How SmithsNews created a Native app using Agile to improve customer service

SmithsNews, formerly known as WHSmiths News, discovered that embracing Agile resulted in a much richer UX and higher quality customer app than its usual Waterfall method.

Print distribution is in decline due to popularity over online news and SmithsNews is actively buying in growth areas to ensure its legacy. However, it is also investing in digitising its wholesaler arm to reduce its call centre costs by 20 percent, and improve customer engagement.

Working with over 30,000 retailers and delivering 40 million newspapers a week, SmithsNews was receiving up to 4 million customer services calls per day to its four call centres.

Retailers that need to query a delivery or order would primarily call out of normal working hours due to their opening times. Having experienced poor uptake for a legacy website built in the early 2000’s, SmithsNews decided to create a native, high quality app that would allow retailers to make changes to orders, monitor and claim for any missing titles or credit and look through the titles on offer from their phones.

Former fans of the waterfall method, the core team of five – a balance of business and technical employees – decided to develop the app using the sprint method, a choice that the firm believes contributed to a much higher quality UX.

Andrew Caple, head of business systems says: “With Agile you can see problems early on and react to feedback to refine it. We feel we have a product with a much stronger UX than we would have done if we had run it was a Waterfall project.

“The main benefit was speed and the fact you can refine the solution as you go. The problem with Waterfall is, when it has been such a long project, there is more of a thought process within the business to not change the UX as much, as this will delay the process.

While waterfall involves iterations and the beginning of the project – where requirements are detailed and signed off before building, Agile takes rough requirements and iterates on-the-go.

Jamie Ball, Sales functional solutions manager within IT at SmithsNews explains: “At each of the sprints, we had ‘show-and-tell’ sessions with around 30 to 50 key business members to walk through where we were and what the designs looked like in terms of SAP integration and the front-end interface.

The team used a five-week development cycle, feeding back from customers and business partners to SAP integrator, KeyTree, who developed the app.

“The main challenge was around business understanding that they had to feedback quickly. Get the right people at the right time and get the answers”, Ball adds.

The app was developed using SAP’s Netweaver Gateway as it was the “most efficient and most scalable way” to hit backend operational database.

The firm wanted to build an app that could be deployed in other higher growth areas of the firm like its parcel business, which is connected to Amazon, and its education and care home supplies arm which share the same SAP landscape.

Cable says: “We could have used Salesforce but with full user adoption of retail customers, we would be looking at up to 20,000 users hitting our backend in the future. On the app side, we wanted maximum performance and maximum UX we went the native route rather than buying something already there.”

Currently on iOs and Android, the team will build an HTML 5 version so it is responsive on any device or desktop.


Since going live in August last year after piloting the app to around twenty retailers, the SNapp has attracted 2,900 registered customers – more than double what was predicted. The transactions flowing through the backend and a reduction in inbound calls has made it clear that the app’s return on investment is “on track”, Cable adds.

Cable was keen to add that SmithsNews would not be eliminating a human touch entirely, despite finance department’s best efforts.

“We are always going to have some degree of people involved in process, but no longer the three million calls, with 150 call centre staff. We won’t need anything of that scale in the future.”

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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