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Calphalon and Sharpie go Mobile

A conversation with Newell Rubbermaid's Vinh Tran about taking big consumer brands mobile.

Look in a closet. Open your desk drawer. Check out your toolbox. Chances are you'll find one or more products from the Newell Rubbermaid family of brands. Rubbermaid home and commercial products, Graco baby products, Calphalon kitchenware, Sharpie, Waterman and PaperMate writing products — Newell Rubbermaid has a stable of some of the most iconic American brands. Following the changing habits of its users, Newell Rubbermaid is beginning to roll out mobile sites and apps for some of its brands. Leading that effort is Senior e-Business Program Manager Vinh Tran. Benchmark recently caught up with Vinh to learn about the mobile initiatives for Calphalon and Sharpie, how the sites are being tested, and plans for more mobile properties.

Benchmark: Newell Rubbermaid has a number of brands under its umbrella. How many have a dedicated mobile presence?

Vinh Tran: We’ve done full-site mobile access for Sharpie and Calphalon.We have other brands — for example, Graco Baby has a site also, but it’s not as high visibility as the Calphalon and Sharpie sites. We’ve been making strides to do more mobile in the last year or so.

Benchmark: Is your goal to have a mobile site for each of your brands?

Vinh Tran: Not at an enterprise level. It’s more if a brand has a mobile need. We’ve been trying to make all our sites more mobile friendly, so basically if users access the full site on the mobile, they can still access most of functionality on the site. But we have not fully optimized the sites for mobile.

Benchmark: How did you arrive at the decision to do mobile sites versus dedicated apps for Sharpie and Calphalon?

Vinh Tran: Calphalon’s probably a better case than Sharpie. With Calphalon, we did notice in the last holiday season that seven percent or more of our overall traffic was from mobile, and a portion of that traffic was actually buying from mobile. So we thought that was a good chance for us to venture out and actually go for a mobile-optimized site versus just a mobile-friendly site.

Benchmark: Had you considered doing a dedicated app instead of a website?

Vinh Tran: For Calphalon, no. Sharpie is actually a better example for that. Sharpie started out as just an app. We’re actually in the process of doing that app and we’re using DeviceAnywhere to test that out right now. So Sharpie started out as an app, but we decided if we’re doing an app, we might as well get the mobile site done first and out there before we have the app side of it completed.

Benchmark: So the mobile app is playing the role of a stop-gap while they app’s being finished, and an option for people who don’t decide to take the app?

Vinh Tran: Right.

Benchmark: Does Newell Rubbermaid have a philosophical position on apps versus websites, or is it a case-by-case basis? How do you tackle that when you first start to look at a new mobile presence for a brand?

Vinh Tran: We slip into two groups as I think a lot of companies do. We have a business side and we have a technical side for every kind of project. So the decision to do this came from the business side.

The team decided we want to do a particular type of site and experience, and, after discussions, we decided we should probably do it as a mobile-optimized site versus just tweaking the existing site so that it’s accessible via mobile.

Benchmark: How is your approach to doing a mobile site different than your approach to doing a full-blown desktop-type website?

Vinh Tran: That’s a good question. The two sites that I just mentioned — Sharpie and Calphalon — use a live proxy technology. So basically what we’re doing is, we’ve added another layer that translates selective sections of our full-blown Web assets into the mobile-optimized version. Our vendor takes the templates that we’ve worked through with them and we tell them ‘this is how we want to present these sections. This is where you can pull the content from our main sites.’

Benchmark: What is your QA process like before you take your mobile site into production? What types of steps do you go through?

Vinh Tran: The two sites that we were talking about, we actually don’t build in-house. We have third-party vendors that we work with — after we’ve come up with the sys requirements and the design direction, they’ll implement.

They do the initial functional QA, but we’ll go through and test all the requirements to make sure they are met, and then we work with our business teams to validate that the requirements meet up with their expectations, also.

Benchmark: And do you use DeviceAnywhere for that?

Vinh Tran: Yes.

Benchmark: Since you’re doing websites instead of apps, is the challenge simpler for you in terms of dealing with the multitude of devices out there? How do you accommodate the large variety of devices and form factors?

Vinh Tran: It depends on the target audience that we’re trying to reach with each site. Calphalon and Sharpie are actually only enabled for certain user agents. So if you go to an iPad or a Galaxy or anything like that, you’ll get the desktop version of the site.

