Aug 26, 2011

Nice to Meetcha: MailChimp’s New Digital Guestbook

People expect something fun when they visit MailChimp HQ here in Atlanta. We’re an internet company, after all, a group that "creates web and mobile apps that connect you with fans, keep you safe and generally make your life easier." So why are we still requiring people to pick up a ballpoint and sign in to an old-school pad of paper with the words "VISITOR Log Book" emblazoned across its cover in a font that can only be described as Helvetica’s ugly cousin? Surely there’s a better way, a more exciting and elegant way, a way that will allow users to sign in on an iPad, print off a badge right there, and start having fun the moment they walk in the door.

Enter Meetcha.

Much like in the case of our recent coloring book, though perhaps with a little less bloodlust in his eyes, MailChimp CEO Ben went looking for answers, this time from a few of the guys in our mobile lab—Amro, Drew and Steve. The solution, it seemed, would be a digital-guestbook app called Meetcha. But how would they bring it to life?

Originally, the mobile team tried using a standard-size printer for creating name tags, but that ended up being more trouble than it was worth for various reasons, its size chief amongst them. The ultimate goal became utilizing a DYMO 450 label printer, because it would be a quick, small way to print adhesive labels. While DYMO has an SDK for Macs, it was sort of hokey and required the mobile team to write their own software to interface with an iPad. This would work, but it was a hack.

In his final attempt at doing something a little more sane, Drew stumbled upon a blog post about an iOS SDK (which is essentially a library you can use on an iPhone or iPad to send jobs to a DYMO), that was still in beta and labeled "NOT for production" in scary red text. Since this was an in-house experiment and MailChimp isn’t intimidated easily, least of all by scary red text, Amro and Drew ignored the warning and got to work. Once they had a feasible way to send print jobs and a DYMO 450 to send them to, Steve designed a sleek visitor-badge label.

The problem then became that the library talks to a server that’s running on a computer that then talks to the printer. The printer has to be attached to something, and the only OS that said server works with, at the moment, is Windows. Although it’s a little convoluted, the Meetcha setup involves a Mac mini running Windows, which is running the DYMO server software and has the printer plugged into it. Meanwhile, the printer and computer exist on their own Wi-Fi network so they can talk to each other, which required a new router. Meetcha also talks to a small Sinatra app to keep a log of who visits and alert the employee being visited of their guest’s arrival. Phew! I got exhausted just typing all that. As Amro says, it involves "a million little things, but it works great."

Thanks to their hard work connecting all the moving parts, this…

…has transformed into this:

Now, when someone visits the MailChimp office, they plug their name into the iPad and select the employee they’re visiting. Meetcha then takes the visitor’s photo through the iPad, and emails their name and picture to the employee they selected. Finally, a visitor badge is printed off that clearly identifies the person and includes the date they checked in so they can’t sneak in later. (Our tinfoil hats are always tightly fastened.) The entire process takes about 30 seconds, start to finish. Not too shabby. Here’s an example of a visitor badge:

Now, if we could just come up with an app that would instantly print off sandwiches at our desks. Mmmm, instant sandwiches.