Thursday, July 2, 2009

Some notes on the presentation

Now that the prototype presentation/demo has been done, we've had some time to think about how to proceed with the project. We also take quite a bit of useful info with us from the presentation in form of comments from the people attending.

Overall I think that our demo was a success, and I really feel that we have come pretty far during the short period of time we have been working on this project. Not everything is obviously working well enough for a production release, but the main skeleton is there and working. We are all satisfied with the fact that we held this prototype presentation quite early, as it minimizes the risk of doing the "wrong thing". It is very easy to get blind staring at your own code every day, and with this demo we got fresh eyes looking at the application.

One feature that seemed to really catch the attendees interest is how we lookup locations. By using our own database we can supply locations connected with airports very fast, using auto complete features in the input fields. But the really cool thing is that if we don't have the search string in our database, we will ask Google via the Maps API. Usually, Google can find what your looking for (down to a very detailed level I must say). It then replies with the coordinates of the location, and from that, we can fetch the nearby airports.

It was pretty interesting to demo that feature, as it can find really really small villages, and get the airports. So this means that you no longer have to search for an airport, or a city in which you know there are airports etc, now you can simply search for where you want to go, and we'll find you the airports.

Another thing that was appreciated by the people attending our presentation was the fact that we search while you filter the results. This means that we cut alot of the waiting time that you normally get while doing a search. In many cases, the search results will load in an instant.

But people also had some more sceptical comments. And that is where this gets really interesting. As an example, we have tried to redesign the results page to avoid the very common example of "losing your results". So what does that mean then? Well, it is not uncommon on search results pages to use filters to filter out the results that aren't of interest for you. The problem with this though is that you usually see your results disappear from the screen when you change your filters, so it is hard to relate what you see on the screen to alternatives, as the alternatives isn't visible at all. Sometimes it is even worse - the results are filtered with the search itself, returning only a very specific result set. This means you have to perform a new search just to change a price range, or maybe a set of dates.

We tried an alternative approach to solve this problem, where we display quite a lot of results, based on a very broad settings in relation to the users search. We den use the filters on the client side to filter irrelevant results. This means that we never have to perform a new search as long as the user don't want to change travel locations. Visually we chose to hide irrelevant results with the filters. So result items that for example fall outside the users set price range, will fold itself leaving only a header with the price visible. This means that the user won't have to see the irrelevant result item itself, but a header indicating that "for this price, there is a flight that might interest you". This allows the user to play with the filters, and get a picture of how they might need to change their flight plans to get onto a cheaper flight.

We felt that we had found a neat solution to a common problem with this solution. But we got comments that indicated that there might be problems understanding what you see. The way of displaying the results is fairly unconventional, and might not be as easy to grasp as we had first believed. Basically, the comments indicated that it was just to much to take in for a user, being used to a standard top-to-bottom results list.

In cases like this, we are very lucky we held this presentation early. And I mean that for several reasons. We could try out these alternative solutions without extreme risks, as we knew that people would see and comment it before it was too late to change. This means a very strong feeling of freedom. By working in small steps and keeping the process very transparent, we can try these things. If it works, it works, if it doesn't - no huge harm done.

There is no real risk of pushing a lemon into production - people will simply let us know before it gets too far. But that is if we get it wrong. This freedom also means that we might come up with something new, and it will be really good - just because we have the room to take these "risks".

The OpenJet project is in fact a very big project, but we treat it kind of like a smaller project, focusing on the small things one by one. I am sure that we will succeed with this project as it is not only about us developers, it is also about all the other great people we work closely with. And these are the people that give us invalueable input during our presentations.

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