Sunday, 30 January 2011

R&D peer conference in the heart of the Arizona desert

If you're a regular reader you'll know I'm currently at Scottsdale in the heart of the Arizona desert with my peer group (of people leading R&D) attending and speaking at a conference on open innovation.

I was invited to talk about how, in Tesco.com R&D, we have an API open to third party developers to foster innovation around our grocery service. 

The purpose of the conference was to hear good and bad experiences involving external sources of innovation, useful as I need to put together proposals for how we continue to energise our external developer community - and eventually migrate everyone to a future production version of the API. 

I'll write more about about the conference's output over the next few days, since there are several different themes to cover. But let me tell you it's got me thinking about how so many R&D departments are needing to re-stance themselves as a core driver of change rather than stand on the periphery of business.

In Tesco.com I have little, if any, problem putting R&D projects in front of a readily listening leadership team and stakeholders. That's not the same as them always accepting our output but we have a robust and honest relationship, and feedback helps shape our work fits the needs of the business and the wishes of our customers.

Successful R&D needs appropriate culture and attitude from inside and outside that department. I'll write more about 'how we do things round here' at Tesco.com if that will help you with your R&D work.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

QR codes go into Tesco branches from Friday

From this Friday we’ll be using QR Codes in store to link customers to the mobile version of Tesco Direct to ore-order the new Nintendo 3DS console.

Mike Fethers, Assistant Buyer for Tesco Gaming (what a great role!) sent me a digital copy of the poster and QR code we'll be showing in-store. Mike believes that this is the first time the mobile site and QR codes have been implemented at a store level.

So if you're in a large Tesco branch on Friday, wander over to the console games section and look out for the Nintendo DS Top 40 Chart poster featuring the QR code (click poster for larger version):




Here's the code if you want to try with your smart phone and a barcode app now:

Thursday, 20 January 2011

'Grocery-Grazing' Tesco App Customers Get More Respect

Over the past week I have been working with my colleagues to tune the Application Programming Interface (API) service that supports communications from all our apps, now that our TV advertising campaign has brought many new customers to the joy of mobile grocery shopping.


Anecdotal evidence shows that we can support five times the numbers of simultaneous customers using their mobile phones than we could just a few days ago.

It's been a tremendous learning curve to make the communications between the API and our grocery platform as efficient as possible, because customers are behaving differently on their mobile phones than on the web site.

Most customers using our grocery website have sat down to put their full grocery order together. Customers using our mobile phones, however, are 'grocery-grazing'. Throughout the day they are are reminded / inspired to think of a product, pick up their phone, start Tesco Groceries, search for products (or scan them), check the price / offer and, if all good, add to their basket.

We know this because it has changed the 'journey' that our web customers normally make. The main technical consequence is that customers on mobile are constantly authenticating with our servers throughout the day. If you leave the app for more than 10 minutes, it shows 'reconnecting to Tesco' when you start to use it again and re-authenticates (logs in again) with our service.

So I have been working to trim down the steps the API has to go through to login a customer without compromising our security. If encryption and other forms of authentication had to stay (of course!), something else had to give. After much research about the CPU/network/database 'weight' of each login step, we concluded that the API's process to go to a customer's personal details to extract their first name in order for our apps to say, "Welcome (first name)" - with the extra authentication needed to extract it - had to go. This is because it has to take the customer's login details and step through more authentication, network and data hoops to get to their account data. 

In this update, API would use the customer's Title and Surname that had always been available through the cookies provided by our web servers to web browsers.

Tonight, instead of my Tesco Groceries app and iPad Tesco Recipes app saying, "Welcome Nick" it will soon - and rather more respectfully - say,  "Welcome Mr. Lansley".

That API update that will give us five times the throughput that it did before. It's more learning in our new mobile world and one that shows how much more thought I need to put into how the API talks efficiently with our existing grocery platform. 

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Techfortesco blog stats: 3,000 readers a week

I've just taken some time to read the Google/Blogger analytics for techfortesco and I'm both delighted and humbled to reveal that just over 12,000 readers a month (over 3,000 readers a week, where a "reader" is defined as a combination of pageviews and unique IP addresses) are enjoying the content - and that's not including those of you reading via the RSS feed and who receive articles by email.

Technorati, the blog directory, seems to have shone favourably - techfortesco has a current Technorati Authority of 116 and is ranked 19,380 out of 1.1 million tracked blogs as I write these words. Mind you, at around the time of the iPhone launch the ranking reached the 6,000s so the live ranking is a good indication of a blog's authority. I'm going to argue that the higher up the ranking the more effort is required to provide both good quality and a high quantity of blog articles. Very high ranking blogs that I read seem to publish as many as 20 articles a day!


