Sense and operability

Dick and Jane taught it. Ernie and Bert demonstrated it, as did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Batman and Robin and even Fred and Barney. Our moms encouraged it, our teachers demanded it and Mr. Dressup discussed it with Casey and Finnegan. With all of these lectures and examples of co-operation thrust at us practically from birth, it was inevitable that the business world would give it a whirl sooner or later. Of course, this being IT, the concept of cooperation has manifested itself in an ultra-cool way.

After the extravagant highs and embarrassing lows of the late ’90s and the year 2000, businesses are recognizing that budgets are indeed exhaustible, and that proceeding with caution into anything new isn’t old-economy thinking, but rather, the only way to proceed. Blossoming alongside this recognition are centres based on the tenets of collaboration, cost reduction and practicality. These centres provide a wide variety of services and applications, but all share the common purpose of serving as high-tech parachutes: rather than rescue clients with an after-the-fact safety net, the centres push their clients out of the plane fully prepared.

In May, Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc. opened a storage competency centre in DigiDyne Inc.’s head office in Montreal. Part educational facility, part showroom, the centre provides a place for potential and existing customers to experiment with storage solutions in a controlled environment before committing to a configuration.

Antoine Rollet, a storage sales specialist at the centre explained the benefits of testing a storage area network before implementing one into a company.

“The SAN business is not a question of plumbing, but a question of managing the software and knowing how to automate the network,” Rollet said. “In our business, every year there are new unknowns. You don’t know what the economy will do. Without the competency centre, you have two choices: guess and hope it will be okay, or invest and not use it. In both cases, the customer is going to lose.”

Jerry Preziuso, DigiDyne’s vice-president of sales and marketing, described the centre’s mission as being a proof of concept facility.

“Seeing is believing,” Preziuso said. “We have customers with specific mission-critical applications, and they would like to see what kinds of performance they can achieve with these types of technologies. We go through a simulation of what their environment is like and what their needs are and do things like performance assessments based on the technologies.”

collaborative atmosphere

Walking into the Toronto Centre for IBM e-business Innovation is like stepping onto a Stanley Kubrick movie set that has been furnished by Ikea.

Colourful and funky, the innovation centre is the antithesis of a cubicle maze, and was clearly designed for its occupants’ comfort and enjoyment. It’s a centre dedicated to all aspects of e-business and places as much importance on the creative side of its methodology as on the technical side. The centre serves as a place for clients to bring visions for their e-business, and encourages a collaborative atmosphere.

“E-business is not easy,” Margo Lennon, manager of the centre explained. “The ‘e’ does not stand for easy. It’s a lot harder for clients when they feel, ‘I need a strategist. I need somebody to help with re-branding myself. I need someone to help me with channel integration, I need another firm to help me with my creative vision, and another to write the application.’ And for every company that comes in, there’s a breakage in the vision, methodology, deliverables and accountability.

“The Innovation Centre is able to put everybody under one roof, as opposed to the different divisions. Now we’ve made it easier to work with our clients. No matter where you are in the life cycle of your vision, we can take you through to the end,” Lennon said.

Barbara Minor, the Toronto-based corporate communications manager for Sony Canada, has found that using IBM’s centre has simplified the process of building a site because every member of the team is coming from one place with one methodology.

“It’s made such a difference,” Minor stated, referring to the Innovation Centre’s one-stop-shop. “[With other solutions] you think that you’re going to a speciality of paint and wall paper and then you go to a speciality of the back end, whereas under the IBM roof, we’ve been able to get both.”

The Advanced Visualization Centre, located in the Design Exchange in Toronto, is a facility where users can view real-time 3D images in an interactive and immersive environment. Open since November 2000, the Visualization Centre played a key role in Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympics by creating a 3D model of the city as it would look during the games.

According to Alice Lee, director of business development for the Advanced Visualization Centre, customers can use the space and the technology to assist in urban planning and simulation, architectural visualization, task simulation, virtual training and entertainment. The Reality Theatre includes a wide, curved screen, and is adjacent to the Design Lab, which is used for content development, model creation and training. The centre can be used to build and test simulated prototypes, thereby reducing cost and encouraging a collaborative environment.

