Mobile App Released

Our mobile app was released this weekend.  So far it has been well received.  To date it has been downloaded to 2300 devices.  Below is a quick overview of the features it contains with a short description on how each is integrated into our systems.

(note click thumbnails for larger images)

Application Home

Contains the main navigation with a single promotion.  We’re moving to a “This Week’s One Thing” promotion strategy in our communications team.  This will highlight that one thing each week.  If you touch the ad you get more details.  Currently, this ad is driven out of our Arena database.  This will soon be moved to the Rock ChMS.

About Us

This page of the app shows the location of each of our campuses.  It also has an invitation feature that allows an attendee to send a personalized email to their friends.  This page is a bit of a ‘filler’ page in my mind and probably will be replaced with additional functionality in the future.

Prayer

This page displays a sample of the current prayer requests in our Arena database.  It only shows those that a person has OK’ed to be public.  Each is approved (and possibly edited for privavcy) by our prayer team. From this page you can also add a prayer request.  These requests are added directly into Arena.  This will in time also be transitioned into Rock.

Notes:

The notes functionality is by far the most popular.  This allows attendees to take digital notes during the sermon.  There are a ton of features to this part of the app (fill-in the blanks, free form entry, etc.).  I’ll do a future post just on this feature soon.

Message Videos

The app lets you select and watch sermons directly on your mobile device with support for AirPlay.  This again uses Arena’s podcast functionality to drive the content.  We currently host our messages on Vimeo so it uses their HTML5 player.  We’re currently looking for a better video network.  If anyone has some good recommendations please post in the comments.

Group Finder

This portion of the app allows someone to use their current location, or enter in an address, to find the closest Neighborhood Group (aka small group).  It also allows them to register for a selected group.  The usage of this feature has surprised us.  In the first two days over 25 families have registered for a group.

On-line Giving

Due to the fact that Apple does not allow donations in a native app we redirect the giving button to our website.  We have created a new highly responsive (thanks Titter Bootstrap) page that is very interactive.  If someone wants a peak at what the giving UX in the Rock ChMS will look like this is it. I hope Apple allows for a more native experience in the future.

For the most part that is the app.  I’ll be posting a couple of deeper dives into some of the features and code in the near future.

Standardizing Email

Our senior pastor made an interesting statement a few week’s ago in a leadership meeting when he said, “When I get an e-mail, I wish I knew what the sender expected of me.  Do they want a reply or is it just an FYI?”  This got me to thinking, “What if we could standardize our email subject-lines to clarify the purpose of an email…”

Our Creative Technologies team decided to pilot the usage of standard subject lines.  So far I really like the results.  It’s adding immediate context to a message, even before it’s opened.  If we can get wider acceptance and usage I think it could get even more powerful.  Imaging being able to write inbox rules that can filter based on message intent.  Messages that are just “FYI” could be saved until the end of the day; while those labeled “URGENT” (especially from your VIP list) can be highlighted in red with audible alerts.

The pattern we came up with is:

ACTION: Project / Summary (where project is optional)

The standard actions we are using are:

  • FYI
  • URGENT
  • REQUEST
  • UPDATE
  • INFO
  • FOLLOW-UP
  • APPROVAL
  • QUESTION

Some sample subjects could be:

  • UPDATE: The Story / Square POS a Go
  • FYI: Off-Madison Contact Made
  • INFO: Article on Social Media
  • URGENT: Tomorrow’s Meeting Canceled
  • REQUEST: Command Center / GL Code Needed

Evolution of a Mobile App

We’re close to rolling-out CCV’s first mobile app.  It’s been a long journey.  Before this weekend’s roll-out I thought I might walk through the project’s journey with all of it’s twists and turns.  It all started out over a year ago when we got serious about needing a mobile app. Our first step was to look at the church specific mobile app packages. These services can quickly provide a great looking app for a reasonable price.  Our two concerns with these services were:

  1. Most don’t have features that in our mind get people to come back and use them.  They don’t fell sticky.  They may get downloaded, but how many consistently get 3-4 uses a month per attendee?  I look at the feature list and don’t see something that would make me return.
  2. Starting with these apps was an option we considered, but most get deployed to the App Stores under the vendors account.  We felt that if we did this it would be hard to change course in the future.  By deploying under our own account we can quickly replace the app with anything we like in the future.

