Summary of Project
Directionless Ltd has produced an open source software and web 2.0 service that delivers a peer-to-peer help desk system called 'Directionless Enquiries'. The service allows users to provide each other with information services that bring together web/VOIP technology and mobile phone networks. At the end of this LDA funded development cycle, Directionless Ltd has delivered a working technical product, as well as a complete brand and identity and market research, for the Directionless.info service.
At the project's outset, Directionless Ltd brought together a team of three technical developers, project manager, user interface designer, brand designer, academic researcher/contributer and other peripheral project partners. Assembling this team was a key to building Directionless Ltd's future capacity and infrastructure, by creating a core group of individuals who have in-depth knowledge about the project and can act as the project's creators and champions.
The project's main focus over 6 months was developing a working, scalable product from which Directionless Ltd can build its business. Key to product development was ensuring that Directionless.info had a solid underlying technical infrastructure that was built for growth and expansion. Core functions were implemented and the system kept simple, with the goal to develop and introduce new features for users as they become familiar with the product. These features have been identified by Directionless.info's developers and the infrastructure to support them built into the product's foundation.
The software on which the Directionless.info service will build is viewable and downloadable at: Directionless Trac. A record of the development process is viewable on the project timeline. All other development notes, and branding/marketing/service development notes are available on the Directionless Development Wiki. The final product is not yet ready to be released to the public, but development continues.
The second major focus for the project was to develop a brand for Directionless.info in response to market research. We did some branding exercises amd developed a brand based on the demographic we thought we could reach with the Directionless.info service. The font/graphics and design came from this exercise and is still in the process of being implemented on the development site.
With these two crucial elements of the product developed, Directionless Ltd has now mapped a way forward for the service and examined what business models might be feasible. See below for more information on business models and the next steps, derived from the outcomes of this project.
Development Schedule & Techniques
Directionless Ltd gathered together its team in October 2007, and worked to set up the project management and administrative structures leading into early November.
Technical, branding and user interface development happened mostly in ‘development sprints’, bursts of concentrated effort between developers. These project sprints allowed our freelance developers to link up their working and stay in constant communication with one another while developing the product. This development technique also allowed us to set contained goals at the outset of each sprint; and have a time-limited working period after which the project team could re-evaluate priorities based on the sprint’s successes and challenges.
* Directionless Sprint week 10th December - 14th December * Directionless Sprint week 14th January - 18th January * Directionless Sprint week 21st January - 25th January * Directionless Sprint week 18th February - 20th February * Directionless Sprint week 4th March - 6th March
View each sprint week for documentation and a schedule for each.
Development of business models, market research and other project management happened throughout the project, much of this in-kind support from The People Speak.
Academic Partner Contribution
Our academic partnership with UCL enabled us to work closely with researcher Wojciech Kosma. On a practical level, this partnership had Wojciech working out specific problems with the technical product that overlapped with his areas of research - visualizing the call centre data to allow us to analyze our users' usage patterns and behaviors; and implementing a workaround solution for integrating Directionless.info with the widespread but proprietary system Skype. Both of these areas were key to developing a system that is close to users' needs and therefore integral to the product's success.
This partnership has increased Directioness Ltd and The People Speak's capacity to undertake further work on Directionless.info and other innovative projects like it - Wojciech has joined our team full time and will continue to work with The People Speak on projects in the future.
The project is also facilitating other relationships between The People Speak and UCL - and we are in the process of putting together some showcasing events that will bring together our contact Miguel Rio's department of Electrical Engineering with the Slade School of Fine Art and other schools within UCL to show work to each other and seed new projects and collaborations.
Other Project Partner Contributions
Through this project we have also developed or strengthened relationships with other partners, such as:
- Open Business - assisted with business development support, market research, marketing support; act as 'champions' of the project
- Core developer team - Andy Nicholson, Joerg Baach and Alizila Creative Design, who worked freelance to develop the project
These partnerships have extended Directionless Ltd and The People Speak's core contacts and expertise, and we will continue to draw on these partners for future projects.
Business Models: Conclusions
Directionless Ltd researched a number of different business models to support the service Directionless.info, and found that evaluating their suitability highlighted some of the conclusions we made from researching and developing this product.
