The project we set out to build
During a regular meeting with our Google liaisons, one of them said “Look what I found!”, showing off the latest model of Google Glass. We knew there and then, we wanted to build something cool to explore its capabilities and have a bit of fun along the way. So we assembled a team which was both small to be nimble and to reduce overhead, but big enough to cover all expertises we’d expect to need for the project. A typical cross-functional team we’ve learned to create so well over the years at bol.com.
Our final product consisted of a DEMO to showcase the capabilities of Google Glass. We got our hands on a few of the latest editions of the device, which comes with a wide series of upgrades and new capabilities (eg. better battery life and execution of machine learned models on device). We showcased these capabilities within some of the bol.com core processes, what we call product put-away and product picking. Product put-away consists of placing the items we keep on stock on the right shelves within our warehouses. Here they wait to be ordered by our customers. Once ordered, the process of product picking collects the items from these shelves and prepares them to be packaged and shipped.
We wanted to show this DEMO to everyone at bol.com, but of course we could not bring everyone to our fulfillment centers in Waalwijk. So we brought Waalwijk to them! We constructed a pop-up warehouse just five isles wide, but enough to give an impression of the real deal. By adding bol.com boxes, stickers and signage to the place, it felt right at home. And for a full week, everyone could come and visit. You needed no preparation and the full experience took about 10-15 minutes. We’d explain what we did, how Google Glass works and what the assignment was you’d have to complete. And then it was up to our solution to prove itself.
We created software that would recognize specialized QR codes to identify where you were and which product you were looking at. By overlaying information we could help people find their way and complete the task. Of course, there were some minor issues to be resolved or improved, but most people got to complete their assignment with relative ease. And during their assignment, they got to experience how technology can help us and have a bit of fun in the process. To get a better idea of what we built and how the DEMO looked, check out the video below:
The things we learned along the way
We learned a lot from picking up this project together. First of all, the importance of having a clear shared goal. We were often working asynchronously, and we did not have a lot of time to spend. Making sure we’d make the most out of what we had was of vital importance. We met regularly but briefly and spent most of our time communicating with each other on what the end result could look like, and how we could best get there. By making clear choices on what was in and out of scope, we made sure we deliver on an MPV with room to add more if we would ever have time left. Also, this clarity allowed people to make choices whilst coding, because everyone knew the story we wanted to tell and what we wanted to achieve. Finally, heated arguments up front ensured we’d end up on a strategy to build things we knew would be the best we could come up with and best utilize all we had at our disposal. We for instance saved a lot of development time, by connecting to the right experts which already had a library available. We also found smart ways to inform the device where the wearer was located, by putting up specific QR-codes. By having conversations up front on how to implement this solution, we saved a lot of time on preventing reworks and making sure we’d get it right the first time around.
Secondly, we learned the power of putting technology in peoples hands and letting them experience what is possible. We got the best possible feedback, simply because people now had experience which they did not have before. This helped us improve the DEMO, this helped Google to learn more about their Glasses, this helped bol.commers learn more about their own company. Everyone involved had something to gain. It also affirmed our belief that the discovery of new products and solutions is very valuable and does not have to take a lot of resources. In the end, most of what we built was done by three people in two weeks. That is something that should fit in any roadmap. The learnings we got informed us about the best path forward, something that would otherwise be learned only after building a suboptimal solution.
Finally, we found how far you can get by focussing on the discovery process and getting a minimal viable product up and running first. This does not have to be perfect to get vital feedback. We used simple prints stuck to cardboard boxes that allowed us to play around with the location of the QR codes. And the moment we got actual users into our DEMO, we learned we were going about it all wrong. And that is the type of feedback and rapid learning that prevents waste created from assumptions. Combine that with a growth mindset and not taking yourself and your project too seriously, and you have all the ingredients to learn at rocket speeds.
The fun we had whilst doing it
You won’t believe the wide range of situations you end up in, when setting out on projects like these. Whilst developing, you burn through a ton of ideas, the one crazier than the next. Given the time available to us, we had to kill many darling ideas, but simply brainstorming on the possibilities itself was a source of energy. Next, the look on the teams’ eyes when a new feature is developed is fantastic. We knew up front that many libraries are available for the Google Glass, such as object detection and QR-code scanning, but until you see them work you can’t be sure. Seeing skilled engineers making the ideas come alive is always a pleasure.
Finally, building the pop-up warehouse itself involves a lot of mundane tasks. And when we say a lot, think A LOT! We needed to arrange for shelving, monitors, communications, stickers and everything. And then there were the boxes themselves. Hundreds of boxes. And all of these needed to be folded and taped. Folding itself took us about five hours, but many hands make light work. When during that process the CFO walks by and asks (rightly so) what you are doing, you need to be prepared with a business case justifying the work as well.
The reason why you should also do these things
We knew before we started that we had a substantial business case to justify the exploration of new technology and a new way of working. Despite that, convincing others to adopt Google Glass was never the main goal. Simply put, we also did not know up front how well the technology would perform, so how could we have that as a goal? So what was the main goal? We wanted to bring people together and show in practice what our culture and values are all about. And that is exactly what all great companies to work should be doing. To not have their culture written down on a piece of paper, but have it be something tangible. Something you can see, something you can touch, something you can tell your friends about. And if indeed you also work at a company which is a great place to work, you’ll have tons of fun doing so.
Want to learn more about our project or Google glass? Check out: