Case Study

PropTech – IoT sensors in smart buildings

It may seem like there are still a lot of industries that don’t sell, and never will sell, digital products because their customers are paying, for products that exist in the real world. But with so many inventions popping up around the world and the desire to make customers’ lives easier, there’s always more to be done. Such was the case with our client Budlex, a real estate developer.

The idea

Budlex is a Polish real estate developer that has been on the market for over 30 years. Their projects are regularly awarded in architectural competitions. With IoT solutions flooding our lives, they figured that in addition to creating places to live, they could also make our lives easier through technology. The goal was to install smart meters in apartments and create a mobile app so residents could check their utility usage in real time.

Hardware problems

Since the meters were already installed when the customer approached us, we had no way to decide what hardware we would work with. If you’ve read our previous case study, you may remember that combining hardware with software can be problematic if you don’t check its capabilities first. Fortunately, we already had experience with this type of problem, so we were not afraid to take the risk of working on the application.

Real-time data

Unfortunately, the first problem that arose was unsolvable. The purpose of the application was to show utility consumption in real time. The hardware supplier had promised Budlex that it supported such a solution, which determined the purchase. It only took a while to figure out that no such option existed.

The meters only sent data once a day. We had to come to terms with the idea that switching suppliers was not an option at this point, and that information about daily utility usage was still of great value to users.

Data format

Another problem was the way the data was delivered to us. It was a CSV file sent daily to a remote server containing raw data. It was full of unnecessary information, and the information we needed was not organized in any way. The only way to fix this was to create an integrator.

It would collect the information for us, put it in the right order, and store it for as long as we needed it. This was an additional cost not included in the original plans, but without this part, the mobile app could not be built.

Lack of documentation

After two days of work we were sure that there were no more surprises waiting for us and we could start working on the app for Android and iOS. Of course, as you can easily guess, this was not true. When we checked the data we had, it turned out that the numbers we were getting did not match the real consumption.

So we had to go back to our raw data and find the error. We noticed that the meters that were showing the wrong data had numbers like 000000000 or 999999999 in their consumption history. After contacting the supplier, we found out that these were not measurements but error codes. 000000000 meant “no connection to meter” and 999999999 was “unknown system error”. With this information, we were able to fix the system.

Mobile app

Creating a user interface to display data was a piece of cake. As always, we started with our Product Design Workshop, so everything was planned step by step. The entire design was based on the branding that Budlex used. For logging in we used authentication via text message, and the administration panel was ready to manage users and apartments. The application was finished in record time and it would have been the end of the MVP part if we hadn’t taken care of testing.

We noticed that the data that is provided by the meters is not always up to date. Because of this, the app was showing past consumption. We went back to our raw data again and discovered that the devices were sometimes sending consumption from a few days ago by changing the date to the current date.

Our integrator and the app worked fine, but with problems like this, it didn’t make any sense to release the app. Usually cases like this cause the project to end. Our customer would be left with an app they paid for, but can’t use.

Fortunately, we didn’t give up so easily. After many discussions with the client and brainstorms we found a solution. We prepared a series of proposals that could change and improve the business model assumed by the client, which resulted in a change of the project goal accepted by the client.

We had to make some changes in our source code to create a mechanism responsible for predicting the possible consumption for each apartment and presenting it in graphs.

The MVP isn’t the end of the story…

This was the end of the MVP version. The app was released for Android and iOS and was heavily used by Budlex customers. But it was not the end of the work. We love it when our clients’ products are successful and we can go back to them to develop future versions. That’s exactly what happened in this case.

When users fell in love with the ability to control their utility usage, Budlex decided to turn the app into an apartment management hub. They also saw the possibility of using the mobile app as a sales tool. The changes were not supposed to be about the connection to the meters, so we didn’t worry about further hardware problems.

User experience improvements

For current customers, we have added the ability to switch between apartments. Previously you could only be logged into one apartment at a time, which was very annoying.

Thanks to feedback from users we knew we had to improve this. It also affected adding new users in the admin panel, but it was only a few hours of work. Another important functionality was the ability to contact a housing association or developer.

We added a section where users could easily add a photo of the damage in the apartment or common area and it was sent to the appropriate person. Sounds like something obvious until you try to contact someone yourself about problems with your apartment (I know from my own experience).

A sales tool

For potential customers who didn’t already own a condo using the app wasn’t possible before. There was, of course, a demo version that showed how the app worked and looked, but it didn’t provide more benefits.

Budlex noticed that many potential customers were downloading the app, so they added features for them as well. When users first log in, they are asked to access the location of their device so the sales team can prepare offers for them in the city they are in. We’ve also added the option to see how condos are being built, so if you’re planning to buy you can watch a hole in the ground turn into your dream home. And it’s all thanks to a camera connection.

Summary

This is only the second version of the app, and Budlex already has ideas for new features and improvements. It’s not easy to calculate how much they’ve actually gained from the app, because that was never their goal. They do not charge for using the app, it is just another benefit of being their customer.

Of course it has helped to increase customer loyalty, but it is still a great feeling to work on a project whose sole purpose is to make someone’s life easier and not to make money.

We hope it inspires you to create your own product. But most of all, we hope you learn something from this and other stories published on our site. An idea is only a small part of success. You also need to find a technology partner who isn’t afraid of challenges and won’t leave you alone when something goes wrong.

And remember, even the simplest solution that relies on other applications or hardware can prove problematic. So wait with your decisions for proper research, preferably done with the help of a development team. Otherwise you have to be prepared for many changes in your plans and budget.

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Author

Miko Lehman

Write to me: m.lehman@gmihub.com

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