Never mind; the arm-pulling I'm doing to get some colleagues to write about their work for this blog is getting traction and you'll see some of their content here soon. Indeed if you work at Tesco pursuing or working with technology to make the Tesco experience better for our customers and staff you are welcome to contribute. I have some self-imposed rules about observing confidentiality, business integrity, and attribution (making sure that content can be factually verified and is not libellous) but don't worry, I'll guide you through them. I'll also take responsibility for publication - that means I have the final say editorially!

It's time to make this blog the 'go to' place for those who wish to read about technology that helps Tesco - and to do that I think it needs to become more than just 'Nick Lansley's blog".

Friday, 14 January 2011

Big improvements to service for Tesco Finder app

I've just sent into live an update to the API service supporting Tesco Finder application. The focus has been on improving performance and accuracy of the service for the ever-increasing number of Tesco Finder users.

  1. The "nearest branches" feature is now much more accurate. Before the update, the API tended to favour nearest branches by longitude (east-west of your location) over latitude (north-south), resulting in branches further away but in an east-west direction ending up higher up the list than those north-south. The API was behaving like this because changes in longitude are much greater for the same distance on the ground than changes in latitude where UK and Ireland are located on the planet's surface. I had over-compensated for this effect in my arithmetic. In fact, for longitude the conversion to distance is the same as latitude except the value is multiplied by the cosine of the latitude. Lesson learned!
  2. Obtaining product information is much faster. This works by pooling the search session to a special account on our grocery API so all Tesco Finder users share the same login session - since you don't have to login as anyone to use Tesco Finder, the API has to login to a special grocery account in order to search for products and provide pricing and offer information. Before now, each search was preceded by a login for that user - nice and safe in the multi-threaded computing environment of the API. Sharing the same login session is a lot trickier because that session has to be locked to each user in turn while the search takes place. Fortunately it's so quick that the queue of search requests waiting in turn to lock the session does not build up.
Sharing resources in a multi-tasking web environment can be a dangerous game. Each process (usually a computer script preparing a web page to be sent to your browser - we call this a 'thread') must lock the resource so it doesn't get altered by other threads until this thread is done. If one thread keeps the lock for too long, the backed-up threads (usually other people waiting for their web page to arrive) can grow quickly. If the backup is severe and default memory allocation is exhausted, the operating system starts trying to manage memory by swapping it to and from disk, hitting CPU load and disk response times and slowing things down more. Soon the server hits the digital cliff and the infamous HTTP 500/Too Many Users results, or the server just stops responding at all.

That's why it's taken some time and lot of testing to ensure that this programming pain is worth the performance improvement for Tesco Finder customers. I'm glad to say it has worked out well - it's now live as of 1:30pm today.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

TV advertising....works!

It's all very easy for us digital internet types to get sniffy about how TV advertising is old hat with its scatter-gun approach to marketing and no direct feedback that it works.

I was in this mood when I chatted with Tesco.com's marketing team on the eve of the first TV commercial for the iPhone Tesco Groceries scanning feature last Thursday.

I have to say that they do tolerate me, do marketing. They just smiled and asked me to wait and see.

The TV commercial has been airing since Thursday and...

...now we're in the top 5 list of most downloaded UK apps on iTunes. Oh, and my colleague Omar took a copy of the various API server logs and drew graphs. The graphs showed load levels where the app had been in communication with our servers. The load level graphs had some big peaks, and the peaks matched with the timings of the TV commercials.

That's right - the 40-second commercial basically gets people to scan the barcodes on products - and, when they watch the commercial, they pick up their iPhones immediately and start doing just that! The peaks appear not just from showing the advert on ITV1 (the UK's most-watched commercial TV channel) but even on less-viewed channels - both free and pay TV - on which our commercial is being shown.

I love the thought of thousands of people sat in their living rooms watching TV, viewing the ad which persuades them to pick up their nearby iPhone immediately and ... well... scan something.

I wonder what other customers might find to scan as they get overwhelmed with barcoding desire at the instruction of the commercial? Since the server logs are deliberately anonymised, it has just struck me that I should find out what products were being scanned. For example, as I look around my living room I can spot several grocery items with barcodes - bars of dark chocolate, a DVD of comedian Dara O'Briain I received for Christmas, and a box of Tesco value tissues. Would watching the commercial just make me the scan them? The evidence from the log peaks suggest that I would!

Make no mistake - the lesson that us sniffy web 2.0 digital types need to learn is this:
After 60 years, TV advertising still works.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

I'm presenting at CoDev 2011 conference in Scottsdale, AZ, 24-26 Jan


Just to let you know that I am presenting at the excellent CoDev 2011 conference on 24-26 January.

The conference fosters co-development and open innovation - which chimes perfectly with my work with the Tesco API which is open to third party developers and linked to our affiliates scheme.

