Innovations are borne by identifying a clear business problem that can be solved through technology. What are the skills and experience required to manage an IT team to deliver a pioneering AR project?
Paul Martin, Head of IT at UK wallpaper retailer and manufacturer Graham & Brown, spoke to Robert Walters about his progression into a management technology position, key insights into development routes in technology and his experience leading an innovative Augmented Reality (AR) project to create a powerful wallpaper visualisation tool for customers.
Working in-house and in consultancy
Starting out as a software developer, in 1997, Paul explains his experiences of both progressing to run an in-house team and working in consultancy gave him the confidence to start up on his own and venture into contracting and interim assignments.
“Working at IT seller dabs direct (later dabs.com), I was able to be involved in all areas of development as part of a small IT team. By working in this way, I quickly learnt a huge amount about how the business operates. As the business moved to selling on the internet, my role oversaw exponential growth and the knowledge I had gained about how the business operates was vital for building the right systems and processes to support the growth of the business.”
“My experience led to me being recruited to work for a software consultancy as they had seen a clear synergy with my business experience and several of their key retail clients. I could consult with the clients, including Cath Kidston and Fortnum & Mason, about how they could grow their online business whilst leading a development team to implement the required functionality and integration.”
Paul points out that there are big differences between managing an in-house team in comparison to a consultancy or services team:
“As a consultancy you need to balance the technical skills needed in-house with the skills that can deliver projects for clients, whilst still delivering a project. Asking the team to learn new skills means that you lose capacity to deliver projects, it’s a tough balancing act.”
Paul continues, “With an in-house team you must have full autonomy over what technology you can use, but the challenge is around managing the priorities of work. The key is to change the mindset of the business to create a prioritised roadmap of work and ensure that all areas of the business can contribute to its success. Cross-functional teams are essential for this.”
Progressing into management
Business growth and excellent mentoring programmes have been key factors towards Paul progressing into a managerial position:
“As the IT team grew I was given more responsibilities for mentoring the new starters, from recruitment to training them on all aspects of the business. I was very fortunate to have two great mentors during my transition into management who supported me in developing a lot of the soft skills needed to become a leader.”
“I believe that internal development routes should be focused on having in-depth knowledge of how the business operates, how you can implement new processes or techniques, especially for delivering projects, and finally being able to move towards meeting business priorities quicker.”
“As well as internal development routes, taking interim or contract roles is great way to increase your exposure to different working practices. There’s never one perfect way of working so you need to apply your past experiences into the new environment very quickly to deliver results.”
Solving a business problem with AR technology
“At Graham & Brown, there was a low conversion rate for customers buying wallpaper samples and going on to buy wallpaper. Customers could view beautiful wallpaper designs, but were unable to visualise what it would look like on their walls.”
For IT professionals wanting to be involved in an innovation project, look for a real need or issue within your business and investigate whether it can be solved with new technologies.
Paul describes how he built a team with various skill sets to solve this problem with technology:
“We started using the Microsoft HoloLens to view wallpaper on a wall, and bought in local talent from Blackburn College to continue the development of the project. We also sourced post-grads who had done some development or game projects previously via Inspiring Interns. This team managed to successfully create an interactive tour of the production facilities at Graham & Brown. As this project finished, and the students returned to college, ARKit launched on iOS 11, offering another opportunity to develop an Augmented Reality solution to the problem of visualising wallpaper on iPhones and iPads.”
“As the team had not built an app before, we brought in a developer from a Microsoft team based in Portugal. The Technical Architect came over to work with our developer for a week to create the prototype and within a week they had managed to build a proof of concept to create a wall surface and then overlay a wallpaper.”
“As well as bringing in outside skills, it was vital that the team was made up of people from within the business, so we would retain the knowledge should the MVP fail. Working closely with the eCommerce team we seconded the UX lead to join the team to lead the user testing sessions and manage the product backlog.”
The greatest challenge for the team was creating a User Interface (UI) that was simple to use. The team decided to go back to square one with building the UI:
Paul continues, “It turned out to be the best decision we made. The team came up with lots of fresh ideas on creating the UI and we prototyped a few of them and had a new concept within a week. After a successful user testing session and implementing some minor changes, 100% of customers were able to successfully use the interface.”
Networking opportunities with local talent were vital towards learning more about new technologies that the team were engaging with, enabling the team to explore new ideas with experts in the field.
“We had a lot of ideas based on attending the PowerBI events. The team also attended VR Manchester to understand more about UI’s for AR and VR applications. As the team agreed that the best approach would be to build the App in Xamarin instead of building a native iOS App, we also attended a Xamarin meetup to understand its capabilities.”
“Since the launch of the App, the analytics have been incredibly positive. The conversion rate for viewing the wallpaper on the app compared to buying sample has increased by 20% and the time to purchase has decreased by 50%.”
“There has also been a lot of positive feedback on social media from all the videos we have posted and shared with our networks. Augmented Reality is a hot topic right now with lots of companies using it to solve business problems.”
“The App has also been shortlisted for the Retail Week Tech Award for Excellence in Mobile. We are all incredibly proud of this achievement due to how the team worked together to deliver the App in fifteen weeks with a budget of under £50k.”
“The App has now been launched in 55 countries, so we are looking forward to seeing how well it is adopted outside of the UK. The MVP has been a success and our next goal was to make the process as perfect as possible for one wall. This includes the ability to cut out furniture, which will be in the next release.”
“Our BI Manager and Technical Architect will be demoing the App and explaining the analytics behind the project at PowerBI on Thursday 26th July. It will be great to finally show what we have learnt over the duration of the project.”
“For IT professionals wanting to be involved in an innovation project, look for a real need or issue within your business and investigate whether it can be solved with new technologies. Be prepared to fail initially, throw away unsuccessful work and agree success criteria that isn’t focused around a timescale. This will transform the attitude of your team and allow you to deliver the best possible solution to your business.”
Find out how to reserve your place at PowerBI here.
Download the Graham & Brown Augmented Reality App here.