Directionless.info as a 118 directory service:
Through our market research, we found the costs of getting into this market were too high to make Directionless.info the low-cost or free service that would be required to build a strong peer-to-peer community. Without an extremely high call volume (5000 calls per day), we would need to increase the per-minute charge to minimum 22p per minute. The infrastructure (engineering, PR and business development) needed to support such a high call volume would in turn come at a high cost to Directionless Ltd. In addition, the regulatory framework for emabarking on this model - meeting codes of service and setting up legal frameworks - seemed too onerous for Directionless at this point.
The Directionless.info idea relies on building a culture of sharing, where participants feel their contribution to the service is not primarily financial but instead sharing their time and expertise by acting as call agents to answer others’ calls. We felt that by raising costs to only slightly lower than existing pay info services, we would undermine the unique selling point of Directionless.info.
As a result, the Directionless.info service could be an important part of a business plan, but would be more of a promotional device than a 'point of sale' for individual customers. It might be possible - if call volumes are high, to use low-cost per-call charging (using a discount non-118 termination service) as a way of recouping a proportion of infrastructure costs for b2b services (see below).
Directionless.info as a b2b institutional service:
Although the service has not been developed yet, from our preliminary market research it seems that this might be a niche for Directionless: a branded service that can be leased to organisations with a remit for providing information services to participating communities.
We approached several institutions, and it was felt that this was a possibility, but that the cost to market would be high because the market is not yet well developed, and a lot of marketing development would be necessary to explain the possibilities.
Directionless.info as a business service:
Offering Directionless.info as a service to business would mean having an existing base of users and visibility that a business could draw upon in a ‘custom’ service. In practice, businesses would pay a monthly fee to use the Directionless.info infrastructure for their own provision of telephone information, with additional services that they might need, i.e. a dedicated phone number or a customized call centre.
We have not been able to test this business model as it first requires having a core base of users in order to make the service attractive to business. We will revisit this model at a later stage.
Directionless.info around communities of use
The most appropriate and low cost-to market approach that Directionless marketing research has uncovered is to provide the Directionless service, and the Directionless Enquiries software to the Free Software community as a way of self-providing phone services.
Because we are using Free Software to build the product, and the source is licensed under the GPL, it is anticipated that simply by releasing the software and promoting the service online, we will be able to grow a community of user-developers around the product. This is essential for its survival, but initial response of user-developers has been good.
It is anticipated the projects that wish to bridge between the Free Software community and mainstream computer users (such as Open Office and Ubuntu might be interested in using DE software and/or service to provide their non-expert users with a means to help each other in a non-technical way - without having to employ a team of call centre agents.
With this first community of use (Free Software) Directionless as a service and software product might well attract use in other communities of interest, and generate opportunities for consultancy, product and new business development.
'The Way Forward'
Directionless Ltd will build on the work enabled by this project over the next 5 months.
Strategic impact of the project
The strategic impact of this project for Directionless Ltd has been in four main areas.
Partnerships: The project has built Directionless Ltd's capacity for creating new innovative technology project by building partnerships with University of the Arts, Open Business, a network of freelance developers and Angle PLC. Through these contacts we have expanded our visibility and reputation, and crucially, positive experiences from this project has meant all parties are keen to collaborate on future projects. This drastically expands the skills and specialist expertise available to Directionless Ltd, creating a network of individuals and organisations that we can draw on.
Development and Project Management Tools & Techniques: This has been the biggest software development project that Directionless Ltd and The People Speak have undertaken, and our development process and project management techniques have been refined as a result. We had the chance to test the development sprint technique, and will use this technique, with improvements, on future projects. We have tested out several tools for software development - trac, subversion, mediawiki, asterix, plone, zope, transkype, skype - that our experience with on this project will mean we can better manage their use on other projects.
End Product: As mentioned elsewhere, one of the core successes of this project is coming out with a final product and technical infrastructure from which we can build a business and future projects. The project is leaving us with a bulk of technical work that we would not have been able to complete otherwise, enabling us to pitch the service to potential funders and investors, start gaining a core user base and build business models from our experience with our first users. The Directionless.info product developed through this project will serve as the core of Directionless Ltd business.
Business Infrastructure: Finally, the project enabled us to set up and explore some business infrastructure on which we will build Directionless Ltd. Through the project we formalized the company, conducted practice-led market research and explored several business models. This initial business infrastructure will form the basis of our next stage of development, which, with a developed product in hand, will be focussed on developing these aspects of the Directionless.info service and Directionless Ltd.