But if you go to it via an Android, a BlackBerry or an iPhone, that’s when it changes its form factor. For Calphalon we decided to be a little bit more broad and we wanted any type of phone to have accessibility to the site.

For Sharpie, we target only WebKit devices, so we focused primarily on iOS and Android devices — the reason being that Sharpie is more creative and we wanted to have that whole landscape, the larger pixel format, while with Calphalon, we were trying to get product information and use and care information — just getting information out to the consumer.

Benchmark: Once you have the apps or sites in production, do you do any ongoing monitoring of their performance?

Vinh Tran: Yes, that’s one thing that we’ve contracted with our third parties. Since it’s a proxy, we monitor it from the main site that it drives off of. But our partners are supposed to be monitoring to alert us if we’ve made a change that breaks that symbiotic link between the two sites, and to make sure that we haven’t done anything that would cause it to go down.

Benchmark: How extensive was your pre-production testing? How broad was the suite of devices that you tested through Keynote DeviceAnywhere?

Vinh Tran: For Calphalon, we went through a pretty large gambit. We went through several variations of the iPhones, a couple Androids, and BlackBerrys, because those are the primary devices we support on the enterprise level.

We didn’t go too deep into feature phones like the old Motorola Razrs or anything like that, but part of the agreement we have with our third party is they’re supposed to guarantee functionality of those feature phones. But we weren’t too concerned about that because they are a very, very low percentage of our Web base. For Sharpie, we did focus on WebKit, so we’ve done extensive testing on iOS and Android devices in general.

Benchmark: How did you arrive at the particular phones that you were going to test?

Vinh Tran: We discussed that during our design phase with the third parties. As most companies do, we have very tight deadlines on certain launches, so we figured out what were the quick wins from a support perspective.

We figured iOS 5 and one version back should be supported. We ask for guidance or best practices from our third-party vendors to see what they suggest that we should test off of.

Benchmark: What has been your biggest challenge in getting a site up and making sure that it’s available and performs to your expectations?

Vinh Tran: For a mobile site, it’s usually in the details. It’s a little bit harder to adjust certain things and make sure it propagates across the board. One example is validation — how it responds on a normal Web form versus how it performs on a portrait versus a landscape on a mobile. It sometimes takes a little more back and forth to figure out what’s the best way to level that.

Benchmark: What do you see on the horizon that’s going to make a difference in how you approach mobile? Do you see any new technologies happening or new trends that are going to impact your approach to mobile development?

Vinh Tran: We’ve been looking at responsive design. That’s the kind of thing we want to explore a little bit more, and of course we need to have a range of devices we will test in responsive design.

That, and just making sure that we’re up to date and we test out whatever’s new — a better testing plan. For example, if we go from iOS 5 to iOS 6, what’s the adoption rate? Things like that.

But those are the main things that we try to focus on from a future requirements perspective.

Benchmark: Do you foresee developing enterprise-type apps for internal use?

Vinh Tran: Yes. Actually, our department has another branch that does the B-to-B side of it, and they’re doing a more enterprise-level sales app. I’m not directly involved with that app, but when the time comes to test and be able to make sure that it functions on a wider range of devices, I’ll probably be engaged in that.

Benchmark: Do you see the future going more down the app route or the mobile website route, or do you think it’s a toss-up?

Vinh Tran: It’s a toss-up because it all comes down to the business requirements. I think right now it’s a lot easier for us to penetrate in with a mobile website because we can use services that allow us to do a live proxy.

In the long run, we want to do more custom features that aren’t available in the app, like check-ins. We may want to do our own stand-alone website versus an app. And the development time is much quicker to build a mobile website than a mobile app. At least from what we’ve seen.

Benchmark: Do you see yourself using Keynote DeviceAnywhere as you’re developing new properties?

Vinh Tran: Yes, most likely, because to get the 256 or whatever devices we have in our plan right now — we have the highest device availability plan from DeviceAnywhere — and to be able to get that number of devices is not really economical, because we only have a very small and focused team to do all this testing. For us to get all the devices for them to test with, it’s not very practical.

Benchmark: Indeed. Well, we’ll make a note with our Sharpie to keep an eye out for your new apps and sites. Thanks for your time.

About Vinh Tran

Vinh Tran is Sr. eBusiness Program Manager at Newell Rubbermaid. He runs the project management office for the e-business department, and is responsible for defining processes and best practices, and overseeing all projects through the system. Previously, Vinh was a leader for Web and application development efforts at Bridgeline Software and Objectware. He is deeply versed in all major Web development technologies. Vinh holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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