Oct 26, 2023

Surfers Against Sewage: meet the team behind the scenes

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At ASquared, we’re specialists in impact-driven, human-centric projects and we’re so privileged to be able to bring our design focus to this one, meeting the objective of adding user centricity to ocean activism.

We are all highly passionate about making a difference and producing high quality work, that in this instance, helps raise awareness for the water quality in the UK, which is of national concern. Through effective collaboration and a dynamic that is unmatched, we have been able to go far beyond the original like-for-like migration brief, and produce a vastly improved user experience, delivering new user-centred features in a short period of time. 

Read on to discover how this partnership evolved and get a peek behind the scenes, meet the team and find out some of our top tips to help your app development project run as smoothly as this one.

Did you know?

You can now report the current state of your local waters directly to your local MP or Water Company CEO straight from your app. And it’s so inclusive and easy to use that lots of our parents and their friends have been sending reports too!

Meet the team behind the scenes…

How did the project come about and what was the driving force behind working together?

Nick (ASquared): Surfers Against Sewage had an existing successful mobile app, built (by another agency) in Xamarin*, which needed re-platforming. This project really appealed to us because of its incredible impact and the potential it had to be even better. Plus, we really wanted to work with the team! So we made the decision to negotiate our pricing to make it a great fit for both sides.

We love taking on an already successful project and making it even better, for example what seems like minor tweaks and changes design and tech wise can have a major impact, and we love bringing that expertise to the table. *(read our blog about that here>)

Annie (Surfers Against Sewage):
We were looking for a new partnership to take the SSRS to new levels and a company that would share our excitement and passion for this monumental and crucial service. ASquared were just that.

Noosh (ASquared): The driving force was the shared passion and aligned values, from not just ASquared as a company, but on an individual basis as well. We pride ourselves on being impact driven, and have a real interest in partnering with those that do good. Surfers Against Sewage is a prime example of this, and their campaigning for the oceans and planet meant it was a no brainer that it would be amazing to work with them. 

How was the team put together, and what was the overall approach to this project?

Nick: ASquared and Surfers Against Sewage were incredibly aligned right from the beginning, on both our values and the team fit. We have some very keen sea swimmers internally and it was easy for us to build a team of super passionate people to support this brief. From the beginning, we absolutely intended to over-deliver on this project for this really great cause, and we do get a bit obsessed (passionate!) about ensuring projects like this truly work.

How did the team collaborate to create a partnership, and how did this contribute to the success of the project?

Nick: A key part of our discovery process is to align our project team with the client's core stakeholders right from the beginning. Although we’re building digital products, we’re selling (and delivering on) trust, especially when a client has moved to us from another agency. We had a great kick off session - getting to know each other, discussing our personal relationships with the sea…basically changing the dialogue away from just the work context which really gave the whole team an overwhelming desire to do their best work. We’re always keen to work face to face, but with the Surfers team being based in Cornwall it was difficult to keep that up, so building relationships and trust from the beginning, and maintaining excellent communication throughout the project were non-negotiables.

Noosh: The team came together with the same values and excitement for this project, that the collaboration almost fell into place so naturally. It was exceptional right from the discovery phase up until now. We used tools such as Basecamp and Slack for daily communication with each other and had weekly touch points scheduled in. The back and forth communication between the whole team was spot on.

Sybbie (ASquared): Speaking to our users, both bathers and campaigners, gave us a good understanding about what mattered to them most. It felt very collaborative to have their needs, pain points and desires at the heart of our decision making process, too.

Alex (ASquared): The front-end and back-end teams worked really well together throughout the project. From the introduction call it was clear that both teams would find value in working closely and collaboratively together. I think this was a key factor in the success of the app build. It was really helpful being able to speak to the Surfers team and their other engineers on a daily basis and discuss problems and solutions. It really felt like we were one team all working towards the same goal.

What were some of the major challenges the team faced, and how did you overcome them?

Sybbie: We were hugely driven by the same passion that fuelled the ocean activists - we love our oceans and if we could do our bit to protect them through our product work, that was very motivating. Our continuous discovery chats with our users made us keenly aware of the opportunities within the app, but as the rhythms of agency work dictate, we needed to work within the limitations of time and resources. However our user-centric approach only meant that we would never cut out any user involvement but merely scaled it down to the right size.

Noosh: I think one of the biggest challenges we faced was actually how excited we all were about the app, and the additional features and ideas that we had (outside of the original scope), that would make the app even better for the users. The problem with this is that we wanted to ensure we launched the app in time for the bathing season and so had to try as much as possible to keep within scope. Whilst we were able to include some awesome additional features within the timeframe, there are definitely even more additions that we have already started brainstorming collectively. 

Photo by Aleksandra Boguslawska on Unsplash

What were the unique and innovative solutions that were implemented?

Nick: A key metric for evaluating the success of a mobile app and other digital products is user retention (e.g. after a user downloads an app, do they actually keep using it in future). Surfers is a great example of a product which offers great long term value by sending notifications and alerts for spills at your favourite beaches, but if you don’t favourite a location you won’t get the true value from this core function of the app. So we changed the UX for new users to draw attention to this key function - we brought favourite locations into a watch list and through recognisable UI design patterns we drew attention to it and clearly highlighted the value of adding places to your watchlist the first time a user launches the app. This gives loads of benefits and keeps users coming back and ultimately increases retention, meeting both user needs and business goals.