We also spent some time discussing what platforms we would support.  We ended up deciding that we needed to support both Apple iOS and Android on both the phone and tablet medium.  Part of me would have rather stuck to just iOS, but looking at the sales metrics, that’s just not an option. Therefore, we decided to embark on a quest to write two native apps (one for each platform).  Our initial features for our 1.o release included:

  • Announcements
  • Prayer Request (both praying for and submitting)
  • Group Finder
  • Sermon Video Streaming
  • Digital Sermon Notes
  • About Us Info (Campus maps, invite a friend etc)

As we’re pretty limited on resources with our current Arena projects and writing for the new Rock ChMS, development was  limited to my free-time.  I started out on the iOS app and go pretty far.  About 60-65% of the way through though I came to the conclusion there was no way with our current resources we were going to be able to write AND support two native platforms.  I quickly pinged a few outside resources to get a picture of what it might cost to have someone else develop the apps for us.  The quote I got back was $120K for both platforms.  That was not an option…

We quickly huddled and formed a new strategy.  We decided to experiment with HTML5/CSS3/Javascript to native wrappers like PhoneGap.  I wrote up a quick prototype in PhoneGap w/ jQuery Mobile and found the progress to be very quick and a good match to our current skill-set.  I have to admit it feels like cheating.  There are a couple of downfalls to this approach.  First of all the apps don’t have a completely native feel.  To be honest the normal user probably won’t notice, but those with a technical eye should be able to spot the difference.   Secondly, the PhoneGap apps are a bit sluggish.  Again the average person won’t notice the difference, but there’s no question that the iOS Webkit control is a bit slow in rendering.  Finally, while the frameworks (PhoneGap and jQuery Mobile) are impressive there still are some bugs. Most of these we were able to work around, but there still are a few known bugs that are impacting the app (they’re small through).

In the end the productivity savings more than made up for the lack of a truly native application.  This is our 1.o deliverable so hopefully we’ll learn a lot through the roll-out.  So far the application has received high marks from our internal testers.  In the end though I do feel like we cheated a bit.

I’ll post more once the app is released this weekend.

Command Center

After visiting LifeChurch’s Global Command Center our leadership team wanted to build a similar room to evaluate in real-time our remote campuses in Surprise and Scottsdale (opening soon).  Below is a quick overview of the technologies that we used to build the room.  Special thanks to Zach Gillium at LifeChurch for sharing their lessons learned with us.

The strategy of having a Command Center is to evaluate and assess how the service, especially the campus pastor announcements and communion meditations, are going at each campus.  It’s not to have a high-def, crystal clear, multi-camera, broadcast quality view of the service.  I like to think of it as virtually leaning against the back wall of the auditorium and taking in the service.

It all starts with a camera.  We used an inexpensive Sony HDR-CX160 (price $328).  It has decent low-light capabilities and a 30x optical zoom.  This camera is no frills, but again we’re going for practical and not broadcast quality.  We decided to try using the built in mic on the camera (a recommendation from Zach).  This keeps the configuration simple as it doesn’t rely on the soundboard or it’s operator.  The audio quality is actually pretty good in this configuration.

The camera is attached to a Teradek Cube 200 encoder (price $1,100).  This is by far the most expensive piece of the puzzle.  The Teradeks are a breeze to configure and are one of the few encoders that support HD streaming over RTMP.  They come in a compact package that can easily be connected to a camera. We mounted ours right to a Davis & Sanford camera mount.  We’ve been testing the Teradeks for over 4 months and haven’t had one issue.  We currently streaming 720p @ 6Mbps.  The image quality is fairly good.  We could increase the bitrate, but we’re trying to conserve bandwidth to the campuses (each already has a 25Mbps high quality stream going to the campus for broadcasting the message).

The RTMP stream from the Teradek goes to a Wowza server.  The Wowza server redistributes the stream to the various clients (in this case the Command Center room).  It also DVRs the services.  In the near future will be providing a website where pastors can go back and watch any service.

The Command Center view is provided by a Mac Mini driving a LCD TV.  The interface is a jQuery Mobile webpage loaded fullscreen. We use a cool AppleScript program to load the page on start-up full screen (the solution has to be pastor proof).  The page shows live video from all three campuses, Peoria, Surprise and soon Scottsdale in large thumbnails.  You can easily select which audio to listen to as well as select a campus and watch it full-screen.

Soon we’ll have the DVR interface complete which will work on any computer or mobile device.  You’ll also be able to email clips of the sermons for others to watch.  We might also look into Wowza’s transcoder features to allow for smaller streams to mobile devices.

Scalable Credit Card Processing

A few months ago our team was handed a challenging problem: how to sell 30,000 books over two weekends to support The Story sermon series at CCV.  To make it harder we at CCV have a passionate hatred dislike of lines.  Defining the problem set we came up with the following attributes of a successful solution:

  • We knew that 50-60% of the transactions would require credit cards.
  • We have a total of 5 different titles to sell (leather bound, hardcover, teen edition, kids edition, children’s picture book and a early children’s picture book.)
  • The solution must be easy for volunteers to use.
  • The solution must be cost effective as we were selling the books for what they cost us (let’s just say they were priced amazingly low).
  • The solution had to scale to allow for 35-40 credit card lines at a minimal cost.
  • The solution had to be FAST!

After looking at several credit card solutions we determined we needed something that had a point-of-sale feature set.  This would allow a volunteer to punch in a person’s ‘order’ (book types with quantities) and get a sub-total (no calculations required).

We looked at several iPad solutions but ended up using Squares Register app. The beauty of this solution was that it required very little cost to deploy.  We asked that volunteers bring their iPads to use for the event.  The card readers are free which was the single largest factor that made Square stand-out.  All we needed to provide was printers for receipts (these could be shared 1 printer for 5-6 iPads as most people don’t require a receipt) and a WiFi network.

The only real challenge we found was sharing the printers.  The printers themselves need to be on the same VLAN as the iPads. But… if there are several printers on the same VLAN it’s hard to know what printer to pick from the settings on the app as they all have the model as the name.  Our new IT specialist Chris Upshir found a brilliant solution that used several old Linksys WRT54g’s to provide a specific SSID for each printer.  So if a volunteer showed up at say the Pavilion selling point he/she could connect to the SSID ‘Pavilion Printer 1’ and know where to expect their receipts.

Square’s customer service was great.  We started communicating with them about the project several weeks ahead of time.  After leaning about the size of the event they agreed to send us 40 card readers (something that they said didn’t not happen often).  I also had some worries if their solution would work for such a large event.  I was able to speak to several people in the company and they were able to walk us through some tips on making the event a success.

Our team spent a lot of time thinking through the details on this project.  We provided our volunteers with advanced training on how the POS would work so when they showed up they knew more or less what to do.  Our team also created order sheets that could be filled out in the service so by the time someone was in line they knew exactly what they wanted.

The result was a huge success.  As you would expect the sales come in waves with 95% of the sales coming immediately after the end of a service.  With our 40 credit card stations we were able to process through the lines in 9-11 mins.  Many of our attendees made comments about how quickly the lines moved.  I met two accounting professors from local colleges and they were amazed at the efficiency of the lines.  One wanted to know if we had video of the event that he could show his students.

After the first weekend we have sold over 24,000 books, 11,500 of which were sold using credit cards with 2500 unique transactions (think swipes).  Doing some rough math that comes out to about 35 transactions a minute during our peak times.

While we still have another huge weekend ahead of us, I would highly recommend this solution to other churches who need to sell a large number of resources in a limited amount of time.  Not only is it cost effective, but it also scales to reduce lines.

Order of Leadership

The more I read and learn from others I think that the proper order of leadership is:

  1. Lead yourself
  2. Lead your supervisor (by this I mean figure out how they work and adjust your style to match theirs)
  3. Lead others

The unfortunate thing is that many work in the opposite direction. 🙁

NetSpot is Spot On

I recently upgraded my home WiFi AP, after much research, to the ASUS RT-N66U. Much of this was based off of this Jeff Atwood post.  So far I really like the AP and while I was going to install Tomato on it, after playing with the stock firmware and reading comparisons I might just keep it stock.

One utility I broke out soon after the upgrade was NetSpot on OSX.  It’s a very simple, yet powerful, utility to map your WiFi coverage.  Oh, and best of all it’s free.   Just up load a map, give it a reference point on the map for scale and then walk around and take some readings.  Below is a quick video walk through.

We’re installing a new Ruckus system at CCV.  This tool will be great it helping us visualize our coverage.

How Our Team Uses StrengthFinders

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The StrengthFinders personal assessment tool has been a great asset to our team. The assessment identifies an individuals top 5 strengths from a list of 33 possible choices. As an example my strengths are:

  1. Achiever: Have a great deal of stamina & work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy & productive. 
     
  2. Ideation: Are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.
     
  3. Input: Have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect & archive all kinds of information.
     
  4. Learner: Have a great desire to learn & want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.
     
  5. Strategic: Create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns & issues.

We use this assessment in serval ways.  The first is in our interview process.  We always warn candidates that our team hires slowly.  We start with a quick initial screening (usually in person).  If a person is invited back we make sure that they take both a DISC test and also the StrengthsFinder assessment.  We then look at the results and compare them to the position.  These two assessments always give us a clearer picture of the candidate.  In the end hiring is always a bit of a dice roll, but at least we can load the dice a bit in our favor.

We also use the StrengthFinders in the day-to-day operation of our team.  Robin, our Member Data Analyst keeps this team StrengthsFinder chart up to date.  I use it so much I keep a printed copy on the wall next to my desk.  I find it helpful as a tool to constantly remind myself that not everyone thinks like me.  When I feel like I’m not communicating well with a teammate I take a quick glance at the chart to better understand where they are coming from.  

If you’ve never taken the assessment I highly recommend you do so. If you use it in a different way I’d love to hear about it.  Comment below.

Free Online Statistics Class

Ok, now that I have your attention from the tantalizing blog title let me tell you about an exciting new opportunity… to learn about statistics… no really! There is no better way for an IT guy/gal to add value to an organization that becoming a master of data (remember the I in IT is for “Information”), and there is no better place to get started than a class from Sebastian Thrun. Sebastian is a research professor at Stanford and the creator of the Google Car (RefeshCache attendees know all about him).

Put away your excuses and register now.

Are You Changing?

To my RefreshCache friends… are you the same person you were in October?

I’m happy with my effort, but not necessarily my output. Still much to do… If you’ve made progress let me know.

(For everyone else… sorry for the cryptic reference. Attend RefreshCache. It’s not only an Arena conference this year… All church developers welcome.)