10 key steps to designing a great university app

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)

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