Lean Support: The Case of HoloBuilder

SupportWhen I started working on HoloBuilder.com over a year ago, there was no support. Of course, we would’ve immediately helped anyone who sent us a question via e-mail or Twitter, but those options weren’t communicated anywhere. Users accessing HoloBuilder ended up directly in our augmented/virtual reality creator, the only way for communication with us being a “leave feedback” option indicated by a line chart icon. HoloBuilder menu (old)However, “leaving feedback” is definitely not the same as “getting support” or “getting help”. Thus, following my UX rule #1, support functionality was de facto nonexistent. Also, we had neither a knowledge base nor a collection of FAQs, no support personnel and user feedback was still pretty rare.

Hence, due to the limited resources in a start-up, we decided for a lean support approach. That is, we rolled out HoloBuilder support in small pieces, treating every stage like a minimum viable product (this is also what Nate Munger describes on Quora).

Making Support Visible

First, we added a “?” icon next to the feedback option, which was visible at any time and clearly showed the user that they could get help. Since there were no FAQs available yet, clicking the new support option simply instructed the user to send their question via e-mail or Twitter. As you can see, we changed nothing about our support back-end, but we finally made the possibility to get help visible to the user, which is already a huge gain. This was confirmed by an increasing number of relevant support request that reached us in terms of e-mails and tweets.

Growing a Knowledge Base on Demand

Second, to continually grow a knowledge base, we created a blog for development news and tutorials, which can be found at createholo.com. In that blog, we publish solutions to (potential) problems on demand, i.e., when users get back to us with questions or when new HoloBuilder features are released. CreateHolo was then linked as “Tutorials” on our new landing pages, which we created to provide users with some introductory information and help before being confronted with the AR/VR creator itself. However, through heat map analyses, we found that the tutorials gained more attention when changing the link text to “Help & Tutorials”. This indicates that “help” is still the major keyword when it comes to support.

Adding Channels

In the next step, we integrated a tawk.to live chat into our HoloBuilder pricing page as soon as it went live in January 2016. In this way, we established a third feedback channel in our support back-end with almost all of our employees acting as support agents, thus providing a more direct and personal connection to users with urgent questions. Since our experiences with the live chat feature have been consistently positive so far, we plan to extend it to our different landing pages as well in the future.

Collecting & Organizing Feedback

Finally, all questions and pieces of feedback we receive through our three support channels—e-mail, Twitter and live chat—are collected and organized in a dedicated Trello board. Based on that board, on a regular basis, we decide on feature requests, tutorials to be written and continuously grow the aforementioned knowledge base. The FAQs collected in that knowledge base are at the same time treated as a list of to-dos for our internal UX team. Some particularly crucial FAQs are already featured on the HoloBuilder pricing page. Interaction with those FAQs is tracked anonymously to find out what users struggle with most. Interestingly, interactions seem to be not overly influenced by position bias since FAQ #8 at the very bottom receives the second-highest attention in terms of clicks.

To conclude, by following a lean support approach, we have established a well-working process and a convincing customer success rate within a year, without additional resources or personnel. The next big milestone of our process of implementing lean support for HoloBuilder will be the release of our knowledge base, so that we can provide an on-page support experience that’s just as awesome as MailChimp’s (disclaimer: I’m a fan).

This article is dedicated to Anna, our awesome support ninja.

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Enabling Industry 4.0 with HoloBuilder

At this year’s INFORMATIK conference held by the GI in Cottbus, I had the chance to present a research paper (full text here) about HoloBuilder—officially titled “Enabling Industry 4.0 with holobuilder”1—that I wrote together with my colleagues Kristina Tenhaft, Simon Heinen and Harry Handorf. In our paper, we examine HoloBuilder from a research rather than a marketing perspective by explaining and demonstrating how it acts as an enabler for Industry 4.0.