“It’s really good for designers,” Lee explained. “If you’re building a dashboard for a car interior and there are a lot of changes, you can get a lot of people involved – someone from marketing, someone from engineering, someone from planning. It allows group interaction. You’re not just looking at a drawing, but you’re actually able to see the product. You can spin it around and interact with it, you can make changes and see the changes as you go along.”

a logical step

Tom Healey, the Toronto-based chief marketing officer for Burntsand’s Authorized iForce Ready Center in Calgary, claims that the sudden emergence of these types of centres should not come as a surprise.

“The use of them has gone up because people have slowed down a little bit,” Healey suggested. “It would have been a logical step if people weren’t in such an incredible hurry. Now that the pressure is off somewhat, this step can be included. I won’t say that everybody skipped it before, either. Some people did go through this. It’s not a radical concept, as far as design and development goes. What is a little different now, at least from Burntsand’s point of view, is the mix of ingredients that we have in the centre and the reach of the centre. The theory behind it is pretty standard stuff.”

Burntsand’s iForce Center conducts proof-of-concept exercises by creating a replica of a company’s environment in what Healy describes as an industrial strength sandbox.

“If I want to stress-test some software by seeing how much pressure I can put on it, how many users I can add, and find out when it fails, I can do that,” Healy said, noting that this sort of testing would be risky, if not foolish to perform within a company.

Warren Chaisatien, an analyst for IDC Canada agrees, and believes that for this reason development and simulation centres are going to become increasingly important for businesses.

“We have learned a lot from the late 1990s,” Chaisatien said. He stressed that these types of centres will be particularly helpful for those who are “new in e-business, are not sure which direction they should be going and are not sure of what solutions will work. It’s a good test ground for a lot of people, and I believe that they are very beneficial to smaller companies who don’t have deep pockets.”

The Java Development Centre at PNI Corp. (formerly Pivotal Networks Inc.) in St. John’s, Nfld., is aimed at smaller businesses. Des Whelan, director of PNI, identifies the lab as a location for the acceleration of the growth of Java development in Atlantic Canada. Servicing the local Newfoundland and Labrador IT sector, the lab allows customers to test Java development projects on the Lab’s multiple development platforms.

A true demonstration of co-operation in IT, the lab is in a partnership with Sun Microsystems, Operation Online and the College of the North Atlantic, and serves as a place for its customers to network with one another.

“We form an infrastructure for small companies to do testing, and form part of the network that allows the industry to grow,” Whelan said. “Sun Microsystems has made contributions of equipment, and small companies wouldn’t ordinarily have access to that kind of equipment, which helps them compete internationally.”

making sense

Devlin Applied Design expanded its Usability Lab in May of this year, but the centre has been open since 1996, making it one of the first of its kind in Canada. The Toronto-based lab provides testing of Web sites throughout the design and development process by using focus groups, computer tracking and video taping. The thrust of this lab is to determine how effective and navigable a Web site is before it ever makes an appearance on the Internet.

“The Usability centre here is a Lab where we can observe and track the activity of a user on a Web site to determine how clearly they can understand and access the information,” Toronto-based Catharine Devlin, president and CEO of Devlin Applied Design, explained.

“The target audience is specified by the client. You can test your site using designers. You can use typical clients of the company, or use people who have no clue as to what they’ve seen.”

Top o’ the Mast Inc., a Toronto advertising agency specializing in the financial field, hired Devlin for help with the Web site for iUnits for Barclays Global Investors, and engaged the Usability Lab.

“It is not inexpensive,” Morgan Earl, chief navigator with Top o’ the Mast admitted. “Adding the usability factor testing into the budget might add a considerable amount – it’s the call by the client. Sometimes usability testing has to be done two or three times, but I can’t see companies not doing it.

“It’s like a hands-on focus group,” Earl explained. “You sit behind a one-way mirror and the testers go through a series of assigned tasks to see how they manage.”

For the iUnits site, the testers had various levels of investing education and knowledge, but were all given the same tasks.

“Some managed well and some were confused,” Earl continued. “It was interesting to see some of them struggle along. Once we did the testing, [Devlin] made a series of recommendations for improvements of the site. It all made sense.”

These centres are really the tip of the iceberg in Canada. Companies like Microsoft and Ericsson have centres, as do many Canadian colleges and universities. Dick and Jane would be proud.