UAL Exchange: a new app for cross-disciplinary collaboration

UAL Exchange AppAn excellent example of learning in action – recent MA Innovation Management graduate Vuong Tong has developed UAL Exchange, an iOS Application that aims to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration and knowledge share across the University of the Arts London (UAL). Developed while working at Central Saint Martins’ Innovation Centre last year, Vuong invited several of his fellow MA:IM colleagues (Digital Present’s Rita Fernandez included) to take part in the ideation stage of the project. The final proposal was funded by SEE (Student Enterprise & Employability), and recently Rita helped the preparations to launch UAL Exchange on the App Store, and to the UAL community.

A light and easy-to-use application, UAL Exchange taps into users’ LinkedIn networks upon registration in order to organise other users according to 1st, 2nd or further connections. Targeted towards UAL staff and students, the app allows users to personalise their profile and to feature the skills they would like to offer. Once registered, users can flick through existing profiles and search for skills on offer via the platform.

Here, Vuong explains how the idea for the app came about, his key learning from both the course and the project, and his hopes for the future of the application:

How did you identify the market opportunity for the UAL Exchange app?

It started from my experience as a course rep, really. When taking both complaints and positive feedback from my classmates to the University and the College I was also able to listen to reps at other colleges and on other courses, and was able to observe that there was an issue surrounding cross-course collaboration. Students wanted it more and although there were plenty of tools and events organised to do so, they didn’t seem to be too effective, or weren’t being used. Wanting to get to the bottom of it, I found that it came down to human behaviour – people, generally, won’t just go up to strangers and ask for or offer help. Rather these connections happen through the power of referrals, which is how I identified the market opportunity.

In terms of how to do so, it seemed like putting access to collaboration in someone’s hand – thanks to todays widespread use of mobile devices and their ability to be personalised –  an app was the best solution.

I can recall those very initial workshops a few of us took part in, when the concept was still open and not necessarily tied to a digital platform. How did you come to realise that it should be an app?

First we had a look at the environments that invite collaboration, both analogue and digital. Initial places of inspiration were cafes, canteens, and the CSM Learning Zone, which were all buzzing with activity and seemed to be the ideal spaces for partnership. From our initial ideation sessions the very early concepts were around digital help-boards in these spaces. Realising we needed to look across and tie-in practices from other markets to make sure the solution was innovative, we also considered ‘speed-dating’ style events and corporate activities when thinking about how to apply or develop the concept at this more exploratory phase. Because we didn’t have any funding we were really looking to create or pinpoint a viable product with no money.

Initial Ideation sessions led by Vuong with MA Innovation Management students

Initial Ideation sessions led by Vuong

When we later began considering digital possibilities we saw that there were plenty of existing collaborative networks – finding 8 or so in the same realm. Although they were all different, when grouped together as a map we could find commonalities. What unified them was that the user had to dig through content to find the skill or resource they were looking for. And, interestingly, none of them had a mobile app, which is where the gap was for Exchange. After some iterations and prototyping we were ready to pitch for funding.

It’s interesting that you mention concepts that we learn on our course – like looking outside your market space to other industries – and to see the relationship between the learning you had on the MA and the development of the app. Can you tell us about your learning applied to this project?

I think a key takeaway for me from the course was in ethnographic studies. You can do a lot of market research and see what solutions are out there, but at the core of any project are people. For me it’s interesting to see how users innovate, if things don’t work people will devise a way to work around it. My biggest learning was found in stepping back, and taking the time to observe others.

In the spaces we had previously identified to be ideal for collaboration, we were observing how people were interacting. I noticed that people across different courses were really only meeting through friends, which is how the concept of referrals – the main pillar of the apps functionality – was identified.

Mapping existing UAL Collaboration Spaces

Mapping existing UAL Collaboration Spaces

You developed this project as a part of your field research at CSM’s Innovation Centre, correct?

Correct. My supervisor on this project was Tim Hoar, the Associate Director of the Innovation Centre at CSM. His observations and point of view inspired the app because he noticed that a lot of students, particularly on MA courses, have really diverse professional and creative backgrounds – some building and selling companies for a considerable profit, or more generally with just loads of experience – which prompted him to ask how we could tap into that talent. I think that was a great question, but at the same time another equally important question was: does the other person want to use that talent? And if not, what do they want to contribute, if anything at all. I think re-framing it that way – looking at it as a two-way street, allowed us to make the connection to the platform provided by LinkedIn.

In terms of the apps development, you received funding from UAL – from SEE (Student Enterprise & Employability). How did that come about?

You can write loads about a concept, but as a designer, for me the best thing to do was to visualise the idea. Using a great app called POP (Prototyping on Paper), allowed me to build a wireframe of the app. With that people could understand the flow of it, and what it might feel like. More than anything the prototype brought the project to life, and provided me with a talking point. In a lot of ways it takes the risk away from the investors’ imagination, and allows them to see something tangible that they can put money towards.

Initial prototypes of UAL Exchange using POP (Prototyping on Paper)

Initial prototypes of UAL Exchange using POP (Prototyping on Paper)

Can you tell us what the development process was like, especially as something you were completely new to?

It has been a lot of fun. I’m working with a developer named Tudor Munteanu, who I met about three years ago in London while staying at a flat we both found through AirBnb. Actually the perfect example of the need the app will fill, when I was initially looking for a developer I asked friends and looked at my network and wasn’t able to find one. Remembering Tudor was a developer of some sort, I used Facebook to connect with him and it turned out that he was an iOS game developer, which was perfect for the project. I have to thank him for his help because he has shown me that these skills can be successfully applied, no matter where in the world the team is based.

I also have to thank LinkedIn because we have based the Exchange connections using their API (Application Programming Interface) – a module or code that they release so developers are able to produce complementary products to their platform.

What are your plans for the app, and for future digital projects? Are you enjoying app development? Where do you see it going?

I think for anyone that has created an app – and more specifically one that thrives and depends on people to engage with it, make it grow and develop – you want to see a lot of users, and to reach critical mass to make it easier to connect. More simply, it will work better – with more people the more connections are available and the more opportunities to collaborate will exist.

I definitely want to get more ethnographic research in place for the app. We already have some analytics built in – how many users are registered, what pages are they visiting, are they making connections – however, from a human behaviours stand point I’m interested in questions like: how are they using it? Where do they use it? What do they want more of and what would they change? And if they’re not using the app, what are they using instead? I think these are the more interesting questions.

I’m sure we’ll find that people will create their own solutions, and for me as a product innovator its interesting to see how we can bring that into the experience we are providing – or to develop other products or services.

For now, I’m just excited to complete the approval process for the App Store and to officially launch Exchange to everyone at UAL. Baby steps!”



UAL Exchange:

SEE (Student Enterprise & Employability):

CSM Innovation Centre:

MA Innovation Management: