10-step guide offers advice to institutions on how to develop the best app possible

app-design-stepsBy now, most people have caught on to the fact that not all apps are created equal, and that while it’s cool in theory to have an app for your college or university, if students and alumni don’t find it useful, you’ve just wasted precious time and money. But thanks to those that have been there and done that, there are now key steps every university should consider when creating a great university app.

And now more than ever is when institutions should seriously invest in either app creation or app redesign, according to recent data. For example, 87 percent of all U.S. higher education students want to access campus resources from a mobile device, and 75 percent of student reading sessions happen on tablets. 53 percent of colleges and universities had at least 1 mobile service in 2010, and 55 percent of public universities activated mobile apps as of fall 2011.

“This is much like how having a website went from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’ in the mid-1990s,” said Mark Gardner, director of Enterprise Mobility for SAP in a recent University Business webinar.

(Next page: Steps 1-5)

1. Be device agnostic.

“For those institutions who have already invested in mobile apps, the debate centers around providing access to all students and not just those who possess an iPhone or iPad,” said Sean Montgomery, managing director of Iconic Mobile in a recent Guardian article. Iconic Mobile has worked with the University of Hertfordshire to produce a mobile web application which is accessed through the mobile internet browser, and is therefore device agnostic.

“The majority of the functionality delivered through a native mobile app can be applied to a mobile web app, and advances in mobile and web technology will mean more and more institutions will turn this way.”

“There are a large number of different devices used by members of the university and it would not be economically viable to provide native applications for even the most common platforms (iOS, Android, Blackberry). To overcome this issue we developed a mobile web solution that could be rendered in the web browser of all modern smart phones, saving the need to develop multiple native applications,” emphasized the University of Bristol’s IT services team in a joint statement.

2. Know your audience.

One of the biggest considerations for universities is what content to promote on the app. The answer? Make the app one that students will want to check at least once a day; otherwise, it will be deleted.

It has to deliver useful content and be worth recommending to your friends—both critical for mobile adoption, explained Gardner. “Otherwise, users download the app, then delete it without even using it.”

Institutions have identified “a number of key areas where direct communication with the student through their mobile handset can assist them in putting information at their fingertips quickly and efficiently,” said Montgomery, “such as interactive maps for when students first arrive on campus, timetabling put straight into their mobile calendar, accessing staff directories, utilizing mobile for small payments on campus, and access to course work.”

Other important areas include campus events and alumni information.

“News, announcements, photo galleries and campus events are filtered by audience type,” said Kathy Gates, CIO of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). “We connected our university’s Twitter feeds to deliver dynamic content after hours. For example, if there’s a baseball game, the app shares tweets from the game. We can even push notifications to the app, as well as link to other university mobile-friendly sites that perform specific tasks.”

3. Include multimedia.

According to Gates, Ole Miss started with an iPad app to share news stories, HD photos, and videos. “In higher-ed, we often have conversations about whether cloud, on-premise, proprietary software or open source is the way to go. The answer is ‘yes’ to all,” she said. “We have all types available in our app, from social media to a feed from our radio station. It is a hybrid of many pieces of information, but is presented to the user as one experience in the app.”

Western Michigan University’s (WMU) app even has the option for students to listen to “sounds of Western, including Fight Song, Alma Mater and ‘key play,’” as well as live streaming of campus radio and sports tweets.

4.  Consider intellectual property, ethics and the requirements for app stores.

For example, Queen Mary, a research branch of the University of London, decided to develop QApps, which put research directly into people’s hands in order to meet the university’s goal of knowledge dissemination and development of staff entrepreneurship.

It’s important, especially when disseminating student work and multimedia that universities do “due diligence on intellectual property, ethics, and building and testing an ‘app store’ ready code,” said Adam Daykin, senior technology transfer manager at Queen Mary.

5. Make sure it’s easy to use.

According to the 2014 Social Admissions Report, though 97 percent of students have visited a school’s website on a mobile browser, nearly 67 percent said the experience was “just OK” or “challenging.”

“Mobile is not the future. Mobile is now,” states the report. “Nearly all students access websites [and apps] via a smartphone or tablet and responsive design will be key. It shouldn’t matter what type of device a student is using—the experience should be easy, seamless, and consistent.”

(Next page: Steps 6-10)

6. Take a look at your competition.

Part of knowing what you want is knowing what you don’t want, and often that knowledge can come through examination of peer products.

“When I was looking at creating an application, I examined other university’s apps,” explained Gates. “Many of them looked the same and required users to click through many buttons to get useful information. The tablet version was often simply a blown up version of the smartphone version, so resolution was often poor on tablets. I was not satisfied with these experiences.”

7. It doesn’t always have to be a resource-suck.

According to Matthew Draycott, enterprise associate at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at Glyndwr University, the costs of developing an app were prohibitive, until he was introduced to AppMakr—a solution which allowed the university to build an app cheaply with no real programming knowledge.

“I decided early on that to suit my level of skill I would keep the app simple, so I framed it as a news aggregator…Developing doesn’t have to be hard; there are so many great platforms like AppMakr or Red Foundry. The Life Hacker site is a good resource for information on web publishing and app development.”

8. Use tech-savvy students!

WMU’s Apple and Android apps were developed thanks to a senior engineering project by six computer science students.

“WMU Mobile has a number of distinctive features,” said Dr. Keith Hearit, WMU vice provost for strategic enrollment management in a WMU press release, “but what’s more impressive than the product, itself, is the way it was created. Typically, universities pay a vendor to create an app. We had six talented computer science majors design and create ours for their senior design project.”

The students worked under the supervision of Dr. John Kapenga, associate professor of computer science, and received academic credit for their work. They collaborated with a variety of campus offices, including Facilities Management for the map feature, legal affairs for wording on product liability, and WMUK, among several others. Read the full story.

9. Strike a balance between usefulness and security.

Though it’s important to consider the potential of the app for multiple functionalities, campus security is critical above all.

According to Dr. Davide Currie, database manager for development and alumni relations at Aberystwyth, the University’s app includes the ability for alumni to make donations to the University’s Annual Fund via PayPal, and often includes alumni contact details and even physical location in the city.

“The biggest development challenge is striking the balance between usability and security,” he noted.

10. Learn from your analytics.

“Analytics are a great way to monitor consumption, learn about your audience’s preferences and optimize your content,” said Paul Stanley, vice president of business development for Mercury Intermedia. “You gain that mobile mindshare that drives the consumption of your information.”

According to Stanley, in Mercury apps, admin can pull the daily unique users, which shows the impact of the app.

“Analytics revealed the heightened access to the [Ole Miss iPhone] app when there was a tornado near campus and a tornado alert was pushed through the notification system. People opened up the app to find more information about that tornado,” he said.

“Also, when Ole Miss became the SEC basketball champions, user consumption increased. Over time, you can use analytics to see what is generating interest in your app. Analytics can also show which sections of the app are most popular and what hours the app is most commonly used.”

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