Ladies and gentlemen, another weekend is finally upon us. Welcome to this installation of the Teardown Report, where we will dissect an ambitious iPad app project that Conduce Group undertook yesterday for its #ConduceHackDay coding bonanza.
Before we start, let’s just get something straight. In the wake of recent data breeches, “hacking” has now become a buzzword that many equate with security threats and illegal behavior. Just so there is no confusion, I’m not writing about that kind of malicious hacking in today’s blog post, at all—Conduce is using the term “hackday” to refer to a day-long event of making an iPad app. Like a lot of developers, this team is using their web skills to ease companies’ headaches and better protect their data. The term “hackday” in this context describes all-day marathon of coding applications and programs that can make technicians' lives easier. Here’s how Conduce’s Paul Saunders describes what a hackday is:
SAUNDERS: “A hackday is an event where you get developers and designers together and you build something from scratch on a single day or gathering and you have a very limited amount of time to complete your project. Some companies use these for recruiting events or at development conferences. We’ve never done one before, but we’ve had team get-togethers where we have brainstormed new products or ideas.
We had a Gamification day last year where we all got together and played video games all night and discussed the merits of using game mechanics in our software. The result of that is that we have a real anal attention to the physics of the touch and feel of our software. When you have an animated menu or scrolling interface it has to be ‘just right.’ We’ve been talking about doing a hack day for a while and as we were all together to start a new project that commenced last week it was a case of now-or-never.”
Conduce Group focuses on the niche area of MRO apps, so it was natural that they would decide to choose a project that could make maintenance technicians’ lives easier. The developers had been hearing airlines talk about their need for an app that could help with recording cabin defects, so they decided to utilize this day to develop it without a launch customer.
To give its Internet audience a feel for the hours of sweat and tears that go into making an iPad app, Conduce kept a real-time diary of the project on its blog and an outline of actions they performed to make the app on Backpack. Here’s what Saunders has to say about the premise of the app, which they named “Defexx”:
SAUNDERS: “We’ve been talking to lots of clients about building a defects app. We’ve done apps for safety management system and fatigue risk management and everyone we have spoken to has said, ‘We’d love to do the same with cabin defects! They are such a pain at the moment!.’ Our reaction has always been ‘Great, that would be dead easy!’ But nobody has been willing to dip into their pockets and get it commissioned. So we finally decided to beat them to the drop and just do it. We know there is a market and we know exactly what is required. It was just a case of setting aside the time. "
But what’s the use case for an iPad app like Defexx and its accompanying web-based tool?
SAUNDERS: The use case is pretty straightforward. A member of cabin crew is equipped with an iPad with the Defexx app on it. They are informed of a cabin defect and they raise it there and then on the app. The defects are all stored in the iPad and can be either resolved or deferred at the end of the flight.
Once the iPad gets a comms connection once the aircraft is back on the ground, the defects are then uploaded to our web server. Our web application then allows someone back at base to review the defects,or they can be intergrated straight into the operators ERP, MRO or eTechlog system. We have designed the app to work without the web application and simply email the defects as a .pdf file to whoever is nominated as the email recipient. It’s a similar use case we follow for our safety management application.
This whole process is designed to replace a paper process which as we all know is clumsy, painful and subject to all kinds of problems. Our aim is the rid the aviation world of the fax machine! You could use the same infrastructure to replace paper forms that line engineers, dispatchers or anyone else would use.
Here are some photos of how the iPad app and accompanying web app evolved from just an idea to a usable tool, and a cool behind-the-scenes look at how developers actually make these things.
Here’s a a first sketch of the iPad home screen interface, which Paul put up on the Conduce whiteboard on Thursday morning.
Here is the first sketch of the iPad defect form, which is also the base for designing a database. In green is the form, red is the data structure and blue is the client validation.
As you can see, things are getting more complicated. In this photo, the developers planned the layout and dimensions of the app pages. Apparently, you can’t just make these things whatever size you want.
Then, with a bit of magic, voila! Somehow, all of those numbers and squiggles on the whiteboard turn into this:
And then the final product:
Here is a photo of the iPad app defect form:
To see Defexx in action, check out this video of the developers testing it out. If you are confused about what Marcin is entering into the fields on the iPad, read Conduce’s narration below to get a better feel for what is going on.
SAUNDERS: "The video which we posted to the blog was the very first working test of the connection from the iPad app to the database and web app. You saw Marcin, our iOS developer, complete the defect form on the iPad. The app knew who he was, the date and time and therefore in theory what flight he was on. He entered the ATA chapter number and seat number (if applicable) and then the defect text.
We then give the user a couple of options about resolution, but we will need to check with users about how they want that part to work and how we handle the sign off. Typically that would be done in the techlog--we are not attempting to replace that, only supplement the data acquisition. Once he has entered all the data he saved the defect. The defect goes into a queue, so you saw him drop into there where there was a list of sent and unsent items. He then sends everything from the unsent queue which then uploads to our web server.
You then saw me switch the view to our web app which I was already logged into. I hit refresh the there the data was. Simple! So the iPad app would be used by the cabin crew or a line engineer. The web application might be used by a Maintenance Controller or tech records clerk, but you could easily skip the web app completely and review the data in the integrated ETL, ERP or MRO system."
Even though the premise is “simple,” a look at the Conduce blog is proof of how many hours it takes to get this thing to work. Saunders told me about the hardest technical challenges of the day:
SAUNDERS "The hardest problem to solve today was to do with converting to UTC time. We wanted to be able to use as much metadata from the iPad as possible to solve the problem of reducing the amount of manual data entry the iPad user has to make. So we automatically store the data and time that the defect is raised but we convert that to UTC as this is what everybody uses. However depending on how the time is configured on the iPad there are several ways of converting to UTC. The user for example might have set their timezone to GMT+1 but then set their clock backwards manually. So it’s not perfect if the user has fiddled around with their time and timezone settings. In the end we gave up trying to be ultra-clever and let the user manually change the time if it isn’t right. Apart from that – everything went to plan more or less."
So, we clearly see that the app works in at least some capacity. But is it actually functional?
SAUNDERS "Since yesterday we’ve had a lot of interest in the app and are meeting with a UK airline on Tuesday next week to discuss integrating the app with their ETL application and procedures.
We’ve also had a US software company get in touch about helping them with a hackday proof of concept product too. Regarding the app there’s a bit of tidy up required and a few airworthiness and approval considerations to tweak, but its 95% done. We’re also going to try and get the image attachment included before we launch the product in the next few days."
I want to thank the Conduce team for sharing this process with us and giving us the screenshots to illustrate the project! It will be very interesting to see how airlines respond and give feedback on the final product.