Archive for November, 2011

The mobile office: achievable for small businesses?

The idea of the mobile office, that is that the employees of a business do not need to be in the same physical location to be part of the organisation, is not a new one. But is it achievable, and can it be beneficial, for small businesses?

With any small business, there is a need for all employees to be working at full capacity in order to be productive, simply because the small business doesn’t have the resources (both human and capital) to allow anything less. But does that necessarily mean that in order to be at full capacity everyone must be working from the same office?

With technology as simple as email or instant messaging, and as revolutionary as Skype and video conferencing, small businesses have access to a plethora of tools that can allow them to operate at full capacity when the employees of the business aren’t in the same geographic location. With our own business, at times our designer need isolation to get an illustration finished, or our programmer needs to ‘wire in’ and work through a tough coding issue. Does this mean to do this they need to be together in the same location? No, of course not. Our designer quite often works from her home office, and our programmer from his home office. Using email, instant messaging and Skype, they are able to stay in touch during the day, collaborate where necessary, but work from their own location. Add in the fact that our designer and programmer can then cut out the need to commute to the office, and suddenly their work day becomes less cluttered, less obstructed, and more productive.

Now, that’s not to say free rein is the answer. Employees who telecommute for long periods of time are known to get distracted, especially if they are working from home, by things such as partners, kids, the mailman, the internet and television. So, how do you counter this? One of the most revolutionary small businesses in the world, 37 Signals, have the ideal telecommuting relationship with their employees, even if it is at the extreme end of the ‘mobile office’ concept. A software company from Chicago, 37 Signals employs designers and programmers from all over the world, using modern technology to keep the business communicating and ticking along. However, they do meet up at their head office in Chicago a few times every calendar year where all employees from around the world are present. Now, as I said, this is an extreme example, however it can be applied even to a small business that operates out of one town or city. The key is that telecommuting can be a productive and worthwhile exercise, but there is a still a need to have employees communicating face-to-face as often as necessary, be it twice a week, twice a month or twice a year.

For example, our designer may need to show our programmer a new interface design for one of our apps. Sure, she could put the design up to her webcam to show the programmer, or take a photo with her phone and send it to him. But without context, clarification and actually discussing and breaking it down face-to-face, the interface the programmer codes may not be what the designer intended. So, is the mobile office achievable for small business? Absolutely. But the key is that it needs to be balanced effectively with face-to-face contact, as often as it is required, to ensure distractions are minimised, effective communication is maintained, and productivity is maximised.

Coastal Quest is now available in the App Store

We’re very proud to announce the release of our second MiBooks kids adventure book, Coastal Quest, which is now available in the iPhone and iPad AppStore.

In Coastal Quest, the reader is off on a trip to the beach, that soon becomes an important adventure. The reader will explore 9 different locations at the beach, such as the pier, the caves, the rockpools, the coral reef, the shipwreck and the surf, as they try to help a sea creature in distress.

Before reading Coastal Quest, the reader can enter their own name so that they become the central character in the book. For younger children, this is a fantastic feature that allows them to become even more immersed and interested in where the story goes. The reader is also able, at certain points during the book, to choose the direction the story takes (like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” format). This allows Coastal Quest to be different and fresh on subsequent readings.

Coastal Quest’s interactive style engages children whilst they are reading, allowing them to touch and interact with various objects and sea creatures that provide rich visual and aural feedback to the reader.

The reader is also able to play a small mini-game mid way through the book, as they try to both feed fish to a large pod of dolphins and break their own high score.

Coastal Quest, as with the other books in the MiBooks brand, allows the reader to read the book themselves, or have it read to them with the aid of voiceover audio. This is perfect for some younger readers, who aren’t yet ready to read the book themselves but still want to enjoy the adventure and fun of Coastal Quest.

Why not check it out?

Feedback is crucial to any mobile app

Once you’ve gone through the hard work involved in designing, coding and testing an app, and then the distribution of the app to the App Store, Android Market or equivalent, it’s easy to think ‘pens down’. The app has been released, customers can purchase and download it, the work is done. Except, really, the work has only just begun.

Putting aside the obvious need to promote the app to the public (because no-one is going to purchase the app if they don’t know what it is, what it does, and where to get it), there is a crucial phase that comes after the app is released – and it really has no finite finish date. That phase can be summed up simply as “feedback and action”.

During the development and testing of your app, the coders would’ve been constantly testing functionality and the designers would’ve been tweaking user interface elements to ensure its ease of use. But if you think this is where feedback and action stops, you’re mistaken. You could give your app to 10 people you know, ask them to play around with it, and give you feedback after a week. Whilst this can be a worthwhile exercise, there are a few issues with it. Firstly, there’s a very good chance that given you’re supplying your app to them to test, that you know these people and they will not be brutally honest with you about the positives and negatives of the app. And secondly, ten people is not a good sample size to be receiving feedback from.

So, what is the best sample size? Well, really, it’s the entire user base of your app. If your app has been downloaded 1,000 times, then ideally you want to receive feedback from 1,000 people. This may be optimistic, as not all users of the app will want to supply feedback, or have any criticisms to give. But even if you receive feedback from one quarter of that user base, you’ve got 250 pieces of really usable and valuable feedback. And that’s a lot more valuable feedback than you would get from 10 of your friends!

But how are you going to get that feedback? Well, you have to provide a forum for users to contact you. Sure, facilities like the App Store allow users to rate and leave comments on apps, but this is far from perfect. With one of our own apps, we actually ask our users not to leave feature requests or bug reports in the App Store, because it is both impossible to reply to, and is also not a good look for any potential new users who come across your app. What we do is we ask them to use a series of in-app contact options to leave us feedback, report bugs or request new features. That way, an email comes straight through to us, we can read it, process it, and reply to them in a timely and courteous fashion. For us, this has been an overwhelmingly positive concept, as the app’s rating isn’t scarred by users reporting minor bugs and feature requests, and also we are able to tell our users that we are responsive and actually listen to what they have to say. And your users really will appreciate it when you listen!

Now, going back to the name of this phase (“feedback and action”), the job is only half done. You’ve got your 250 pieces of feedback and criticism from your user base, but now you need to do something with it. You need to take action. Many apps that are released for iPhone, iPad, Android and Blackberry get a single release onto the markets, and then are never touched again. No changes, no updates, no nothing. This is very odd, because it’s unlikely that your app’s first version was 100% perfect in the eyes of your entire user base. So, take those 250 pieces of feedback, filter them, categorise them, rank them by importance and by how many people made the same comment, until you come up with a list of items to ‘action’. Then it’s a matter of actioning those items, testing the app and releasing the second version. Then, the cycle of “feedback and action” simply starts all over again.

Expanding our social reach into Google Plus

Earlier this week, Google enriched their social network, Google Plus, by adding the ability for companies, brands and groups to add their own pages. Whilst there are a few drawbacks, such as the one administrator limitation, the pages themselves have a great look and feel, are very simple to update, and make it easy to switch between controlling a page and controlling your own personal account. Once social media tool creators, such as Seesmic and Hootsuite, add plugins to their software to allow administrators to remote post to their Google Plus pages, the idea of Google Plus pages will begin to become a genuine challenger to Facebook. The challenge for Google is to offer something different, or some VAE’s (value added extras), with Google Plus to entice those who currently frequent existing social media giants Facebook and Twitter.

If you are on Google Plus, then you can now add either Hamson Design Group or Ultimate A-League to your circles. If you’re not on Google Plus, then I’d recommend having a look (especially if you already use other Google products, as your existing account will integrate directly into Plus).

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