The conference takes place at the Talking Stick Resort, Scottsdale (near Phoenix) in Arizona from 24th to 26th January.

As well as giving a speech on our mobile strategy (and the thought processes around third-party involvement behind it), I'll also be in and around the conference (and maybe on a panel) throughout these dates, so if you're there I look forward to meeting you.

More info on the CoDev 2011 conference here.

I have been appointed to the UK's MCJIC (Mobile Industry) Committee

I am very happy to have accepted a position on the UK's Mobile Commerce Joint Industry Committee (MCJIC), the committee established to ensure that UK businesses are prepared for the changes, opportunities and challenges that accompany the explosive growth in mobile commerce.

The MCJIC has been formed by the Association of Interactive Media and Entertainment (AIME), The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) and the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG) - the latter of which Tesco.com is a senate member. I have been representing Tesco.com at IMRG events over the past few years, and have become well known for my advocacy concerning bringing Tesco to any internet-connected device (with the customer's permission!).

The MCJIC has been specifically set up to assist retailers, technology providers, consumers and regulators through the promotion of 'best practice' to help us all drive the growth of mobile-based commerce. It will cover all aspects of this form of commerce from mobile marketing and payment, to site optimisation, application development best practice, vouchers and coupons, and even the ability to verify someone's age.

We'll also engage in education, commission research and, as my driver, document best practice through the establishment of an online library.

The establishment of MCJIC results from recent research collaboration between the three associations (AIME, IAB and IMRG) which found 59% UK retail brands believe that their mobile revenues will increase in 2011, with 94% regarding it as a game-changing opportunity for their business.

My own involvement is to advocate best practice from a technical point of view. For example, when we have built Tesco apps for mobile phones, I have always made sure that the communications that has to take place between your Tesco app and our servers uses as few bytes of data as possible. Customers would not be happy if our apps bit deeply into their allocated monthly included data tariff, and I want to bring this level of thoughtfulness to all apps. So I want to build a library of good practice, with practical evidence that supports it.

I join several well-regarded peers on the MCJIC committee:


  • Andrew McClelland, director of operations, IMRG
  • Steve Ricketts, head of mobile marketing and payment services, Everything Everywhere*
  • Toby Padgham, general secretary, AIME
  • Jon Mew, head of mobile, IAB
  • Patrick Munden, head of seller communications UK & Ireland, eBay UK 
  • Richard Mann, chief operating officer, Mobile Interactive Group
  • Sienne Veit, business development manager - new technologies, M&S Direct
  • and myself as head of R&D, Tesco.com
At our first meeting just before Christmas, we appointed Andrew McClelland as chairperson to lead us through the first phase of projects, and we'll be meeting again soon to get underway with the new work.

I'm sure we'll have our MCJIC web site up and running soon, so look out for that - I'll announce it here as soon as it's live.



*Everything Everywhere is the joint collaboration of UK mobile providers Orange and T-Mobile.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Tesco TV Campaign Highlights iPhone App Barcode Scanning

If you're an Emmerdale fan than you will no doubt have seen the excellent and amusing 40-second TV commercial from our marketing department.

The commercial shows our "Tesco family" using the barcode scanning facility on their iPhone as they go about life. You'll see the ad popping up all over the place on commercial TV channels in the UK over the next four weeks.

If you haven't spotted the commercial yet, don't worry: I watched Emmerdale on your behalf and recorded the commercial (the things I do for you!). You can watch it now:

video


Don't forget that you can use the barcode scanner on the Tesco Groceries app only if you have an iPhone 4 or have upgraded your iPhone 3GS to IOS4 (which you can do easily using iTunes).

The groceries app will work on iPad and non-IOS4 iPhones but the barcode scanner is disabled for technical reasons and because the iPad has no camera!

All change at the top of Tesco.com

Laura Wade-Gery, CEO of Tesco.com is leaving Tesco.com to join the newly formed Tesco UK Board of Directors reporting to our forthcoming new Tesco chief Philip Clarke.

Laura's role is being taken by Ken Towle, currently CEO of Tesco's China operation. Ken will have the new title 'Director of Internet Retailing'.

Laura leaves after 7 years leading Tesco.com, but her new role takes her to new heights as Commercial Director for Clothing, Electronics and General Merchandise on the new UK board.

Ken Towle was the person who led us at the origins of Tesco online in the 1990s. When I joined the fledging 'team of ten' in early 1995, Ken was project manager for the "see what we can do with this thing called the internet" venture. So he has come full circle (as I reminded him in a congratulatory email I sent earlier today) back to a business several thousand times the size it was under his original leadership.

