Agile App Development Case Study for Government

From being forced to hand over kickbacks to working overtime without compensation, Australia’s migrant and indigent workers are often subject to the will of unscrupulous employers.

The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) office – which is in charge of compliance with Australia’s workplace rules and rights – is on a mission to change that with an app development project that delivers some much-needed data to those workers who need help receiving their proper entitlements.

It’s a necessary effort because, in the second half of 2016 alone, FWO says 64 percent of the court cases it filed included record-keeping or pay-slip employer violations.

And they’re tough cases to prove without a paper trail.

“If records are incomplete, misleading or nonexistent, it can be difficult to determine an employee’s work hours and therefore determine whether they have received their lawful entitlements,” says Lynda McAlary-Smith, executive director, proactive compliance and education, FWO, Melbourne.

So FWO worked with mobile agency Ansible to design and develop Record My Hours, an app that uses geofencing to automatically record when and where users start and finish work.

“It allows employees to easily maintain their own diary of work hours, which can be used as a resource should any concerns regarding their pay arise,” Ms. McAlary-Smith says.

Decision Time

Agile is usually the go-to approach for app development projects, and Record My Hours was no exception – much to the surprise and delight of the Ansible team.

“We prefer agile, but government clients aren’t always open to it,” says Bob Humphreys, general manager at Ansible’s Brisbane office.

Waterfall, which typically relies on fixed deadlines and budgets, is often more appealing for government agencies funding projects with taxpayer money, Mr. Humphreys says. But agile’s rapid iterations and fast feedback mean greater design flexibility. And though the lack of defined timelines and set-in-stone deliverables can be difficult for some clients, he says, many appreciate the opportunity to pivot once they see what the app will look like.

For this project, the dev team had to make sure its designs were easy and intuitive, given the limited technical expertise of the target audience. And FWO agreed agile would be the best fit given its lack of experience with mobile app development projects. Both factors made frequent testing and feedback all the more critical, Mr. Humphreys says.

Brisbane, Australia

Looping in Users

Development on Record My Hours began in April 2016. One of the first things the Ansible team did was create prototypes of the screen and buttons to test with users.

“Watching how they interacted with the prototype helped us learn what worked and what didn’t,” says Mr. Humphreys.

For example, the button for “add a job” was confusing, so team members changed it to “add a workplace.” They also reduced the number of screens for tracking a workplace location.

“The user feedback allowed us to pivot the design before we wrote a single line of code,” Mr. Humphreys says. “It gave the client confidence that we were going in the right direction.”

The team also incorporated feedback loops into FWO’s reviews, says Tony O’Grady, lead project manager at Ansible’s Adelaide office. Throughout the 10-month project, the Ansible team held weekly calls with FWO and delivered biweekly prototypes for review.

Adelaide, Australia

FWO brought in an array of stakeholders, including the agency’s legal staff members who made valuable suggestions, adding certain fields to more easily track data while eliminating others. For example, the original requirement to identify the employer’s Australian Business Number was determined to be unnecessary and the design team believed reducing the number of fields improved the app’s user experience.

“Having strong interaction with the client on these features was invaluable,” Mr. O’Grady says. “Working almost daily with the developers meant we could rapidly make changes and reiterate the project based on user research and usability testing feedback.”

The close collaboration helped speed the process and prevent errors that would have required reworking, Ms. McAlary-Smith says. It also helped mitigate the risk of damage to the brand if the app didn’t meet community expectations.”

If extensive testing of this nature was not conducted, it’s likely that the product would not have met customer expectations,” she says.

Dealing With the Drain

One of the biggest obstacles developers faced on the project was making the best use of the geolocation technology to track when workers arrive and leave a job site through GPS and mobile phone tower/Wi-Fi proximity. But apps that use GPS information will typically exhaust a smartphone’s battery in a matter of hours.

“This wasn’t acceptable for the project’s objectives, given workers in target industries can potentially work for 12 hours a shift,” Ms. McAlary-Smith says. The team tried various adaptations and ultimately agreed on letting users choose between a smaller radius (for those working in buildings) or a larger radius (for those working on farms). The app then uses optimized battery-friendly strategies to automatically detect when a user is at work.

Melbourne, Australia

This required the integration of an array of techniques, including weighted location metrics of Wi-Fi access points in conjunction with battery-efficient geofencing to fine-tune GPS polling frequency. It uses less battery power – without compromising the quality of the data.

“Through effective testing and an iterative and agile approach to development, we were able to both identify this issue and overcome it,” she says.

Prior to the official launch in March 2017, the developers conducted one more market test and made some final tweaks. That included adding tips that pop up the first time someone uses a feature. “They were subtle changes, but they made it more intuitive,” Mr. Humphreys says.

By May, the app had reached 10,000 downloads. The team has since implemented updates, expanding to 18 languages and fixing small bugs in the system.

“Utilizing agile meant that no part of the project was at any stage ‘locked in,'” Ms. McAlary-Smith says. “The app was constantly enhanced and refined right up until and following its launch.”

That meant the agency lessened the risk it would get stuck with outdated tech, a real issue given the rapid pace of technological change in the mobile app development space, she says.

Mr. Humphreys lauds FWO’s commitment to agile and its willingness to work so closely with the development team to adapt the design when feedback called for it.

“It was a very collaborative process that resulted in a great product that met users’ needs,” he says.


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