A few weeks ago I wrote about my experiences with Interface Online and the help I received in finding a University I could collaborate with to get Company Connecting off the ground. I had already started to develop the methodology for collecting and categorising the information on IT companies, and now I needed a framework to enable people to search and see the data to get a better idea of what I wanted Company Connecting to be.
I worked with Strathclyde University over a period of a couple of months to get the Proof of Concept (POC) in place. At the same time, I began to develop a network of contacts who were interested in the concept of Company Connecting. Even though, Scottish IT companies were the initial target for the POC, I joined TechUK, and some other organisations to get feedback on the concept.
My technical contact at Strathclyde University was Dr. Martin Halvey. Martin has a background in human computer interaction and information retrieval, and is a lecturer (assistant professor) in the department of Computer and Information Sciences. Throughout the project we held regular meetings via telephone and in person. It was useful to spend time in Glasgow and meet up with other people in organisations such as Entrepreneurial Spark.
The main aspect of the work was to create a mechanism that would enable the information we were collecting on IT companies to be searched in many different ways. Key to this was the categorisation of the work, and enabling a faceted search. Wikipedia defines a ‘faceted search’ as ‘…a technique for accessing information according to a faceted classification system, allowing users to explore a collection of information by applying multiple filters’. Martin had to research the various search technologies and help me to consider the different ways that users may want to search the data. This was later expanded significantly when Verinote developed the Minimum Viable Product for Company Connecting.
My concept for Company Connecting was like a dating agency for companies looking for IT skills e.g. IT companies looking for partners or resellers, engineering companies looking for particular skill sets, large companies looking for potential acquisitions etc. However at this stage I wasn’t sure how the UX/UI (User Interface / User Experience) would work. My past experience was with large scale business type applications where the UX/UI and application development was managed in a more ‘traditional’ way. So designing a web front end, and at the same time considering how the search in the back end would work was a new experience for me. I had to learn a new language of facets and technologies. We settled on Haystack with Elasticsearch as the best option for the search mechanism, combined with a back end database. There were a number of other technical decisions which had to be considered e.g. coding, hosting, deployment etc. The work and understanding needed to make decisions should not be underestimated.
We needed to develop a rudimentary front end. The easiest way to learn about options was to take a look at how dating sites worked, as well as commercial off-the-shelf web frameworks. This helped me to get a better understanding of how Martin and I could put in place a simple search and find screen, using the classification I had already defined for the faceted search.
There are thousands of off the shelf ‘front ends’ that can be purchased which simplify the means of getting a website to interact with the outside world e.g. online shops, dating site, blogs, memberships etc. However, if you are doing something different from the norm then things get more complex. The effort needed and the decisions that need to be taken when prototyping and developing something different should not be underestimated. At least I had a technical background, and experience of data modelling and application design, so I had an understanding of the general concepts for a web application design.
Even so the learning curve at this stage was steep. Working with Martin and Strathclyde University gave me time to learn about the various components, technologies and techniques involved in getting a business to business website up and running. Martin guided me through the process and fed me articles to help with the technology learning curve. Finally, in early April 2015, we got a prototype website up and running which I could then use as a demonstration of the Company Connecting concept.