Kicking real goals in Information Technology

No, this is not another meaningless political slogan. I just want to tell the story about some fantastic work we've completed for one of our major clients. Something a bit out of the ordinary from what we normally boast about, and something our team is quite proud of. It also reminded me why we are in this game, the IT industry: to support the business.

It's fairly common knowledge that one of our largest clients is Mastercard. In particular, we work with Access Prepaid on the Cash Passport brands. Over the years, we've built out numerous interfaces and applications geared towards selling, servicing and managing significant volumes of cards, cardholders and transactions. This is across numerous brands and cardholder programs. In the grand scheme of things, what we do is but a small part of the huge complex beast that is the world of card servicing and banking. None-the-less, it is an important part, because the part we build is often what the customer sees.

It's great that people often want to throw money at a new EDM marketing campaign, or setup a white-label site to tap a new market, or build out new features and develop the latest responsive site with all the bells and whistles. This is of course what we are good at, and is the kind of work people generally think a web development agency does. And yes, of course we love to do this type of work, it is what we do most of the time. We build out great conversion funnels and user interfaces, then get into the juicy stuff of customer acquisition where producers drool over heatmaps and clients disect analytics and think up the next best A/B testing scenarios.

While the customer (and the aquisition) is obviously important, they aren't the only users. Sometimes we overlook the people who are using the back-end day-in, day-out, that being the staff who process the orders. This would commonly be the web manager or content manger on the client side, logging into the CMS to post the daily blog or update the product inventory. For Access Prepaid specifically, all those card orders, transfers and cash outs require processing, and there is a dedicated team employed to handle this. They are a huge stakeholder and unlike the customer who orders a card and occasionally returns to top-up their funds, behind the scenes it is the Mastercard staff who use the system every day, hours on end, five days a week.

The Challenge

The phrase 'skin in the game' comes to mind. Mastercard invest significant money and we deliver very complex, bespoke applications. And the risk obviously is that these applications need to deliver, normally that would be through new card sales, better customer experiences, increased market share, all that. The project I refer to here was a doozy - streamline the order management system (OMS) and increase the efficiency of the system and the staff operating it. And so we did.

The existing OMS was largely delivered as a piecemeal system. Some initial UX work was coupled together with a design that we had used for previous (similar) bespoke content management interfaces. It was not a design that was created specifically for purpose. As months and years went by, more functions, reports and complexities were built in, often bypassing the UX and IA experts. A scope document or change request would be sent directly to the developers who mashed in the new feature logically and functionally, but without much thought given to the overall experience. As a result, things got clunky, processes were time consuming and application speed degraded. I wouldn't go as far as to say 'spaghetti code' but you get the drift. It's a familiar story.

The Solution

We put the interface through the wringer. Six weeks later our brilliant minds had come up with a brand new prototype, subtly re-worked the visual interface and rebuilt the core functions.

One of the largest problems was the amount of manual processing that was required. We developed numerous algorithms and rules that pitted orders against payments. Where previously they would not match due to inconsistent payment amounts or missing reference numbers and the like, we were able to develop the application to resolve a far greater number of mis-matches than previously. This severely reduced manual intervention for individual orders.

We also introduced multi-threading - by definiton a technique by which a single set of code can be used by several processors at different stages of execution. In reality this meant that instead of orders lining up single file for processing, we were pushing them through a helluvalot faster.

The Result

What we came up with was nothing short of a 'magic box' where orders and payments went in, and a list of perfectly matched transactions was generated and processed.

we effectively slashed two-thirds of a processing team overnight

Previously, it would take three full-time staff, all day (7-8 hours each!) to process the orders, every day. At the end of the streamlining project, the same number of orders could be processed by just one person in under three hours! This is a system that is used to process potentially thousands of orders per day, and we are still setting new efficiency records daily. Do the maths, and you can see that we've been able to effectively free up (save) in order of 4,680 man hours per year. That's 668 days, or 133 weeks. It is an 86% reduction in the time taken to perform these crucial, daily tasks, and almost industrial-revolution "esque" in the way we effectively slashed two-thirds of a processing team overnight.

My initial elation at the news was momentarily soured when I realised our new system had the potential to cost two loyal employees their jobs. Don't worry, I have it on good authority that they've been moved sideways into the testing department (ooh, a fate worse than redundancy?!)

Needless to say, the general manager of operations is one extremely happy bunny.

Sometimes we get caught up in how clever we can be, how cool our interfaces are, or get all giddy as we follow the latest trends. But nothing will impress a client more than a tangible result like saving them 18 hours of work per day. It is why Information Technology exists. The purpose of IT is not so that we can all walk around with the latest devices looking cool, stroking each others beards while we pretend that we're smarter than everyone else. The purpose of IT is to support the business. And this is a great example of where we have made a wonderful impact.