Sybbie: As the app was meant to be a service that warns bathers of polluted waters, the quality alerts are now very shareable to the wider public, who are not necessarily app users themselves. This allows anyone to genuinely look after, warn, and raise awareness to their friends and loved ones that they wish to keep safe from the potential hazards of polluted waters.

Cal (ASquared):  The map is obviously an important screen and a key feature of the app, so making sure it was performant and user-friendly was a priority. We also wanted consistent behaviour and appearance between the iOS and Android versions of the app. For the map screen this meant that the map provider needed to be the same, and with Android only supporting Google maps (as opposed to iOS maps), we had to use Google as the map provider across both platforms. Now, on Android this isn’t a problem because it plays nicely with the device OS. However on iOS it’s no surprise that Google maps isn’t really optimised out of the box for complex maps including 400+ markers with multiple ‘states’. Therefore, I was really proud of the solution we came up with to maintain smooth and stable map performance on iOS. The result was a map that does equal justice to the intended design, always works, is a joy to use and - most importantly - clearly informs the user of the state of their local water at a glance.

Alex: A lot of the map functionality was done client side. One of the first things we did on this project was to speak to the Surfers team and come up with a solution to solve this. The issue was the large amount of pins being sent from the API and there were fears this could cause the API to struggle with the large user base. As a result we came up with the solution to cache the map data and use this to display the pins instead of re-calling the API on every load of the screen. We set a re-fetch time so after a few minutes the API would be called again so the data was not old. This took the heavy lifting of the frontend of the app and increased the speed of the app.

What was the most rewarding aspect of this project?

Annie: The injection of enthusiasm and creativity that was brought to the project by the whole team made the experience a truly rewarding one. The increase in users and activity on the app since re-launch is incredible and the thought of thousands more ocean activists being created around the country is very rewarding.  

Noosh: Just knowing that we have combined forces with an amazing organisation to create a product that really is going to help its users and the planet. It is something to be truly proud of. On a personal level, I am a big swimmer and being able to be part of a project that protects the seas and oceans that people swim in feels so rewarding.

Sybbie: If the app can do its bit to hold people in positions of responsibility accountable for keeping our waters safe, then every single effort towards this goal is rewarding. There is not much we can do individually, but through our collaborative work, our voices have become louder.

Alex: The fact that this app is helping people and raising awareness is rewarding. People I know who didn’t know I worked on the app have mentioned it to me. I feel like the app has helped make people more aware of how bad the current situation is and created a talking point amongst people.

How did the team ensure that the app was user focused, and why was that so important here?

Sybbie: We are passionate about getting users involved at every stage of the process. Being an agency with technology as one of our biggest strengths, we have automated a process whereby app users themselves can book slots in our calendars to speak to us about their app experience. And swimmers, surfers and campaigners booked up from all over the UK! This enabled our continuous discovery to be born on a humble budget.

Noosh: As well as user interviews with the wider population, most of the team are often swimming in the seas and oceans and used the previous app to help keep them updated with sewage spills and pollution, and I think this really helped when it came to keeping the app user focused.

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Were there any surprises or unexpected discoveries during the development journey, and if so, how did these influence the final product?

Sybbie: Before this project, just as app users, we didn't realise the app also filled in a need for ocean activists and campaigners to use as a campaigning tool to raise awareness around the sorry state of our beloved oceans. Within the app, it brought together the comprehensive data from water companies and environmental agencies all under one roof. Together with live information about active users' reports of problems around their local waters, the app is able to provide a broad picture of our waters.

Cal: Before working on this project I had no idea that Combined Sewers Overflows data for individual sewage overflows existed and could be publicised! I’m really pleased that we could implement the first stages of this data (where available) into a cool mini-map on the location details screens, but I feel fired up to do even more with that information and keep holding water companies accountable for their actions.

Annie: It's amazing how much of  a difference it makes to be working with a team of like minded ocean activists who understand the need and purpose of our mission. 

How did you balance creativity and technical excellence in the project?

Nick: ASquared's process of not just treating tech as a delivery resource but instead bringing our developers into the discovery process from the beginning has two key benefits. One: developers also align with the product, user needs, and business goals rather than just thinking about tech solutions. And two, our developers joining discovery sessions will typically have a lot of tech insight that sometimes can create easy wins with huge returns on investment in terms of efficiencies later on.

Sybbie: Through genuine collaboration among the technology team, design and the Surfers team. Each solution we considered was discussed collaboratively from its fruition all the way to implementation. Even the tech team were immersed in user interviews, capturing insights only devs can see. There was no siloed thinking and it felt good because there were always many pairs of eyes on the problem, each looking at it from a different perspective.

Can you share the funniest moment of the project?

Sybbie: Helping the brand come to life in the app was truly memorable. They have a badass activist look and it was a privilege to legitimately sprinkle the user journey with the poop icon!

Noosh: The poop emoji that Sybbie added to the designs was a lovely but amusing moment. It keeps the app super playful whilst maintaining the seriousness of the problem that our oceans and rivers face.

Annie: At the kick off meeting, specifically the introduction and no one being able to find a photo of Darren on the internet so he was a frog! It’s been great to see how easy the link up has been between ASquared and Webonix, it’s the dawn of a fantastic partnership. 

Nick: Plus, some of the animated hand gestures (while the map loads) in the original designs were questionable…

Check out the full case study here...