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The dream of the Paperless Office progresses slowly. But in one front in the War Against Dead Trees, a British insurance firm hopes to make leaps and bounds by using BlackBerry PlayBook tablets.

Aviva has armed 120 of its property risk reps with the much-maligned RIM tablet and a custom-built electronic form app that it hopes will boost their productivity by threefold.

Headquartered in London, Aviva is the sixth-largest insurance company in the world, with 46,000 employees and more than $90 billion in annual revenue.

The troubles of RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet are well-documented. So why did Aviva choose the PlayBook?

“Blackberry devices, their software and a support process were already well established within this particular region of the Aviva Group,” said Paul Heybourne, senior project manager at Aviva, in an e-mail interview. “This, coupled with the security aspects of the Playbook and the ergonomics of the device, helped form the decision for it to be our tablet of choice” for this pilot.

Formicary Collaboration Group built the SOLAR app, its second for the PlayBook. Formicary built one of the first corporate apps for the PlayBook for RBS, or the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The RBS Global Banking and Markets app (watch the video here) allows professional money managers to track and read research on fixed income, commodities and currencies while on the go. Released in June 2011, the app does not yet allow clients to actually trade via the PlayBook yet, though RBS has said that is a possibility in the future.

For RBS, Formicary built the app using HTML 5 and other Web standard technology, employing four developers who worked non-stop over two months, said Alistair Milne, Formicary’s project manager for the Aviva project, via phone.

For Aviva, Formicary instead chose to use Adobe Systems's AIR platform and Flash, instead.   With RBS, “the technical demands were more around the exchange of data,” Milne said. But with Aviva, “one of the requirements was to be able to send [completed] forms back to specified e-mail addresses.”

“As a device, the PlayBook is actually very  solid and feels remarkably mature. But there were certain things missing  in version 1.0 of the PlayBook’s operating system," said Milne, that prevented them from using HTML5. Things the PlayBook v1.0 lacked include a native e-mail client as well as a true  Software Development Kit (SDK).

Aviva hopes the easy-to-use UI of its PlayBook app will boost the productivity of its field reps three-fold.

As a result, Formicary used the Adobe platform to write a custom e-mail client that enables the app to e-mail back PDF documents with embedded photos taken by the PlayBook-wielding surveyor from the property site.

Despite Apple's criticism of Flash as being crash-prone and slow on mobile devices, Milne said that hasn't been the case at all.

“It's very stable and fast.  Flash is actually more responsive than HTML 5 right now, especially the  more complex the user interface is," he said. “The only lag is when you start up the PlayBook. Once the  app is up and running, there is no lag on the PlayBook’s virtual  keyboard, either. They [Aviva] got the experience that they wanted.”

Speeding up the surveyors

Replacing pen-and-paper forms and surveys with computer or tablet-based ones has many benefits. It improves accuracy by avoiding the extra step of having to re-type data from paper into computer database. It is faster and also less expensive over the long run.

But creating the SOLAR PlayBook app was more difficult than simply listing a bunch of questions in a certain order. The way a surveyor gathers information on-site varies greatly depending on the type of property. A warehouse is different from a store is different from a large, multi-floor office building, etc.

This meant that users would often have to jump back and forth between sections of their survey. “We couldn’t force you to follow a very specific flow, had to be very flexible. Because if you’re interviewing the owner of a property and he tells you something, you need to be able to very quickly put that information in the right place,” Milne said.

In other words: Aviva wanted the app to accommodate the surveyors’ existing workstyle as much as possible, not force surveyors to conform to a restricted, possibly-arbitrary flow. This, it felt, was key to ensuring that surveyors would embrace the app, as well as to improving their productivity.

In terms of the user interface, Formicary wanted to make sure that when users were holding the PlayBook in a normal position, the “thumbs can reach all of the screen,” Milne said. Formicary also wanted to maximize the amount of structured data collected, and minimize the amount of free text that users would type in. That meant as many ‘Yes or No’ questions as possible, along with checkboxes, draggable sliders, and more.

The worst possible outcome from using this app is if a surveyor leaves his or her tablet at a site, or has it stolen, leaving the reports compromised. To minimize that risk, the reports are wiped from the PlayBook once they are sent back to Aviva’s server. In-process forms are protected by Adobe’s Air technology, which helps ensure that local files cannot be accessed.

What's the ROI?

The key performance metrics Aviva hopes the PlayBook will improve include: shortening the time for surveyors to collect data while visiting properties, speeding up the time to produce reports and reducing data errors.

The overall goal is ambitious: to enable surveyors to go from an average of 2 site visits a day to 4-6 property visits. That would essentially double or even triple their productivity.

By Aviva’s standards, this is a small first step, with total project costs reportedly around $50,000.

The pilot is still in very early stages. But early reports from the testing stage are “very encouraging,” Heybourne said. “It brings improved workload management to our advisers, faster resolution times to our customers and higher caliber reporting for our underwriters.”

“The form factor, ergonomics and robust feel of the PlayBook has been very well-received by the users,” he continued. “Our findings so far, including live trials demonstrate that the Playbook fulfills the requirements that we were looking for from this discrete pilot.”

Neal Fiske, whose job in business development for Formicary requires him to keep up with financial service customers, says that interest in the PlayBook in this sector is stronger than media reports would suggest.

“Any organization that has a predominance of BlackBerries is absolutely looking at the PlayBook,” he said. “The multi-tasking is better than iOS in most peoples’ opinions. We’ve seen the previews of version 2.0 of the PlayBook OS. If they fill in the existing gaps, and in particular, bring in a full set of APIs, that will go a long way. You don’t need something like the size of an iPad for business.”

If successful, this app “sets a precedent throughout the Aviva Group. And it becomes something of a beacon or lighthouse for the PlayBook in the enterprise,” Fiske said.

Or as Aviva's Heybourne tantalizingly puts it, “Any field force role where data collection is required could benefit from this type of device.”

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