Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On the front lines at the 79th Annual National FFA Convention in Indianapolis

Nearly two years ago, Certain won the contract to handle online registration for all events sponsored by the National FFA Organization.


The FFA (formerly called the "Future Farmers of America") is a national association of state FFA chapters. They hired Jeff Rasco and Rod Marymor of Tech3 Partners to mangage their selection of an Online Convention Registration (OCR) application. Tech3 worked with FFA to determine their key needs and to deliver a detailed RFP to all major online event registration vendors. Certain was one of four finalists selected to present to the FFA operations committee at their headquarters, and in March 2005 we signed a multi-year contract.

Time to Deliver

Now, 18 months later, the 79th National FFA Convention begins today at the RCA Dome and convention center in Indianapolis. After a pilot test at last year's convention in Louisville, the implementation team from Certain (Bob Osborn, Sr. Account Manager, Brett Weigl, Director of Client Services, and I) was ready to handle FFA's somewhat unique online registration requirements. These include:

  • The National FFA Convention will have around 50,000 attendees, separated into about 50 groups such such as exhibitors, members, alumni, advisors, parents, staff, press, speakers, judges, etc. FFA used Register123's unlimited registration categories to manage these groups.
  • With 50,000 attendees, the FFA had to schedule three Opening Sessions of ~15,000 - 18,000 each in the RCA Dome. They wanted to limit the total number of tickets selected for any of the three Opening Sessions to be equal to or less than the total number of registrations purchased. (Apparently, in past years some advisors took advantage of an older registration system by splitting their groups into multiple Opening Sessions and getting more "free" opening session tickets than the number of registrations they purchased.) FFA used Register123 Packages and Form Logic in order to enforce this complex business requirement.
  • FFA has an existing Web Site with state chapter login, which is integrated with their PeopleSoft CRM database. They used Register123 Form Integration features to seamlessly pass state chapter information from their web site intranet to the registration form when each registrant clicked on the "Register" hyperlink.

Ticket Management

  • State chapter advisors register multiple student attendees at once, and FFA only collects the contact information for the advisors. FFA used Register123's unlimited Program Module in order to enter more than 175 sessions, tours, concerts, parking passes, etc., where advisors purchased 1-100 tickets at a time for each item.
  • FFA delivers paper tickets and purchased items to all pre-registered attendees. They used Register123 Personal Documents to create a custom "Pick Plan", which their warehouse technicians used to prepare indivudal packets and ship via UPS.
  • FFA also used Register123 Web Integration Links to integrate with the UPS Worldship application, so that employees or attendees could use their Registration Code to track their package shipment on the UPS web site with a single click.


  • The National FFA Convention must cover its expenses through registration fees and additional fees for tours and concerts. FFA processed over a million dollars via Register123's Financial Module using integrated credit card processing and check/P.O. payments.
  • FFA uses Peoplesoft Financials and CRM application as their association management solution. Their IT team used Register123's Budget Module to store the PeopleSoft General Ledger Account Numbers with each fee, and Register123 Custom Reports to create batch files with payment and fee information. The reports were customized with the column headers and tab-delimited text format required by FFA's automatic nightly import into Peoplesoft.


  • The FFA worked with the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association (ICVA) to contract rooms with nearly every hotel in Indianapolis (162 hotels with 12,000 peak room nights and over 30,000 total room nights). The ICVA used Passkey to manage the city-wide housing reservations for FFA. Register123 integrates with Passkey to provide a seamless registration system for attendees.
  • In order to meet their hotel commitments, the FFA offered discounted registration ($30 vs. $40 per person) for attendees who book inside their room block. Because students often stay four or five per room, the FFA wanted to allow only up to 5 discounted registrations per room reservation processed within the block. FFA used Register123's "Packages" feature of the Program Module and "Form Logic" feature in order to enforce these business requirements on their attendees.

On-Site Registration

  • About 10,000 attendees and advisors register on-site, and many pay with cash or pre-printed checks drawn on purchase orders. FFA used Register123's on-site registration features to create simple "Admin-side forms" that registration desk temp workers were able to learn and use after less than 10 minutes of training.
  • FFA used Register123's "split payments" and "cash payments" features in order to process multiple payments against a single order, to accept cash on-site, and to calculate change. Register123 payments reports tracked cash receipts per registration desk worker (with an audit trail based on user name and date-time posted) in order to maintain cash security on-site. (The six foot - six inch off-duty police officer helped this situation, I think.)

I'll post more information (and pictures) tomorrow showing all of this in action from behind the on-site registration desk.

Friday, October 20, 2006

UI and UE Design for web-based applications

On Monday, Certain started a design process to overhaul our User Interface (UI) and our User Experience (UE).

Why design matters

Our online registration application is used by over 50 people for their livelihood. Hundreds of our most active users spend a majority of their workday with it. And thousands of event attendees rely on it for about ten minutes a day. The attendees just expect it to work without explanation, and to let them get on with their day. The users need it to boost their efficiency so that they can justify increased pay, decreased hours, and reduced frustration. Our employees need Certain Registration to bring in revenue so that the company can grow with us.

The current application uses a design created in 2001. So the design that we produce over the next 3 months will affect the lives of millions of people for the rest of this decade and beyond. Good design is not easy, and it's definitely not automatic.

