Tobin Harris, Managing Director at app development specialist Pocketworks
Four minute read
Over the past few months, we’ve been nurturing a little side-project here at Pocketworks.
Called Grow, it’s an app to take the hard work out of caring for office plants.
It’s well-known that plants can help make an office space feel inviting, creative and welcoming, as well as being excellent for well-being. But, it’s not always easy for teams to look after them.
What with juggling daily office life, working on exciting projects and managing the to-do list, sometimes our leafy friends can get forgotten. Companies can often end up buying fake plants to reduce maintenance but keep a ‘green’ feel. Well, no more.
Grow is designed to help busy teams have lots of plants in their workspaces, without having to worry about watering rotas or holiday periods.
The idea sprouted from the brain of our resident Mobile Strategy Specialist, Tom, during a team chat one day about some slightly sorry-for-themselves plants in the office. He said: “Wouldn’t it be great if these things looked after themselves? We’re a technology company we should be able to make that happen.” The seed was planted and soon the rest of the team were getting involved and brainstorming ideas!
Grow has been a real team effort, with everyone from myself, our Product Designers, Mobile and IoT developers and strategy guys involved. Once the prototype is at a strong and useful state, we’re going to see how we can grow it even further (pardon the pun!).
We’re considering making 3D printed parts, or interfacing with mature technologies already on the market. Getting our own hardware solution to market could take years, you have to get all the right approvals, then comes the issues around manufacturing at scale and quality but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility one day!
In terms of the actual set up, Grow uses MQTT or Message Query Telemetry Transport, which is in simple terms a language spoken by a machine to another machine. It has an Arduino board as the microcontroller, a moisture level sensor connected to the board and a water pump. And we’ve developed an Android app which communicates with the Arduino board via MQTT protocol. So there is some tech wizardry involved!
One of the biggest challenges with the performance of Grow is the combination of electronic elements and water! We have to make sure that all electronics are wrapped in neat, protective packaging and that they can work across different pot types and sizes. Then comes the measurements, we need to calibrate the sensors to accurately judge how much moisture is present or needed, and, of course, the actual moisture level sensor itself needs to be hardy and not easily corroded!
Once we got through all of these mini-hurdles it was onto more of the equipment. As with many new products, you sometimes can’t anticipate challenges until the happen. Water pumps were a prime example of this.
The first one we tried was really noisy, which defeats the object of office plants being good for well-being – it’s not exactly relaxing sitting next to a noisy pump while you’re trying to be creative, is it? However, a positive of this first attempt was the flexible tube which came with the pump which we were to learn would be really important.
The second one didn’t work at all so that was swiftly disposed of! The third one was completely silent – excellent news! – however, the plastic tube it came with was much thicker and stiffer than the other one. It wouldn’t fit the pots easily, and compared to the first tube wasn’t anywhere near as versatile.
So we’re still playing with the different elements, trying and testing variations, which is part of the fun of an experiment like this one.
We’ve got a few other fun side-projects in the pipeline including an app to book meeting rooms, which is simpler than anything else out there. Often things can become complicated unnecessarily, and tech should make things easier, not more complex. So, we want to see if we can strip this task right back and create an app which reflects this.
We highly recommend teams spare some time to build in-house projects just for fun and with no pressure, they will often be much easier. This is because the builders already have empathy for the end-user; themselves! Building great experiences is often about having empathy, it’s why Gartner, IBM and the UX community are pushing the importance of this right now.
Sometimes it’s nice to step away from the day-to-day and remember why we all love, live and breathe tech. Fun projects like this are great for team-building and morale, as well as for our plants!