Saturday, 8 August 2009

Tesco API TJAM - What happened and what's next?

Wednesday's TJAM event definitely falls into my 'unforgettable' category for two reasons above all others - the generation of 800 decent, coherent ideas from customers generated throughout the day, and the buzz of anticipation from developers as we showed some of our customer insight and explored the extra features of the forthcoming Beta addition of the Tesco API.

The day started at 8am for both ourselves and the innovation agency 'Happen' as the auditorium was prepared to meet customers, invited from our regular online grocery shoppers.
The customers themselves (numbering around 70) arrived for 11am and after some introductions they were invited to join one of six groups representing 'challenge briefs' for grocery, each group headed by a staff member to provided background to the brief, and a Happen 'agent' to work with the group to build and maintain mental energy levels, keep some focus to the brief and make sure group members were happy and enjoying the experience.
The challenge briefs were:
1. How to make the online shopping experience better than in store
2. How to help customers spend less on their weekly grocery shop
3. How to harness the potential of Mobile and emerging technologies such as smart phones, Internet TV, Set Top boxes etc
4. How to give customers inspiration for their weekly grocery shop
5. How to harness the power of social networking
6. How to help customers shop more quickly and easily

The first stage for each of the groups was 'sparking' - generation of ideas based around that group's challenge brief. This generated an astonishing 800 coherent ideas.

The next stage (after lunch) was to build one (or a group) of ideas into more coherent 'walkthrough' concepts such as an imagined way of using the service online or collaborating with family and friends when building an order. However the original ideas were not lost as some could be used in more than one concept.

The final stage was for customers to vote on the best concepts across all groups to find out the best of idea of the day. The winner was an imagined device called a "T-Scanner" that a customer could have on their keyring. The T-Scanner would contain a barcode scanner which would be used to 'collect' barcodes of grocery products they liked as they went about their daily lives. They would then insert the scanner into a USB slot on their computer and upload all the product ideas to a Tesco grocery list for final selection. There were plenty of other good ideas requiring applications rather than hardware, and amongst the favourites were a mobile phone app (for their mobile phone whatever make and model) and the desire for a 3D virtual Tesco grocery store.

The customers left at 4pm and we reset the auditorium for the developers even that started at 7pm. They took time out (over pizza and beer) to read the both concepts and individual ideas. At 8pm we took the developers through a learning curve on the types of customer who use our site so they could aim to make applications that would really be used.

They then learned about the new facilities of the forthcoming beta edition of the Tesco API - including the ability to search on nutrition and send 'ideas' to the customers 'ideas inbox'.
'Ideas' in the API's context are best described as 'media fragments' such as text, images, audio, video, or HTML snippets that the customer wishes to capture as they think of a product - but not yet linked to a particular grocery item. For example, an application could be used by a customer who is enjoying the wine they are drinking in a restaurant and they take a photo of it on the camera phone which is uploaded to their Ideas inbox. They might say the word 'carrots' into their mobile phone which becomes a compressed sound file which also gets uploaded. When it comes to place the order, the customer can examine their Ideas inbox and search for real grocery items - or allow the help of a 3rd party application which they give permission to plug-in to their inbox and use the specialist intelligence to suggest products based on media items. Examples might be a speech recgnition service or a site that specialises in deciphering wine labels or photographed barcodes.

Next, developers learned about the affiliates scheme, allowing them to earn awards based on attracting new customers and the contribution their application makes to a customer's checked-out grocery order.

Finally there was a Q&A session where developers asked questions covering such subjects as security, the interface syntax for our API (currently using SOAP but soon to have REST interface too), and how the business saw the future of the API.
AT 9pm we finished the conference!

Available for playing on throughout the day was a Microsoft Surface table computer, O2 Joggler and Wayve 'fourth-screen' devices - specialist hardware that customers might use now or in the future when it comes to online shopping.

So what's next? Mainly its us putting in the work to deliver the Beta API! Our timelines are:
1) Delivering the beta version of the Tesco API's SOAP interface by end of August.
2) Delivering the beta version of the Tesco API's REST interface by mid September.
3) Delivering phase 2 beta (the 'Ideas' system) around October - although this will be ongoing work.
4) Working with developers to improve the API for best practice for in terms of syntax, performance, security and more ongoing features.
5) Once everyone (developers and the our business) are 'happy' - lock down any changes to the API and deliver the blueprint to our production software developers during 2010 and finally deliver a working API to run on our main web site.

A caveat to this final point is simply one where we need to be sure that the business is happy. The Tesco API is a research project for good reason: this has not happened in grocery before and needs to be sure we don't have something that runs out of control in some way (financially, legally, security-wise). So this project will take slow, careful steps so we do not rush into the unknown.

Notwithstanding this, we feel we are going in a great direction and I am, by this message, stating publicly that we guarantee the Beta Tesco API's existence and performance levels for at least the next two years. That is of course our 'worst case scenario' - best case is that we get the API into permanent production during 2010 so that the beta API is retired for the best of reasons: it's then a reliable production application!

Finally, I have assumed from 'day-one' of our API project that our competitors will look into the API concept. After all, it's a natural extension of web services and I'm looking forward to seeing what API they offer developers. Perhaps they are watching our project to see what happens...


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As this blog grows in readership - and because it carries the Tesco brand - I have had to become more careful about the sort of comments that are acceptable. The good news is that I'm a champion of free speech so please be as praising or as critical as you wish! The only comments I DON'T allow through are:

1. Comments which criticise an individual other than myself, or are critical of an organisation other than Tesco. This is simply because they cannot defend themselves so is unfair and possibly libellous. Comments about some aspect of Tesco being better/worse than another equivalent organisation are allowed as long as you start by saying "in my personal opinion.." or "I think that...". ... followed by a "...because.." and some reasoned argument.

2. Comments which are totally unrelated to the context of the original article. If I have written about a mobile app and you start complaining about the price of potatoes then your comment isn't going stay for long!

3. Advertising / web links / spam.

4. Insulting / obscene messages.

Ok, rules done - now it's your go: