Building a connected studio

Article by

John Newbold
Design Director & Partner

John Newbold

John Newbold

Design Director & Partner

At 383 we exist to help brands become more useful. When we converted an old Victorian pen factory in to our new Birmingham studio it seemed like the perfect time to apply this purpose to our own space.

During the fit out there were myriad decisions to make around furniture, flooring and lighting. We also thought a lot about how we should be using technology to create a more useful experience for our team. In particular we wanted to tackle some of the mundane aspects of running a studio space for a lot of people, and take control of the way the building and its services behaved.

Here’s what we got up to…

A building with brains - a company API

The first thing we did was to create an API which would underpin new digital and physical services that would live in and around the building.

The API acts as a platform to interact with some connected hardware we have in the space and to power some new things we've made from scratch.

The API is like a brain, connecting the nervous system of the building with the heartbeat of what’s happening in the company. Through it we can control a whole array of services such as heating, music and door entry with specific time based actions that occur weekly such as team member holidays, in-house meetings with visitors and off site work with clients etc. We can also power a host of new useful tools for our team - things like a physical in/out board, interactive meeting room signs, a digital visitor book and a company mobile app.

Using the API as the fuel for problem solving, we listed out a number of areas we felt could be improved in general day to day studio life and built useful solutions around them.

It's about the really obvious experiences...

This quote from Matt Rogers earlier this month was really on the money in our opinion. Great connected experiences are about delivering simple solutions to obvious problems. That's what we set about tackling...

Who's in the studio today?

As the team has grown at 383 you'll often hear someone in the studio say 'Is X in today?'.

To answer this question we built an app which the team run on their phones. Talking to a network of iBeacons (Bluetooth Low-energy devices), staff are now automatically checked in when they arrive at the studio.

This staff presence system is also replicated across other services, via the shared API, to provide additional experiences. For instance, on the 383 desktop app (coined ‘Launchpad’) we trigger a Facebook messenger-esque popup which allows anyone to see who’s in and who’s on annual leave by cross referencing feeds from our HR software and Google Calendar.

In areas of the studio where people often hang out in groups, such as our den, we also take this digital presence information and turn it into something physical. The new In/out board is a polaroid-clad Arduino-powered picture frame that shows via a simple light who’s in, out and off.

But where are they actually?

Something else we've been playing with is using the received power signal from the iBeacons to not only show who's in, but where in the studio they might be. Our studio space is 7000sqft, spans 3 floors and a fair few of us switch desks daily. This at a glance approximation of where someone is has provided a super useful way to avoid roaming the studio floors (note - we’ve not installed any beacons near the toilet. Oversharing etc.)

We've got someone visiting shortly, is everything ready?

When chatting through areas for improvement we quickly realised that a lot of repeat tasks around receiving visitors to the studio could be improved.

Using some useful new tools we’ve not only been able to ditch the manual visitor book at reception, but trigger specific playlists on our Sonos system and heat meeting rooms to a comfortable temperature before someone arrives. Here’s how…

Whenever a meeting gets booked, the 383 team member uses our Launchpad app to pick a room, pick attendees and pick a time. Behind the scenes information is passed between launchpad, our client CRM and Google calendar to create the booking. Previously, an ugly sign-in book sat at reception to welcome visitors - ‘fill in your name, company, who are you here to see please’. Now, we know all of this already, because of the API. All we needed was a way for visitors to say “yes, I’m here.”

We built a new sign-in app that sits in reception and includes a list of all meetings scheduled for that day along with the attendees for each. A few taps later and you’re signed in. And what’s more, the API notifies the event organiser the client has arrived to our visitor Slack channel, all done automatically. Behind the scenes we use Lightwave RF hardware to ensure the heating is at a comfortable temperature ahead of time, and a few minutes before someone arrives we queue up a ‘friendly’ playlist at a sensible volume. This not only saves time, but avoids the scenario of anyone blasting bump’n’grind in to the wrong room (yes, this has happened).

Is that room available?

Finally, we wanted to encourage people in our team to utilise studio space as much as they wanted. Quite often people would work in one place throughout the day for fear of messing up a space that might be needed later on that day for a client meeting. We wanted people to be able to easily see if a room was free as they walked past and encourage teams to jump in to it if it was without checking online.

We wall mounted a small tablet outside each meeting room and used a UI that was glanceable from some distance using a clear traffic light system. Move closer and the UI gives you all the information you need, including when the room is free until and a of course, a quick picker to queue up some music on the Sonos while you’re in there.

A platform for utility

Experimenting with an organisational API has enabled us to take multiple sources and design an overall experience greater than the sum of its parts.

Each of the apps we’ve developed so far have been quick and efficient with a lot of the heavy lifting already been taken care of by the API. As part of the Service Architecture we adopted a philosophy that any new platform or service we use from now on must have an open and flexible API allowing us to manage and have control over it. Having a central platform to build on top of has meant we avoid repetition of the same coding tasks over and over and that different systems can share their benefits with one another.

We're looking forward to iterating more over the coming months and experimenting with other useful solutions to make life at 383 that bit easier. Next up we’re playing with Slackbot help to provide natural language IT support via the API. Watch this space. And, if you like our thinking, drop us a line and see how we could apply this sort of thinking for your business.