Engineering / Product

How we built the most extensive media player and video archive for classical music, growing an audience of engaged music lovers

Engineering / Product

How we built the most extensive media player and video archive for classical music, growing an audience of engaged music lovers

The Berliner Philharmoniker is one of the world’s most renowned symphony orchestras. We worked alongside them to enable users to stream high quality symphonies straight to their Android mobiles and tablets. The app captures both the nuance and the dramatic detail of every performance, bringing a truly exceptional musical experience to a wider global audience.

Over the last 125 years, the Berliner Philharmoniker has built up a reputation for the quality and character of their live performances and established themselves as one of the world’s most highly regarded orchestra brands. With their growing customer base consuming music in different ways, the orchestra was keen to find a way to both better engage with their existing audience and to reach out to a whole new world of Android smartphone or tablet owning music lovers. Novoda was dedicated to the quality of development and design of software expected of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Thanks to their excellent sponsors, Deutche Bank and Sony, the Berlin Philharmonie has already established themselves as pioneering investors in top-notch technology. Eye-poppingly crisp 2500 kbps video is produced in real time for every performance from an ensuite video production studio within the beautiful Berlin Phil orchestra hall itself. Our task was to extend the reach of this world-class video production to the wide range of Android devices accessible to their audience.

This project has been the smoothest I have ever experienced.

Alexander McWilliam, Director Online Development Berlin Phil Media GmbH

Getting the band together

To begin we brought everyone together for a two-day workshop in Berlin: Berliner Philharmoniker, Novoda (Android), Opoloo (visual design), nxtbgthng (iOS), and Skygate (web backend). The aim was to give everyone a better understanding of the the orchestra’s heritage, ambitions, and business goals. After a privileged audience with key Berlin Phil Media figures and some impressive audio/visual presentations, we put together several fictional personas to represent various members of the Berlin Philharmonie’s intended audience. These personas allowed us to storyboard the habits and intended usage of the audience, which in turn allowed us to prioritise the project’s initial requirements. These personas would continue to be used to set the expectations of the audience and product direction throughout the life of the project.

Tuning up

Bootstrapping is the initial period where team members set up communications, shared environments and tools such as continuous integration, all with the aim of quickly creating and iterating upon an initial ‘clickable’ prototype. This working prototype demonstrates the app’s main flows and allows for quick, constant feedback during these early stages. While it’s easy to speculate about what design and functionality may or may not work, the fastest way is to validate an idea is always through practical use.

A clickable prototype starts with paper prototypes and whiteboarding—the quickest, lo-fi way to explore designs without committing to days of time producing code. For this project, paper prototyping took two days, and within two weeks the team had a full clickable prototype delivered to the testing devices of the client’s team.

During these two weeks we ensured there was constant collaboration and communication between all stakeholders, allowing us to highlight key decisions and rapidly bring the product closer to realit

Hitting the high notes

While our partners at Opoloo were translating the visual branding and iterating alongside us, our main focus was ensuring that the client’s reputation as a technical industry leader was maintained, even for users on lower-end devices. As the app’s intended purpose was the delivery of live, high-quality video and audio, we knew the app would live or die on its ability to deliver these across all devices.

Initially we had Quality Assurance professionals run tests manually across a myriad of different devices, before also creating automated scripts to test the main streaming use cases and quality of service. It was agreed that, above any other acceptance criteria, we had to ensure that the app could handle smooth and seamless 2500 kbps video streaming without a hitch. Each live performance during this period was taken as our opportunity to test and demonstrate the capability of the work in progress. Being surrounded by smartphones, tablets and TVs all playing a high-quality live stream in glorious Dolby 5.1 surround was an exhilarating experience.

Although we’d been aware of the orchestra’s dedicated fanbase, it was only after being surrounded by the music and seeing the infectious excitement of live performances ourselves that we truly understood their passion and love for the orchestra’s work. Knowing that our work would bring this passion to a new, wide audience, as well giving greater access to the dedicated, local fanbase, served as even greater motivation.

The Chromecast was newly released at the time and served as a good avenue to engage this local audience who might not be able to attend live performances. A thumb-sized media device, the Chromecast plugs into the HDMI port of any TV and allows for the streaming content sent from a phone or tablet. In combination with the app, this would allow both international and local fans who may not be able to attend in person to view the high-quality video and audio of a live performance in the comfort of their own home. While not quite the same as a concert hall experience, Chromecasting live performances to your 50” TV screen with friends and a bottle of wine is another wonderful way to experience the performance!

Exploring the back-catalogue

Novoda works in sprints of two weeks and regular Agile planning helps us prioritise our work efforts accordingly. One of the challenges to overcome that this rapid iteration process highlighted was how to easily browse and filter the orchestra’s archive of over 300 video performances. A fantastic back-catalogue of content is no good if it is hopelessly buried within a bad information hierarchy.

In addition, we quickly discovered that not all users would be using the back-catalogue in the same way. While some might be subscribing to the service as huge fans of a particular composer, others might be looking for recommendations, or streams within a specific genre. The app had to cater for a range of user preferences without alienating any of them.

After a number of iterations, we found the best solution was to give the user the ability to filter the whole archive by Composers, Conductors, Genres, Epochs and Seasons. This ensures that any concert can be retrieved by a user with just 3 taps on the screen—a simple and accessible approach that caters to most usage patterns.

Dress Rehearsal

Testing is important and something we never leave until the end of a project. We usually recommend at least 25% of the equivalent development time is allocated to Quality Assurance testing throughout the project, once the initial bootstrapping is complete. In this case, given the time-sensitive and live nature of the performances, we opted for 30%.

Beyond our formal QA, we also created a VIP beta-testing group of users that could monitor our progress and feed back into the product’s development. Beta versions of the app were released weekly to our VIP Google+ group and we found that this passionate, highly vocal group of over 200 classical music enthusiasts gave us more relevant, nuanced feedback than we could possibly have obtained through in-house or outsourced QA testing alone.

As we were offering four different target regions with four different languages were offered (English, German, Japanese and Spanish), this VIP group also allowed us to engage with native speakers of each language—the only way to truly test localisation.

An eager audience awaits!

At last the app hitting the Play Store and was of course a huge success! To date, it’s had tens of thousands of active, paying customers regularly streaming content and, with a rating of 4.5/5 stars on the Play Store, it’s clear that the app is bringing joy to this growing audience of music lovers.

The Berliner Philharmoniker are well known to only work with the best of the best. Such an expectation can certainly add pressure to an inexperienced team. Working with Novoda, this was not the case at all. Each developer knows the Android platform inside out, its shortcomings and benefits. Due to a limited budget, they were able to suggest exactly the right feature-set early on, and kept the project on track from the first workshop to the release on the Play Store.

Guenther Beyer, Director at Opoloo