The paper was presented in the session named “Industry 4.0: Computer Science Forms New Production Systems”, which featured a selection of renowned experts for Industry 4.0—including Prof. Dr.-Ing. Peter Liggesmeyer of TU Kaiserslautern, Prof. Dr. Jürgen Jasperneite of OWL University and Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jörg Wollert of Aachen University of Applied Sciences, among others. The presenters set a particular focus on topics such as Internet of Things, smart factories, wireless communication and OPC UA, with which our presentation fitted in seamlessly—as will be explained in the following. The feedback we received was consistently positive.

Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 was the original use case of our platform, i.e., the use case based on which the first prototypes had been created. From those, the current form of HoloBuilder evolved. The term Industry 4.0 was first coined in the context of the High-Tech Strategy 2020 of the German government. Basically, the smart factory, in which people, machines and products are ubiquitously interconnected, is at the center of Industry 4.0.2 Particular focus is moreover on cyber-physical systems, which merge the virtual and the real world.

HoloBuilder & Industry 4.0

From the technical perspective, implementing Industry 4.0 to a high degree means realizing the smart factory including cyber-physical systems. For this, two prime concepts to consider are Augmented Reality and machine-to-machine communication. Augmented Reality (AR) adds virtual objects to the real world in a see-through scenario, e.g., with smart glasses or a tablet PC. On the one hand, AR provides a “fusion of the physical and the virtual world”3 and thus forms a framework for cyber-physical systems while on the other hand it facilitates efficient human–machine interfaces. Yet, AR alone cannot realize a smart factory, because it only caters for displaying objects, which is a form of one-way communication. Hence, AR needs to be complemented with capabilities for machine-to-machine communication (M2M).

Current temperature of a machine displayed in AR.
Current temperature of a machine displayed in AR.

To enable the implementation of Industry 4.0, HoloBuilder has been designed as a platform that makes it possible for everyone concerned to create and consume arbitrary AR content. This is a particular advantage over other AR solutions, which require specific skills for creating the desired content, among other things. In contrast, HoloBuilder facilitates end-user design, which enables, e.g., engineers and mechanics without programming skills to create AR applications in the context of Industry 4.0. To also cater for M2M, the platform as well incorporates OPC UA capabilities, which is a standardized protocol. In this way, information provided by a machine (e.g., its current temperature) can be presented in terms of virtual objects in an AR scenario. Moreover, by manipulating such virtual objects, the user can also give commands to the machine via OPC UA. This makes it possible to, e.g., display a virtual button that can switch a machine on or off.

Design Principles

Hermann et al.4 define six design principles for Industry 4.0, upon which we build to show HoloBuilder’s potential for being an enabler of Industry 4.0:

  • Interoperability,
  • Virtualization,
  • Decentralization,
  • Real-Time Capability,
  • Service Orientation and
  • Modularity.

Conclusion

To summarize the above, Augmented Reality and machine-to-machine communication are two core principles to be considered when implementing Industry 4.0 in terms of a smart factory with cyber-physical systems. HoloBuilder, a platform for end-user design of arbitrary AR content, provides support for both. Our platform moreover fulfills all of the six design principles for Industry 4.0, which underpins HoloBuilder’s potential as an enabler.

Our paper has been published in the proceedings of the 2015 INFORMATIK conference and is also available via ResearchGate (including full text).

1 At the time the paper was accepted, we still had the company-internal convention to write HoloBuilder in lowercase letters, which has changed by now.
2 http://www.plattform-i40.de/
3 Kagermann, Henning: Chancen von Industrie 4.0 nutzen [Taking the Chances of Industry 4.0]. In (Bauernhansl, Thomas; ten Hompel, Michael; Vogel-Heuser, Birgit, eds): Industrie 4.0 in Produktion, Automatisierung und Logistik [Industry 4.0 in Production, Automation and Logistics], pp. 603–614. Springer, 2014.
4 Hermann, Mario; Pentek, Tobias; Otto, Boris: Design Principles for Industrie 4.0 Scenarios: A Literature Review. 2015. Working Paper No. 01/2015, Audi Stiftungslehrstuhl Supply Net Order Management, TU Dortmund.