It is interesting to note that Ken is 'Director of Internet Retailing' rather than continuing the 'CEO' role. Why? Well Tesco.com was formed as its own limited company (wholly owned by Tesco PLC) so that it could operate with its own autonomy and agile principles. It also protected the 'mother ship' by ensuring financial transparency rather than mixing up the accounts. We wanted to show shareholders the added success (or otherwise) that our online operations would bring to the company, and that was best accomplished with our own accounts and structure.

That was a decade ago and something tells me that shareholders regard our online operations today as successful! Now, under Philip Clarke's leadership, Tesco.com is becoming a more integrated part of Tesco PLC because customers see us as "One Tesco" so we need to ensure we behave that uniform multi-channel way.

Laura is joined on the new UK board by Carolyn Bradley who is Tesco UK Marketing Director. Carolyn led Tesco.com from 1998 through to John Browett's appointment as the first Tesco.com CEO in 2000 (and continued to work alongside John until 2002). So that's two Tesco.com alumni on the new UK board.

John Browett handed the reins of Tesco.com to Laura in 2004. Interestingly, John is now CEO of Dixons Group (DSG) and you could argue that Laura is basically doing his present job now in Tesco given that she has the 'Electricals' remit and that our business is an order of magnitude bigger than DSG.

More about the Tesco's new UK board of directors here (Financial Times)
--
Chris Brocklesby has just joined Tesco.com as our new CIO, replacing JJ VanOosten who has left Tesco to pursue other interests. Chris was UK IT Director for Tesco and brings a wealth of in-depth experience of IT from the 'mother ship'.

So it's all change at the top as we gear up for 2011.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Are you The Nation's Noggin?


Tesco Mobile and their marketing agency Ruby have together launched a fun and engaging Facebook app called The Nation’s Noggin which is designed as a set of ‘brain-training’-style fun and crazy games.

Your aim is to complete each level in The Nation’s Noggin quickly and correctly, earning as many points as you can by completing the various mini-games. If you're good you become ranked in the ’Leaderboard’ section where you can compare scores with other people in your region, friends or family. Usefully there is a practice zone where you can hone your skills in private.

Rob Spicer from Tesco Mobile and Sam Grischotti from Ruby agency told me that the reason they created this app was to give something back to the customer and help raise awareness of the Tesco Mobile brand. They have sent me a set of screenshots to show you around (click for larger images), but of course if you are a Facebook member, you can go straight to the app at:

http://apps.facebook.com/nationsnoggin     (note that the web address starts 'apps' not 'www')





I’ve used the app found the experience really enjoyable - so see you on The Nation’s Noggin Leadership Boards...below me of course..!

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News has come through about a round of funding for social networking site Facebook has given that brand the same market value as the whole Tesco. Not bad for a company started just under 7 years (as opposed to our 70 years) ago!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Does your Tesco Finder app crash when starting up?

I've just accepted an update of Tesco Finder and now it crashes as soon as I start the app! Help!

If you downloaded the Tesco Finder app in the past, then updated to the more recent version of the iPhone Operating System,  then take our Tesco Finder app update, our updated app seems to crash on some customers' phones.


There seems to be a further clue: it is mostly affecting customers who have upgraded to version 4 of iOS but not yet further upgraded to v4.2.1 (the very latest version at the time of writing).
You can find out your version by tapping on the Settings app, then selecting General - About - and reading the version number. My iPhone says: version 4.2.1 (8C148).

Customers downloading the app fresh for the first time are not having this problem - it's about the new app version using its old data store after an iOS upgrade.

To get round this problem, here's what you need to do:
  1. Sync your iPhone with iTunes to make a backup copy of Tesco Finder (unless you want to download the app again),
  2. Delete the app off your iPhone, 
  3. Shutdown and restart your iPhone (this clears away all remnants of the app),
  4. Re-sync with your iTunes program to copy the app back on to the phone, or re-download the app from the App Store - and please check your iPhone has the latest Apple operating system installed - iTunes will help you confirm this - at the time of writing it is v4.2.1 .
  5. Start the app (it will ask you to re-select your home store). The freshly installed app will rebuild the data store compatible with your iPhone.

Our apologies for having to get you to do this. It results from the latest Apple iOS having a data store which does not seem to be fully backward-compatible. When you updated the iOS version (iPhone's operating system) when instructed to by iTunes, it protected the earlier app code and data store. However when we compiled the new app against the latest iOS, the 'earlier version protection' was no longer provided by your iPhone. The updated app tries to connect to a now incompatible data store left over from the earlier version of Tesco Finder and crashes.

When we are back at work, we'll look at how the app can survive the crash and attempt to rebuild the data store (or wipe it out and create a new data store). We'll need to do something because the current live version, 2.3 has an overall 1-star rating :(

It's also a learning curve to be fed through to our testing process. It looks like we need iPhones with different iOS versions in order to test the upgrade not just of our app but cope with the consequences of an iOS upgrade too.