New Year (Re)Solutions.

Joe Turgeon
Posted

As we begin a new year, we tend to think about the challenges and exciting new ventures in 2014.  We are excited to take on new projects this year and create innovative creative solutions for the digital challenges we help our clients solve with open source technology. Sometimes people forget that the web is still a frontier, and as such, is constantly evolving. Big brands, like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are always innovating. Their work sets a standard, but it’s not always clear the effort or cost involved in it. Here is the reality: these companies spend millions of dollars building proprietary code and often contributing to open source libraries, and they constantly test the effectiveness of their approach to be more successful.

In this post, we are going to focus on the nexus of where business problems meet common technical challenges and the innovative open source solutions that we have developed in the past year.

Successful innovation depends on solving problems. There are all sorts of problems, but let’s start with 3 main types we often encounter.

  • Business Problem - This is a problem specific to how your business works. It likely does not need a technical solution. However, the reality is that sometimes changing peoples hearts & minds is harder than a basic engineering solution. The choice to confront a human issue or craft a technical response should depend on business value.
  • Application Problem - Regardless of the framework, language, or infrastructure used, there are often challenges and frustrations that result in more cost and time expended to accomplish a given task. Even though solving the application problem does not directly serve a business value, it is sometimes necessary in order to accomplish the business need.
  • Common Problem - This is a problem that is common across the web. It does not have a standard solution, though might have been solved to a limited extent. Typically it involves more expense to solve a common problem than a client organization without a technical mission could incur.

In order to frame some of the solution spaces we are interested in covering, we’ve Included some fictional yet inspired quotes - and some conversational user stories  to illustrate the problems and  solutions.

Flexible Forms“I am looking to find new interactive ways to digitally engage readers for an online magazine  that has recently decided to drive readers to action based activities... oh and the deadline is yesterday!”As a site administrator for a publishing site, I’d like to be able to create a form for a special user initiatives that  I’m promoting through twitter, so that I can generate buzz about a new focus and online publication...oh and I need to this in the next hour!

Forms aren’t new to the web, and open source solutions for creating and managing forms have grown more advanced. The standard Drupal solution for forms, the Webform module, provides a “what you see is what you get” experience for building forms and has become a full-fledged SAAS offering at Webform.com. However, there’s still custom development work involved in getting the form to display just right, in allowing an unusual form of input, in posting form results to a specific service or via a formatted email, or enforcing some kind of business logic. Often the purpose of forms is stretched to handle things like event registration, sign ups, and scheduling if a more specific application is unavailable or difficult to integrate with a web site.

We’ve met challenges from many clients to build one-off or managed form systems with a variety of integrations, and we’re looking forward to the next project that lets us continue to refine solutions in this space.

Robust Ecommerce and Donation Processing“I wish I could create a specific page for campaign donations, but my site only has one way to make an online donation without having to hire a development team to build a custom page!”As a Development Officer for a national non-profit that focuses on Veteran’s rights, I’d like to create a custom funding page that encourages donors to contribute directly to a fund that sends veterans to natural cooking school so that I can reach people directly who care about funding this specific initiative of healthy eating and PTSD.

We’re also excited about the growing field of payment processors, virtual currencies, and online marketplaces. We’ve worked on ecommerce solutions for enterprise clients and donation systems for nonprofit organizations.

Solutions range from building a self-hosted, custom e-commerce applications, to leveraging proven third-party services. In some cases, a custom approach is needed to provide a fully branded experience, sufficient forward-looking flexibility, or alignment with basic business needs. In other cases, organizations benefit from using a tried-and-true, familiar service, like Amazon Marketplace or Crowdrise.

We understand the importance of helping clients find the right solution for their specific ecommerce and payment processing services.

Mobile Messaging and Push Notifications“I'm on the road and I feel out of touch with my web based sales pipeline!”As a busy sales executive for my growing socially responsible global business, I am constantly on the road and would like to have a mobile push alert sent to my phone when a new lead or sales question is filled out on my website so that I can have a quicker way to keep my finger on the pulse  of the market without having to be in my inbox.

Now nearly every project accounts for mobile devices in some way. We’ve built sites from the ground up that are “fully responsive” or provide a specific mobile experience, and also “retrofitted” existing sites to add mobile capabilities. The web is shifting to improve support  for mobile browsing.

We’re excited for more opportunities to engage mobile users through messaging and push notifications. Providing direct updates to mobile devices to promote critical information or to facilitate discussions can provide an increased amount of sustained connections with site visitors and user members.

Responsive Maps“I’m stuck in midtown and I need to find out which trains are delayed in real time!”As a site visitor to a municipal transportation website, I would like to access an easy to read detailed map that contains information about the best form of transportation from my mobile phone so that I can easily get to my next destination.

Maps have played an important part of the way information is presented on the web. With mobile devices, maps are taking on an even more immediate and utilitarian role: they help us get where we’re going, find something we need, or provide context about where we are.

We’ve taken several approaches to integrate maps with web sites. We see more opportunity for building stand alone map presentations that integrate custom datasets and provide the look-and-feel of a map application on desktop and mobile devices alike.

Information Crawler“The arts organization that my foundation supports is doing such great work, but I don’t have enough time or resources to feature the constant stream of amazing content and events they are putting on! I wish my website had a dynamic way of featuring all these amazing art initiatives!”As the grants manager for a family foundation that focuses on supporting a wide variety of arts organizations, I’d like to be able to feature articles and updates from my grantees in a special search section so that I can highlight ongoing successes without having the overhead of posting content.

One of the values of the web is presenting information in a common format that can be aggregated and searched. Traditional approaches to search are to narrow the scope to a single site for on site search experiences or to leverage a search provider like Google.

Some use cases call for a more configurable approach, where one can control the web site or other resources crawled and how the index is constructed and how the relevance of the content is calculated. This includes when the search index should encompass multiple web sites or data from other kinds of sources, like spreadsheets or external databases.

We’ve built search solutions for several clients, and are interested in building more complex applications for crawling, aggregating, and indexing data.

Onward

The motivation for this reflection on problems and solutions is our excitement for new challenges, new solutions, and new technology.  We’d like to hear from you about your problems, solutions and goals for the New Year!  We look forward to finding a way to help develop innovative solutions with open source technologies.

Joe Turgeon