What ’bout some fancy dashboards for ya? Power BI vs. Geckoboard

In my capacity as the chief data analyst of bitstars, it’s one of my key responsibilities to regularly compile all relevant figures concerning our web platform HoloBuilder. These figures are mostly intended for people who don’t have the time to dive deeply into some fancy but complicated statistics. Hence, from the user experience perspective it’s crucial to provide them in an easy-to-understand and pleasant-to-look-at form. A well-established way of doing so are data visualizations of different forms which are provided in terms of dashboards for optimal accessibility. Since we are currently redesigning our internal process for providing figures and statistics, I’ve done some research on two potential software solutions that could be used for this.

Requirements

Since we are talking about a solution for our internal process at bitstars, there is a set of company-specific requirements a contemplable software has to fulfill. In particular, these requirements are:

Moreover, there are two nice-to-haves:

In the following, I investigate two possible solutions—Power BI and Geckoboard—, which are evaluated against the above requirements.

Power BI

Power BI WebsitePower BI is a cloud-based business analytics service provided by Microsoft. It comes as a part of the Office 365 suite, but can also be used standalone. There is an online as well as a desktop version, whereas the latter has a significantly larger range of functions. Power BI distinguishes between dashboards (“[…] something you create or something a colleague creates and shares with you. It is a single canvas that contains one or more tiles.”) and reports [“one or more pages of visualizations (charts and graphs)”]. Reports can be saved in the Power BI Desktop file format (.pbix); dashboards can be shared.

Power BI comes with a rather limited range of integrable services, among which are Google Analytics (☑) and MailChimp (☑). AdWords (☑) statistics can be integrated via Google Analytics if your respective accounts are connected. However, integration for Facebook Ads (✖), Pipedrive (✖) and AWS (✖) is still missing. FB Ads integration has been requested, but is yet to be realized. There is moreover functionality to integrate data from Excel and CSV files (from your computer or OneDrive) or Azure SQL databases, among others, which also enables you to import your own custom data.

The basic version of Power BI can be used for free while Power BI Pro comes for $9.99 per user & month.

How to create a cumulative chart in Power BI?

Cumulative charts are not a built-in functionality of Power BI, but can be easily realized using Data Analysis Expressions (DAX, ☑). That is, you have to create a new measure in your dataset. Assume, for instance, you want a cumulative chart of your sales (to be accumulated, Y axis) over time, which are only present in your dataset as the number of sales per date (X axis). The DAX formula for your new measure would be as follows:

Measure = calculate(
  SUM('Your Dataset'[Sales]);
  FILTER(
    all('Your Dataset'[Date]);
    'Your Dataset'[Date] <= max('Your Dataset'[Date])
  )
)

(found at http://www.daxpatterns.com/cumulative-total/). You can then simply add a chart visualizing your new measure (Y axis) per date (X axis) to your Power BI report to obtain your desired cumulative chart.

Geckoboard

Geckoboard WebsiteGeckoboard is a web platform for creating individual dashboards that show your business’s KPIs (key performance indicators), e.g., unique visits to your website, Facebook likes or sales per day. The platform has built-in support for integration of a wide range of external data sources, including Google Analytics (☑), AdWords (☑), Facebook Ads (☑), MailChimp (☑), Pipedrive (☑) and AWS (☑) and many more (in fact, way more compared to Power BI). Moreover, Geckoboard supports CSV and Google Sheets integration for your own custom data.

Like in Power BI, there is no built-in support for cumulative charts. However, since it is easily possible to create those in Google Sheets (see, e.g., this link), they can simply be imported and visualized in Geckoboard as well (☑). Of course, this means an additional intermediate step is required.

Geckoboard offers no free plan. Paid plans start from $49 per month for one user and two dashboards.

Conclusion

Power BI Geckoboard
Cumulative charts (☑)1 (☑)1
Google Analytics integration
AdWords integration
Facebook Ads integration
MailChimp integration
(Pipedrive integration)
(AWS integration)
overall rating ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Both tools miss built-in functionality for cumulative charts, but provide means for importing own custom data. When it comes to the integration of third-party services, Geckoboard supports a significantly lager range of available data sources. Because of this, I give Power BI an overall rating of 3 out of 5 (⭐⭐⭐). Since the pricing is more expensive and cumulative charts require an additional intermediate step, but the overall package makes a better impression regarding what we need at bitstars, Geckoboard receives a rating of 4 out of 5 (⭐⭐⭐⭐).

