when you use your smartphone or iPad with the Blippar app and point the camera at our ‘Price Drop’ logo you’ll see what I mean. I include the logo below so you can try it on your smart phone with Blippar right now:




The first thing I thought of when I saw augmented reality in action was to consider how it might help customers visualise the size and shape of our products better. This is particularly true of products you can’t see fully-formed such as toy construction kits (for example, lego and airfix models). It’s sometimes difficult to visualise the size of a fully formed kit when its in pieces in a box and all you have to go on is the photo on the box cover.



Here is what you get if you hover an iPad 2 over the image above (click for larger version):


Augmented Reality can also solve a slightly different problem - how about TV sets where you wish you could turn the TV around so you could see what sockets are available on the back?

Problems solved - R&D and marketing teams worked with Kishino (formerly Total Immersion) who are trialling a list of TVs and construction kit products on a web page at:

http://www.tesco.com/augmented-reality

Congratulations to the team at Kishino who have done a great job - and even produced a video demonstrating how it works, available on Youtube:




So go have a play at the web address above and let me know what you think!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for inspiring me so much.

I join many of my colleagues in being saddened to hear the news of the death of Steve Jobs last night.

Apple, through Jobs' leadership, used disruptive innovation to smash through the complexity of using mobile devices by making the utterly simple to use. For the first time, anyone - young or old - techno-savvy or techno-phobic - could pick up an iPhone and iPad and immediately 'get' how to use it. The massive complexity of the underlying technology was hidden under the covers of a simple and intuitive user interface.

The iPhone certainly inspired me to 'see' technology from a non-technologists perspective. The first Tesco-branded iPhone app, Tesco Finder, came from the R&D team as we worked through the (then) unknown process of programming for iPhone and getting it through into Apple's App Store. The app was an instant hit because, we found, many customers could use the simplicity of their iPhone to locate their nearest Tesco - then products in that Tesco branch - using the simplest of taps and swipes of the finger. We could do it because the tools to allow the simplicity of that user-interface were, for the first time, at our command.

Now we have the situation where many senior managers and directors in Tesco are using an iPad to do their job. Indeed a few have shunned their laptop in preference for using their iPad!

Tesco 'gets' mobile; we are so enthusiastic as a company about the future of this technology on behalf of customers, and the work of Steve Jobs and Apple has had a profoundly positive contribution to that enthusiasm.

Thank you, Steve, for being one of the greatest innovators and inspiring me so much.

A simple apple.com home page honours Steve Jobs today.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Tesco Triathlon app review

We've been evaluating a mobile application we set up for those participating in the Tesco Charity Triathlon last month. The app was created by mobile specialists mBlox so that triathletes could enjoy personal updates as the triathlon deadline approached. In this article, Ben Martin (who took part in the triathlon itself and raised £370 in the process!) shares his experiences with how the app - and its underlying content delivery system - worked for our event.

Ben writes:


Last month we trialled a pre-release beta technology from mBlox in an exclusive Tesco Charity Triathlon 2011 application. The application provided a method of keeping participants posted with the latest information about the event.

For this year’s Tesco Charity Triathlon we thought it would be great if the participants who attended the event could receive automatic updates about what was going on before, during and after the day. We worked closely with mBlox to create a mobile application for Android devices that could do just that.

The finished application had an HTML5 dashboard widget for uploading content (images, blog/Twitter posts, plain text and even video) that could then be sent to everyone who had the application installed on their Android device. We could even restrict the distribution to a defined location of our choice. The widget also provided analytical data reports of users who had downloaded the content and time they had spent viewing.

Before the Triathlon we used the app to send out useful information such as charity details, training tips/advice, blog entries from our leadership team, race numbers and race day details. During the event we published images of participants taking place in each of the activities and contestants could send images to us, which we could upload. After the day we sent out info on the winners, final messages from sponsors and info on the total raised for charity (impressively it was over £200,000!!).

Here’s an example screenshot taken from within the App:


The purpose of the trial was not only to keep participants up to date on the event but also so we could investigate the process of sending and receiving relevant information, and the value this would provide to the end user and to Tesco. We were also very keen to find out how valuable the analytical data was and how it could be used to improve future communications.

Sending and receiving information to mobile phones in a timely manner using technology is a research topic that we wanted to get some experience. Once we have completed the research we can think about how we might use this to incorporate this functionality into our existing customer applications or use it for our own internal communication methods. An idea that springs to mind is an app that can send delivery details to Tesco.com van drivers and we would receive confirmation on them receiving the info.

What we found out:
The application proved to send relavant information very quickly to the end users mobile device (instantly in fact) and was very reliable. It was really useful to have data that confirmed delivery of the content and even detailed when it had been read. Potentially this information could allow us to become more effective at our communication.

Another valuable learning from the trial was the speed in which mBlox helped us to deliver such a technology to market. Without their help we would not have been able to achieve this on such tight timescales due to our other commitments – thank you mBlox!

Thanks to all those who took part in the technology trial, we will continue to investigate its value and have passed on our learnings to our Mobile Development team.

Friday, 8 July 2011

7am: Social Media's Finest Hour

There's something about 7am.

