Julia Douglas owns and operates a travel agency that goes around the world to research your vacation. Her team of agents take turns visiting the world’s most exotic locales to gather first-hand experience. They use this insight to curate unique, personalized vacations for each of their travelers. No matter which corner of the planet you want to visit, these travel agents make sure you experience it in all the luxury and excitement that a local would provide.
But while most industries have used technology to simplify or automate their most tedious processes, travel agencies have lagged behind. They continue to rely on collecting scattered emails, phone calls, and even faxes to record travelers’ preferences and book a vacation that caters to them. It can be an overwhelming process that doesn’t travel well, and it was beginning to affect the quality of customer experience Julia’s agency was capable of providing.
“I started seriously thinking about building an app when I handed a client of ours—a family of six—a binder that was probably an inch and a half thick,” Julia said. “I didn’t feel good giving it to them, but I knew it had everything in it.”
Julia wanted to make her agency’s workflow paperless, and envisioned a technological solution that could transform her entire industry. She decided to start a brand new business whose sole focus would be building an app to push her industry forward. She named it AXUS, and began searching for a software company that could help bring her vision to life.
“My goal was to hire a company that I understood and believed in, and empower them to make those decisions that were in their areas of expertise,” Julia said. A few of her colleagues referred her to Paul Pagel, CEO of 8th Light, who has been helping companies build durable and reliable software solutions in Chicago for nearly a decade.
Although 8th Light has traditionally specialized in consulting and training engagements that help turn existing code bases into extensible and maintainable software, they also offer a studio model in which their crafters use their same disciplined, agile, and transparent processes to build an elegant and durable software application from the ground up. These processes immediately appealed to Julia. “It’s the way that [8th Light] creates stories and breaks down the development process into something that is totally transparent and easy to understand that differentiated them most,” she said.
In the first weeks of their partnership, Pagel met with Julia several times to capture her vision of a “one-stop shop” for the traveller. He built out a prototype application in Rails to see how they could organize all of the details in Julia’s inch-and-a-half-thick binders into a single application. Pagel then introduced Julia to Dave Moore, who would serve as the project’s lead developer.
After analyzing the prototype and hosting a few more discovery meetings with Julia, Moore decided to start over and build the application using a relatively new programming language that boasted impressive potential: Clojure.
“They trusted us entirely with their technology, and they let us pick exactly what we thought the best tool for the job was,” explained Director of Software Services Doug Bradbury. “So we picked a very new, modern tool with the hopes of building them the best and fastest development process.”
8th Light’s crafters had witnessed Clojure’s potential first-hand while using it to build out internal applications and open source projects, and were excited to have an opportunity to use it in a live production setting. They felt comfortable using its tools, and confident that AXUS would be able to benefit from its strongest features. Because Clojure is a functional language, as opposed to an object-oriented one, Bradbury explained, “it has the promise of being much more able to scale.”
On most projects, the process of choosing a language is closely tied to that of choosing a framework. Frameworks provide a base level of tools that help new software projects hit the ground running. But with the freedom to build the application in the way they thought best, 8th Light’s crafters chose not to use a framework at all. They would simply build that themselves, too.
“I wanted the freedom to make a different architecture, and decide what my own architecture is instead of having a framework dictate, to some degree,” Moore explained. This freedom allowed the crafters to respond rapidly to bugs, and allowed 8th Light’s design team to implement their designs in the language of their choosing.
While 8th Light’s developers were focused on building a platform that could host the most powerful app possible, its design team was tasked with organizing all of the application’s limitless potential into an interface that would feel lightweight.
“This was definitely something I give the design team credit for, because there are multiple layers, and you can access however much detail you need at any given time,” Julia said. Itineraries are broken down into days, which expand into activities, which expand into more detailed information. A simple field for dinner could expand to reveal a map with travel directions, as well as reservation information, and even notes about the restaurant’s cuisine.
This user experience typified the balance of painstaking detail and simplicity that Julia wanted, and she felt the need to create an aesthetic and brand identity that exuded similarly luxurious qualities.
“Most of all, Julia just wanted this app to look really sexy,” Briones said. “So we worked really closely with her, even texting her pictures to see what she thought.”
After sifting through a host of typeface options, Briones chose Brandon Grotesque as a modern, sophisticated font that felt refined and classy. She then put the AXUS logo on its axis, making a subtle tweak in typography pop out in the shade of “Kate Spade green” that Julia referenced in an early meeting.
“Stephanie’s really good at listening, and that makes her even more effective because she can synthesize your ideas and some of the things we talked about initially,” Julia said. “She 100 percent ran with the design direction, and got really, really close to the final product almost the first time around.”
Having established a cohesive brand throughout the entire AXUS application, Julia wanted to carry that holistic experience over to a marketing website. “I know that’s something that was … not technically part of the suite of services [8th Light] offers,” Julia said. “That was such a critical decision that we made together, because I think there’s such a cohesive brand. And that’s the result of keeping everything under one roof.”
“The marketing site becomes like a summary of all that time we spent working together,” Briones added. “It’s a snapshot of all that history on one page.”
Building a product with no market precedent puts additional pressure on a development team’s ability to navigate an abundance of unexpected complexity. In order to achieve its ultimate goal, AXUS will need to integrate with and populate information from companies and databases that have only ever needed to be able to print. In order to be more transparent about these obstacles, 8th Light’s crafters had to tighten the feedback loop within their week-long iterations.
“What Doug has started doing that’s been super effective is he’s been putting together a progress report in the middle of each iteration,” Julia explained. Halfway through each week, Bradbury assigns a red, yellow, or green symbol to indicate how far the team has progressed on each feature. If things are not moving as smoothly as expected, he can use this forum to communicate why so there are no surprises.
This shortened feedback loop is essential because for most features, there is no blueprint. While the crafters discover ways to integrate with archaic existing systems, Julia has simultaneously needed to find new ways to explain her vision for each individual feature.
“Developing technology has caused me to think in a totally different way,” Julia explained. “You have to be so articulate and clear about what your intention is and what you want it to look like, because it’s initially only an idea.”
As the app has grown and undergone live testing, the project has needed to adapt by regularly adjusting its velocity. From iteration to iteration, crafters would enter and exit the project according to the amount of work required at a given time. If Julia wanted to create more momentum to launch a new feature, the team would swell to complete the tasks. If the team was simply performing maintenance while awaiting beta testing, it would scale down to be able to meet this demand in the most cost-effective way possible.
“AXUS used our studio model to control their costs,” Bradbury explained. “We’ve taken their team up and down to accommodate budget.”
“I think that’s a testament to the existing architecture,” Moore added. “Any crafters could jump in, deliver features, and jump off.”
Julia Douglas came to 8th Light with a promising business opportunity and a vision for how to capitalize on it. “My goal was really to have one application that would be all you need for your travel plans,” Julia said. “And I think we’ve successfully achieved that.”
The final product is the result of a singular, coordinated focus between AXUS and 8th Light that turned an abstract vision into a convenient product with powerful functionality. “It’s definitely an app where we’ve been a full-service shop on, from concept to design to implementation,” Bradbury said.
From the application’s flexible and powerful software to its sleek mobile interface and appealing marketing website, the AXUS Travel App has established a shining new frontier in a travel industry that has always tried to reinvent the old ones. “Without being dramatic, I think it will revolutionize the way the travel trade communicates with the traveler,” Julia said. “It will allow us to communicate with travelers the way they expected to be communicated with.”