post office

USPS app store makeover delivers software access for workers

The U.S. Postal Service put a new face on an old system to make life easier for workers seeking access to business and productivity applications.

The organization’s upgraded and updated access control system, modeled on online app stores, replaces client/server vintage technology. The new technology gives users a more streamlined way to identify the apps they need and request access to them. Currently, more than 300 apps are available through the access application. USPS expects to have 400 to 500 apps available over time.

The system has been in production for about 22 months, but work continues. The latest iteration of the software is in beta-test mode. And in early 2014, the system will get a new server backend. That technology refresh will bring the access control system into USPS-wide technology standards, namely Oracle database technology and IBM WebSphere integration middleware.

The move aims to prepare the system for more widespread use within USPS. “The user community ... is growing as more an more people find out about it,” said Greg Wallace, manager, Desktop Computing, at USPS.

Legacy limitations

USPS’ legacy role-based access control system has “been around for a long time,” Wallace said. While the system got the job done, users found it cumbersome to use. The business justification for the upgrade project, he said, was to make it less time consuming and frustrating for users to get access to apps.

The legacy system, eAccess, had a couple of strikes against it. For starters, the user interface consisted of a blank line on a screen, Wallace noted. Users would enter the first few letters of the app they wanted, and the system’s look-up capability would provide suggestions. But the names of apps the system presented included no details on the nature of the app. Users who were  uncertain whether the suggested app was the right one would need to research the app in another system, the Enterprise Information Repository (EIR). After reading a description of the app, users would confirm the choice and then go back to eAccess to submit an access request.

Then, an approval process would kick in. The system would put users’ access requests in a queue, which would go through a validation process, Wallace explained. A person requesting an application one day typically would have access the next. But because the system’s notification capability could lag the actual time of availability by a few hours, a user might not know when to expect access. And upon notification, the user would need to go to yet another system to obtain the software.

The awkward, multistep process had another wrinkle: Each leg of the journey from eAccess to EIR and back again required manual sign on and authentication.

App Store renewal

Against that backdrop, the USPS team working to renew the access control system aimed to create an iPhone/App Store-like experience for users, Wallace said. To get there, developers adopted an agile software development approach. Agile methods emphasize frequent software iterations and user feedback during development. Agile projects are organized into a series of sprints, with each sprint lasting a few weeks.

Robert Bradsher III, lead developer at USPS, said agile proved an appropriate fit for a software project where the objective was to “get it out quickly, get customer feedback and make adjustments on the fly.”

Wallace noted that the project’s sprints were small enough and targeted enough to validate individual features and introduce enhancements based on a constant stream of feedback.

Ashok Nare, chief technology officer at Octo Consulting Group, a technology and management consulting firm based in McLean, Va., said agile has been around for a while, but is now becoming a mainstream practice in the federal market.

“The ... federal space is moving in this direction, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Nare, whose company has worked on agile projects with such customers as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “Agile represents a huge change in how you build software.”

Ease of use

USPS has won over users with its software initiative. The app store replaces the user input box and look Occupational Health and Safety Administration up with icons representing the applications. John Teal, IT program manager for workstation packaging and application support at USPS, said employees can request access to two types of applications: packages and products that are licensed, such as Microsoft’s Visio, and Web-based applications such as USPS’ eCareer and its time and attendance system.

A user can also hover his cursor over an icon to view a description of the application as opposed to consulting EIR repository. A user’s click on the desired app triggers the access request process. Once the app is selected, the same eAccess background processes take the request through the approval cycle. In fact, the system uses the legacy eAccess system’s database.

The user experience, however, has been “radically changed” with the addition of the app store interface. “It puts users in an environment they are used to and have seen before,” Wallace said.

Notification is simplified as well. When a user’s request is approved, an icon is added to the user’s area of the app store, which then lets the user launch the app.

Wallace said not every USPS user visits the app store, noting that the original interface remains available. But when people find out about and use the app store, “they generally don’t want to go back,” he noted.

Next steps

USPS continues to refine its app store. Teal said a version 3.5 beta pilot is under way. The latest iteration, Teal said, gives users a better description of apps, dynamic font sizing, an error checking feature that confirms the availability of authorized web-based apps, and the ability to shift between icon view and descriptive view and back.

The beta pilot launched in Oct. and a primary pilot debuts in January. The later will run for at least two months.

In addition, Wallace said the app store will soon adopt USPS technology standards for administrative applications. The system’s server side was originally based on Microsoft’s Internet Information Services and PHP. The system, however, will transition around January to a combination of Oracle and IBM’s WebSphere technology on the backend. The changes will improve the serviceability of the app store and help assure high availability to users, according to USPS.

“We’re just hardening it and getting it ready for industrial utilization,” Wallace said.

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