Digitizing paper processes is now standard operating procedure in business — but it continues to be a heavy lift for established companies with legacy workflows that make it hard to move on from status quo.
Camie Grabowski, the Sales & Design Manager at Digital Pix & Composites (DPC) in Northern Illinois, knows this challenge well. She’s spent nearly 20 years strategizing ways to modernize and simplify operations for a business with several moving parts and plenty of room for human error.
Over the past decade we’ve helped DPC by:
- Designing a scalable ecommerce strategy
- Evolving their storefront for services and sales
- Building a custom web application for multiple user types
- Personalizing the checkout process for customers
- Digitizing camera card intake for photographers across the US
Moving from paper to electronic record keeping
We sat down with Camie to discuss how digitizing the camera card intake process for photographers streamlined record-keeping. For DPC, a camera card refers to a unique ID number that associates a personal record to a portrait.
- What did the manual process used to look like?
- What were some of your initial reservations?
- What was the lag time between planning and action?
- Did any part of the process surprise you with its complexity or simplicity?
- Did you learn anything new about your users during this transformation?
- Where did this process break down after launch?
- What’s been helpful for your team, clients and customers?
- Do you have any advice you’d give others?
The challenges and benefits of converting to digital
For DPC, a "camera card" refers to a unique ID number that associates a personal record to a portrait used by third-party photographers to track personal data.
The below transcripts are highlights from our discussion:
What did the manual process used to look like?
“It's had a couple of iterations over the 20 years I've been there. It started out as just paper card stock. We'd print out tons and tons and tons of camera cards with unique numbers on them, and each photographer would just get a stack of them at the beginning of the season, and they literally would have the people hold them up in front of their face and write their name on them and then take a picture of that person. Then they knew who it was, and then that way when we came back [to the office], we would do manual data entry to match up the photos."
"Then we switched to digital. It got a little bit easier. Still paper cards and then the information was written on the card as a backup but entered into a computer. So that was a huge step forward. And then with COVID, we couldn't have people touching cards and touching barcode scanners and pens and write all of that stuff. So we had to come up with another plan and we switched to printing labels. And so the photographer would take the label, write the person's name, peel it off, stick it on a sheet to keep in order of who got photographed, and then they had three barcode scanners sitting at their computer and they would scan the person to get their picture taken and then scan that same barcode to let them into the computer where they could still type in their information."
"So you can imagine just printing the materials we were using, we had to ship all of these stacks and stacks of huge stacks of camera cards. I mean, some of our groups that we photograph are three, 400 people, so you're sending a stack of cards stock out to a photographer that has at least that many cards in it, but more because you want to have extras. So a lot of printing, a lot of cutting, a lot of storing paper, and then a lot of boxing and shipping and organizing. Each shoot that was going to go again all over the country to different photographers. And in a busy week we're shooting 55 to 60 groups in one week.”
Some of our groups that we photograph are three, 400 people [...] and in a busy week we're shooting 55 to 60 groups in one week.”
What were some of your initial reservations?
“Our biggest concern was how are they going to get the barcode and how are they going to be able to pull it up at the session? So a lot of the shoots that we go to are down in basements or in school buildings that are, there's no internet, there's no wifi. Some of these are in really rural areas and stuff. And so we were concerned even if we could provide a way for them to get on the internet to get this barcode or email it to them from a week ago, or are they going to be able to pull it up onsite and be able to actually use it. So that was one of our biggest concerns with the timing."
"We weren't so concerned about people having cell phones and being able to do that, but when we had initially started talking about this a few years ago, that was a concern. There were still some people that don't have cell phones, and we were like, how are they going to do this? So we just had to kind of address. But those were the two main concerns.”
What was the lag time between planning and action?
“A couple of years. We actually tried to develop a whole different type of software that we were going to use, and it was going to be completely web-based to change how our day of photography experience was. So right now we have a little land local computers. They all talk to each other, so photography computer talks to the data computer. And so we were going to try to work with the company that developed that software to come up with a different solution where people would register online, enter their information, get the barcode, come to the session, and then their post selection instead of being onsite, which how it is right now, was going to be online instead. So we actually started developing that and we saw some mockups of screens and even did some initial testing. And I was like, I don't think this is going to work you guys, if you're worried about internet to get a barcode, how are they going to get online to pick poses? How are we going to transfer all of these images and data real time online? I was like, I don't see how this is going to help us. It's not going to save money."
[With the first iteration] we saw some mockups of screens and even did some initial testing. And I was like, I don't think this is going to work.
"We just ran into a lot of snags. So then I kind of like whoop out of the back pocket was like, what if we went with this idea? And so then we kind of started developing and thinking about how we could do this digital barcode idea, and we actually ended up scrapping the other project entirely because it just wasn't going to provide any return for us. ”
Did any part of the process surprise you with its complexity or simplicity?