It's at that time when I am still in bed with the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 sounding in the background and the smell of freshly brewed coffee indicating its presence on the bed-side table.

However the start of the 7am news usually causes me to sit up and reach for my smart phone, which has been charging-up nicely through the night.

So what do I see first? A selection of a few unread email messages, Facebook updates and Twitter tweets that came in just before 7am.

A quick glimpse of each (no more than 2 minutes in total) is all takes before getting up. In that time those snippets of incoming information have entered my waking brain which, absent of anything else to start the day, has entered my conscious thinking.

This morning - at 7am for 2 minutes - I ingested snippets of breaking tech news from Computing, New Media Age and Tech Crunch, contemplated today's London Groupon voucher, look through the Google News10 email with search results for 'Tesco', and read a message from those members of the R&D team working 5 hours ahead in Bangalore.

These short snippets of tweets, updates and email headlines continue to swirl through my mind as I stand there in the shower / search for clothes / sip my coffee. I ponder what I've learned - and I keep thinking of it randomly throughout the day. Basically this information has, whether I wanted it to or not, set my day's agenda!

I actually became conscious of the 'power' of 7am a few weeks ago when I was on holiday. Bizarrely I actually missed it! The 7am info-buzz connected me back to the world after a night of sleep. Without it my mind seemed to feel it was missing something.

I raised my awareness from 'conscious' to 'wildly aware' when I attended a Microsoft Creative Technology showcase last week. One of the presenters has a company that runs social media on behalf of several celebrities and sports-people. He spoke of the '7am broadcast' that occurs 24 times a day, time-zone by time-zone around the world. Twitter Followers and Facebook 'Like' Fans would receive their favourite celebrity's tweet at 7am. Feedback had found that this was the most effective time for the celebrity or brand to be remembered for the rest of the day.

The effectiveness of Social Media continues to fascinate me - and now it has a 'power time' of 7am. These days it seems that millions of people are experiencing that '7am' moment as they wake and pick up their smart-phone left charging by the bedside.

If they follow you - and you talk to them at 7am - they are likely to remember you all day. 7am is, quite literally, Social Media'a finest hour.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Speak or Scan - Tesco Groceries for Android launches

Please welcome the newest member of our mobile app family, Tesco Groceries for Android.

Yes, I know, you've wanted this app to launch for a long time. But the management team, designers and developers were patient, considered, and did things right so that we could launch an app to be proud of.
So take my hand and let's journey together through the delights of this android application. Would you like to be downloading while we walk? Sure, follow this link.

We start with the opening screen. with the various options for searching for products listed - including barcode scanning using the phone's camera:


However our team always likes to get better with each version of the app, so here we introduce voice searching for the first time:




Many customers of our other grocery apps love the concept of capturing their sudden thoughts of grocery products they need, even if they have no mobile signal, so here is the android recreation of the shopping list. Once you have a signal, tap what you have typed and a text search for that product will take place:



For all our customers who love to shop by department / aisle / shelf, of course this app caters for you too:



Here are your favourites - all product search results look like this, allowing you to see all products matching your search request, and a filtered view of just those on special offer. Once a product is in your basket, that same product has a green background if it appears in any search results:


Here is your basket:



...and you can choose a delivery slot at any time from a formatted view that can see up to three weeks ahead:


Congratulations are due to loads of people from the design prowess of Ribot, our fantastic new in-house mobile development team led by Hilda and Owen, and of course our amazing product owners for mobile, Annabel and Becky.

You'll find the Tesco Groceries app in the Android Marketplace, so download and enjoy!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Why losing to a womens network made me stand up and applaud

Sorry for not getting any blog posts up recently. I decided to go on holiday but the rest of Tesco decided not to pause while I did so!

Still, madly trying to catch up with projects is always 'fun' and being able to write blog posts (my lowest priority, alas) at least shows I am back on course now!

The New Media Age Awards took place last week. As you may be aware, Tesco.com R&D had been nominated for what the organisers referred to as its "Outstanding contribution to new media" with all our various projects. We didn't win, however, but the people who did win had me on my feet offering them genuine applause: The winner was "She Says", an organisation  established to encourage more women into creative roles in the digital industry through events, mentoring and awards.

"She Says" - http://shesaysus.com/ - started as a small community in London - and has grown into a 3000-member network across seven cities worldwide, and its success can be seen in the recent announcement that Lariu, one of the founders, was leaving her job to work for She Says full-time.

Why was I on my feet showing a happy 'losing Oscars' face? This is exactly the sort of thing that Tesco encourages through our 'Everyone is welcome at Tesco' work. At the head of this work is Tesco Diversity Council (TDC), a steering group .TDC is chaired by Tesco board member and Corporate & Legal Affairs director Lucy Neville-Rolfe (and I am privileged to be a TDC member) and provides advocacy to such staff networks as Tesco Women's Network (http://cr2010.tescoplc.com/our-people/inclusion.aspx) who perform a similar role to She Says but inside Tesco.

Creating a level playing field for all people is vital in our industry so that we can all get maximum access to the best talent out there. It's great to see that this work is appreciated and award winning.

That's why I had no problem losing to such a worthy contender, and why I stood and clapped as She Says took the award. Well done!