Who can do design

You don't have to wear stylish black clothes and square-rimmed glasses to do good software design. You need to know how the users of the application work on a daily basis, what tasks they need to accomplish, and what the application currently lacks. This knowledge is gained through observation, and observation changes with perspective. So I brought together creative minds from all departments: Kathy Isola (Sales), Ryan Manville and Kevin Linder (Development), Jason Whittenberg, Alan Rhody, and Katie Schuler Herstein (Product Design), Cole Blevins and Bob Osborn (Client Services), Paul Bosky (Training), Dana Chrisler (Marketing), Doug Goldman (Founder), and Bruce Browne (External Design Expert).

How to do design

We used Bruce Browne’s design methodology from his Quicken days with Intuit:

  1. Define goals and objectives
  2. Research and Review: Evaluate existing interface. Identify key problem areas. Map current application organization. Review groupings of tasks/features.
  3. Brainstorm new designs: Break into groups of 1-2 people to produce design alternatives, with each group focused on one Use Case.
  4. Review: Present designs to larger group for evaluation using objective criteria, and select design metaphors for further refinement and evaluation


Over the next several weeks, we will continue to refine our design and post new mockups and wireframes in an internal Wiki for review and comment. Then, we will open the best designs to our community of expert Users, for their comment and further refinement. I'll continue to update you on our progress as we go.

Friday, October 13, 2006

EyeForTravel Travel Distribution Summit USA 2006

Last week I spent a day in Chicago at the EyeForTravel travel distribution summit. I attended a joint session sponsored by several of the travel industry associations who are working together to improve electronic trading between partners in the transient and group travel markets.
  • Open Travel Alliance (OTA) - development of a commonly accepted communications process using XML standards
  • Hotel Electronic Distribution Network Association (HEDNA) - focussed on identifying distribution opportunities and providing solutions for the lodging industry
  • Hotel Technology Next Generation (HTNG) - an industry organization founded to facilitate the development of next-generation, customer-centric technologies to better meet the needs of the global hotel community
  • Accepted Practices Exchange (APEX) - an initiative of the Convention Industry Council uniting the meeting, convention, and exhibition industry in the development and implementation of voluntary standards

Yep - it looks like another bowl of alphabet soup. After a few hours of Powerpoint nirvana, I think I figured out how these groups are going to help me.

HEDNA works on technical issues that currently complicate electronic distribution of hotel products. For example, the hotel industry does not currently have a globally unique "property id" for each location, the way the airline industry has unique 3-letter codes for every airport. This complicates electronic distribution of hotel information, since the various databases that try to aggregate hotel data cannot be sure which facility is referenced in a transaction.

OTA is producing XML schemas that will be used to communicate between various trading partners in the travel industry. APEX is working with OTA to develop the XML standards that relate to *group travel* (as opposed to transient, single-person travel).

HTNG takes the work of HEDNA and OTA and works to implement these standards into practical applications used by the hotel industry.

So in the end, HEDNA will produce a list of unique hotel facility codes, OTA and APEX will produce an open XML standard that defines how two trading partners will send the unique property code between each other, and HTNG will certify applications that use a proven sub-set of the OTA standards in order to transact business in the real world.

See that? It only took you 10 minutes to figure out the alphabet soup and you didn't have to sit through any Powerpoints.

Friday, October 06, 2006

How do web-based event management solutions protect customer data?

Event Solutions magazine requested content for an article about how event management solutions like Register123 help protect customer data, compared to using manual systems like Excel spreadsheets to track financial information, credit cards, personal data, etc. While I cannot tout specific Register123 features in a contributed article, I can do that here.

The short answer to this question is that, compared to manual systems like Excel, Register123:

  • Collects data safely
  • Transfers data safely
  • Stores data safely
  • Monitors potential vulnerabilities better
Data Collection
Online registration systems collect private and financial data more securely than do paper, email, or phone processes. With Register123, registrants can submit credit card payments without any human (other than themselves) seeing the cardholder information. With traditional systems, someone within the event management office must receive and reenter the credit card information into their transaction system.

Data Transfer
Another threat to private information is during data transfer between parties. R123 transfers data using 128-bit encryption standards via https, so that only the sender and recipient can read the information. With email, flash drives, and paper files, data can be read by anyone who happens to see it in transit between the two parties.

Data Storage
Register123 stores data more securely than do typical computer systems. Credit card numbers are encrypted prior to storage in the database and are deleted physically 90 days after the event ends. Card security codes (CVV numbers) are never stored, and address verification is used to validate cardholder authenticity. Our database is located behind a dual-zone firewall, and undergoes continuous intrusion detection, anti-virus protection, physical security, and anti-hacker monitoring. This storage environment is much more save then the typical event management practice of storing data in unencrypted Excel spreadsheets on desktops that don’t use file-level password protection.

The greatest threat to personal and financial data is through human error and theft. With Register123, all data is stored securely in a central location, which is less vulnerable to data theft compared to files stored on easily-stolen laptops or desktop PCs with screens that are visible to any passer-by.

Certain Software and other organizations that adhere to the Payment Card Industry (PCI) standards must perform background and credit checks on all employees, and we must "silo" data access on an "as needed" basis. This level of human security is closer to that found in banks and other financial institutions that deal with PCI standards, and the result is higher data security when compared to the typically open environment of many event management organizations.

In addition to monitoring human vulnerabilities, Certain subscribes to anti-virus and anti-hacking programs that daily update known technical vulnerabilities. Our server farm also has an intrusion detection routine that looks for suspicious behavior on our network and alerts our team if something is amiss.