“Yeah, definitely. We started with user stories. It was a lot of different people. I mean, it touches our internal staff, it touches the customers out in the field and our photographers. So we had three different people that we were looking at. But then within each of those we had sub paths of different things that could happen. What if someone can't get their barcode? What if they're new to the group? What if they don't sign up? What if they do sign up? What if all of these different user stories? So once we broke it down, it wasn't overwhelming, but initially it was more than I expected when we were thinking of all the scenarios.”
“Another thing that I was surprised about was the amount of work it was going to take to set up the staging environment to get ready for testing. So I had to create, gosh, I don't know, 20 or more test accounts with all of the different scenarios that we had come up with. We have an AirTable and we have it all written down and all the passwords, all the usernames, all the different, are they new? Are they existing? Are they Greek?”
We started with user stories. It was a lot of different people. I mean, it touches our internal staff, it touches the customers out in the field and our photographers.
“And then the last part was the actual implementation and rolling this out. So we're a super seasonal business, so luckily we do have a little bit of a lag in the summer, but we had to be able to implement this with existing accounts, people that already had their accounts ready and then upcoming accounts.”
“And then we had to find a way and a time when we were going to be able to actually roll this out, train the photographers on it, explain how it was going to work all over the country. So we had to figure out a time to bring them in and get them acclimated to the new process.”
Did you learn anything new about your users during this transformation?
“Most of it came actually after implementation. So I have a really good handle on the customer stories. I have a pretty good handle on the internal stuff. I did not have as good a handle on the photographer use case scenarios. So Ryan, our head photographer, he and I went out into the field and actually did a test shoot so that we could kind of see what that looked like, how it worked, make sure that some of the kinks and bugs and we found a couple of small things, but overall the shoot was successful, which was really exciting. And then, once the photographers were actually using the solution in the field, just all kinds of suggestions kept rolling in and I was like, oh, it got a little overwhelming, but all really good suggestions."
And then, once the photographers were actually using the solution in the field, just all kinds of suggestions kept rolling in.
"It's nice to see that they were embracing the new solution. Yeah, we got their buy-in, they were onboard. And so the fact that they're coming back with, Ooh, could you make it do this? Ooh, could you give me a view for this? Ooh, this would really be helpful and make my day easier. Some were really comfortable with the way things were. And to see them actually kind of come around after they used it and they were like, oh, this doesn't actually change my process all that much.”
Let’s discuss how this process initially broke down.
“So everything started out going great. Shoots were happening successfully, everything was wonderful. All of a sudden I get a call from our photographer, slightly panicked, and he's like, all of the barcodes are blank. He's like, every fourth person or so that's coming in, they have no barcode. They're showing me their email, but the barcode isn't there.”
“We have what we call emergency shoot data, emergency bookings is what we call them. So worst case scenario, a session can happen. I told the photographer, I was like, don't panic, just grab cards from your emergency, use those. Don't worry. I will get you an answer as quickly as possible. All right, call Stacey. I'm like, I'm not freaking out, but I'm freaking out. And I was like, there's no barcodes. So we just start digging in. I mean, there's no question. We just start digging in. We're looking at the account. She's like, I got Kyle on chat. He's going to look into this. I'm going to look into this. You're going to look into this. I was like, great. So we all do our looking into stuff. We come back together, we collaborate, and we were like, oh, we didn't anticipate this. So we'd link the roster, which is a member listing online to the signup where they actually pick their times. “
“The oversight was twofold. One, could we fix the duplication type of thing, or at least warnings or something else. Two, when it ran out of barcodes, can we alert somebody so that we can maybe fix it before we get to the session? And then three, is there just a better way to do this that we could eliminate both of these problems? So those were some major, major issues for that. Oh boy. That first shoot. And so what stinks about some of that too is once we figured out the problem, now we had to figure out what other groups were affected by this problem. “
One of our team members said, you know, even with all of [these roll-out issues] the new process is still faster and easier.
What’s been helpful for your team, clients, and customers?
“The feedback from the photographers has been wonderful, and I would say not only the experience, but the cost savings. I mean, we don't have to stock all this card stock. I don't have somebody printing and cutting and boxing and shipping all of this stuff. So materials, printers, printer maintenance people. I mean, we've freed up people and we've saved cost on materials. So although it was a bigger endeavor to build all of this solution, we hope that we're going to get our return within about a year. And so this stuff that we're doing now is improvements on that. So I think that's been something that can't go unnoticed. And we had this notorious problem where people would get their picture taken and then just walk out. So then they would never put their data into the computer and we didn't know who they were. So you want to see your picture, you just got it taken, I don't understand, whatever. They just leave. And so now with the new barcode system, everyone has to register to get a barcode. So even if they walk out, I know who they are.”
Do you have any advice you’d give others?
“Planning. I think the planning was, it was really important. And having a team, I mean, again, we have such a great relationship with light, be with Stacy. She knows our business, she knows me. We work well together. So we've learned through some project successes and failures. That planning is our key. So I would say just take the time to plan it out, but then also don't be afraid to just take the plunge, just jump in and do it. Once you feel like you've done the best you can do with the planning part, take the leap and realize that it's not going to go perfectly, but just do it. But I think just having a great team and knowing that you're going to work through whatever things come up is probably the best safety net you can have.”