To summarize, if you’re fine with Google Analytics stats and some custom data imported via Excel files or an Azure DB, go for Power BI. Yet, if you rely on the seamless integration of a wider range of external services, you’re clearly better off with Geckoboard—unless you wanna implement the integration of the different services’ APIs yourself in a DIY solution.

1 These are given in parentheses because an additional intermediate step is required.

Introducing HoloBuilder

For about 5 weeks now, I’ve been working in my new job at bitstars (an augmented/virtual reality start-up based in Aachen) and so far have been mainly involved in the development of our new platform HoloBuilder.

What is HoloBuilder?

HoloBuilder allows to create what we call 3D presentations, or 360° presentations if photospheres are involved (see example below). That is, the user can create a set of “slides”, but unlike in, say Microsoft PowerPoint, these “slides” are three-dimensional (which makes them more something like rooms). Such a room can be filled with arbitrary 2D and 3D objects, different kinds of texts and even 360° photos. A straightforward use case would be to virtually furnish your new apartment, i.e. you take a 360° photo of every room, add 3D models of your desired furniture and finally interlink the rooms, thus creating a virtual tour of the apartment. This is similar to the presentation linked below, which has been created by one of our student assistants.

We need your help!

As we are a relatively young start-up, we do not have a large user base yet, but need any feedback we can get. Therefore, at this point, I’d like to ask all of you to check out the alpha version of HoloBuilder and share your impressions with me. Try it out, send me your presentations, think of possible use cases or explain why you can’t think of any, tell me why you would or would not use HoloBuilder … Just send me anything that comes to your mind while using or just looking at our platform. Every little piece of information is extremely valuable for us and will support us in developing a great product.

Go to holobuilder.com or simply click the screenshot below to open the example project. You can use the comments section on this page for your feedback or send a tweet to @maxspeicher.

Thanks a lot in advance for your help! 🙂

HoloBuilder Demo Presentation

Farewell, Leipzig!

Dear friends,

Skyline of Leipzig
Skyline of Leipzig (CC BY-ND photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/zinner/)

as some of you already know, last year there were some complications with the extension of my PhD scholarship beyond December 31st. At the same time, I got a job offer from an augmented/virtual reality start-up in Aachen. I spent a long time thinking about all this, weighed up the pros and cons and ultimately came to the conclusion that I had to seize this great opportunity. So for the next two years (at least; hopefully for longer), together with the rest of the fantastic team at bitstars, I’m gonna work hard on making our new platform holobuilder.com a success story. Particularly, I’ll be busy with data analytics and creating a great customer experience. Since I spent almost three (mostly) wonderful years in Leipzig, at this point I wanna thank all the people (in no particular order) who made my stay there such a great experience:

My two co–PhD students
Ricardo and Micha

The SemWeb & friends crew
In particular: Christiane, Steffen, Bernd, Benno, Fred, Steffi, Josh, Henri, Thomas, Manu, AnBo, Matthias, Tomas, Marius, Didier, Sascha, and everyone I forgot to mention here (please insert your name: _________________________)

The best Master student I ever supervised
Snuck

The Kickers in crew
Phil, Peter, Saskia, Lars, Alex, Marvin, Rubén, Micha, Viet, Di(e) Maria, Javi, Jorge, Hendrik, Kerstin, Dave, Steffen, Hagen, Marco and Lutze

The VSR crew
Prof. Martin Gaedke, Fabian, Sebastian, Stefan, Alexey and Michael

People who do not fit into one of the above categories 😉
Mila, Inês, Majura, Manu, Benny and Aldi

I’m grateful for knowing all of you! See you soon!

So long, and thanks for all the fish
Max

(This post has been predated to the day I actually left Leipzig.)