Finding the right place and time for innovation


At Datacom, we’re continually devising and developing new IT products, services or solutions that will benefit our customers, as well as thinking about ways to use technology for internal innovation. One thing we try to keep top of mind when going through this process is that, sometimes, it’s best to look elsewhere. That is, consider things that have been perfected in other industries for potential application in your own.

Taking time out of corporate life

For example, when we worked with AUT to develop our Smart Timetables solution, we looked to the corporate environment for inspiration and guidance. Here, calendars and related productivity tools are used on mobile devices, and relied on by countless people, every day.

Why were we looking to innovate in this particular area with AUT? Perhaps surprisingly, even nowadays timetabling in tertiary education is often a manual process in many respects, and designed with staff, rather than students, in mind. Students may have to use paper timetables and/or go to websites proactively to access them, if in fact they are available online at all. And even if education providers use specialist timetabling software, it usually isn’t designed to deliver data directly to mobile devices.

Among other problems with this state of affairs, it’s difficult to notify students in advance of changes to their timetables if, for instance, a lecturer calls in sick. All too often, if a class is cancelled or the room has changed, the first students know about it is after they’ve turned up. Obviously, this can lead to confusion, frustration and missed lectures.

Smart Timetables is a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution that solves these and other problems for students, staff and education providers alike. The Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) is using it to help revolutionise the student experience and reduce the administration burden on staff. It does this by automating the delivery of up-to-date, personalised timetables – enriched with information such as maps, assignment due dates and tutorial reminders – directly into their phone and tablet calendars.

Finding your way

Speaking of maps, helping students to find their way on campus is an area where education providers have taken a leaf out of the airport industry’s book.

Airport wayfinding is an art and science that has been honed over decades. Every year, millions of visitors pass through airports in Auckland, Sydney and other major destinations around the world. Every day, would-be passengers need to find the right car park, entrance, check-in desk and boarding gate. Airport wayfinding therefore needs to be as intuitive and fool-proof as possible to help visitors, who speak an array of languages, to get to their destination, enjoy their experience and, of course, do some shopping.

Over the past few years, its core principles and best practices – including crystal-clear signposting and indoor mapping – have been adopted successfully by tertiary education providers, and achieved positive outcomes on campus. With Smart Timetables, wayfinding has become even easier for students and staff, with their class times and locations always up-to-date on their personal devices.  The calendar and wayfinding functions will continue to converge as we integrate on-campus directions, such as Google’s Indoor Maps functionality, into Smart Timetables in the near future.

Don’t get lost in translation

When you are adapting or building solutions for a different industry or area it’s crucial to know the potential new users as well as possible, and avoid making assumptions. A close understanding of the ways in which all people process and interpret images was key to refining airport, and university, wayfinding. Having adequate knowledge of how students use their personal timetables – in comparison with corporate workers especially – was crucial to the success of Smart Timetables.

An important finding from the early stages of designing the solution was that students are not as used to using calendars to manage their time as those of us in corporate life. Where we tend to rely on them heavily every day, up until Smart Timetables came along students simply didn’t have a good reason to use their calendars on their phones or tablets.

Our research showed that, although students use WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram and many other apps on their mobile devices, very few of them make extensive use of their phone or tablet calendars. Indeed, in a focus group we held, 45% of students said they used their laptops as the primary digital device to access their calendar in the university setting. Among other things, this meant that the solution needed to be as easy as possible to start using, from any device, so we built it to require only a login and password to get going.

We also found that students use a vast range of mobile phones and tablets. This meant that going down the app path wasn’t the best option, as it would require ongoing commitment to updating, for instance. And that’s why no download or app is required with Smart Timetables, and it is compatible with all major mobile platforms.

The right place at the right time

Overall, the Smart Timetables example serves as a reminder of how even simple solutions focused on a specific area can have a powerful positive impact on users. It also shows how there are many areas ripe for innovation in all sorts of industries. And with research and ingenuity, and best practice design and development, something that works well in one situation can be made to work well in another.

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