Mobile Computing | Feature

How Mobile is Your Mobile App?

Instead of shoveling functionality from its website into a mobile app, the Fox School of Business built an app featuring only those tools that students need while on the go.

If they could keep the user interface clean and easy to use, most schools would probably throw everything but the kitchen sink into their mobile apps. Grades, course catalogs, news--you name it. But the mobile design team at the Fox School of Business at Temple University (PA) believes that such apps miss the whole point of a mobile app.

The Fox School Mobile App, first launched in February 2012, is built around the concept of serving students who are actually on the move--without easy access to a computer. "If it is not something you need in that context, then why are we bothering?" said David Schuff, associate professor of management information systems and director of innovation in learning technologies at the Fox School of Business.

In designing the app, the team's first step was to study dozens of other mobile apps in higher education. They found that many universities take existing ERP data and deliver it to mobile devices so students can check their grades, for example. "That sounds good," Schuff said. "But how many times a semester will they use that feature? Once." By including information like this, he noted, app designers are figuring that "the one time students need to access that information, they are on a train or walking across campus. But they could wait 45 minutes and see it when they get home. It is information that changes one time a semester."

Based on its research, the Fox team decided that simply repackaging tools and services from the main website did students no favors. "If there's no difference or added value, then there is no point," Schuff said. "So we discarded every use that didn't adhere to that idea that you get benefit from being in motion."

So what information or functionality do students want while on the go? The Temple team identified two early ones: Online directories and room scheduling. "One of the hardest things to do on my phone was to look up anyone in the business school," Schuff noted. First, he had to browse an online directory designed for a static web page. Then, when he clicked on a number in the directory, his phone didn't dial it.

A lot of students shared Schuff's frustration. When they come to campus to meet with faculty, they don't usually research where a professor's office is located. Instead, they just show up and try to find it. "When they most need the information they are untethered from a computer," explained Schuff. "Otherwise, they have to find a computer lab to look up [the office location]. That is an example of information you need while moving through space."

The app version of the faculty/staff directory allows users to click on an e-mail link that then launches their e-mail client, or click on a phone number that is then automatically dialed. (Although students were the target users, staff members report using the app regularly to find faculty, too.)

Another example of on-the-go functionality is the scheduling of conference rooms. Although an existing online scheduling system allows students to reserve spaces, the site is not optimized for mobile devices. So the mobile team redesigned the reservation process as a series of steps to fit the mobile form factor. "If, as a student, I am on the train to school and realize I need a meeting room later that day, I can schedule it from there," noted Schuff.

In developing its mobile app, the Fox School turned to an open source framework called PhoneGap that allows developers to create mobile apps using standardized web APIs. Rather than writing several native apps, developers work in a hybrid environment to create a website that looks like a native app. It even has hooks into the mobile device to tell it to dial a phone or take a picture, for instance. Versions are available for both iOS and Android devices.

At this point, Fox is exploring other on-the-go features for its app, including Foursquare-like social tagging: Students working together on projects would be able to see team members who are in the building at the same time and send each other messages. Other uses involve QR codes: One idea is to place them on professors' doors with information about each faculty member as well as their office hours; another is to offer augmented reality tours about the art in campus buildings. "How can we use mobile technology to make the building an interactive experience?" Schuff asked. "We want to allow students to interact with the building and institution in ways they couldn't before."

Designing for Mobile First
In creating its mobile campus app, the developers at the Fox School of Business made a deliberate effort to create a mobile-oriented product that is distinct from the school's website. The philosophy of designing tools that take advantage of a mobile device's attributes--and, yes, its mobility--is shared by Luke Wroblewski, CEO of Input Factory, but he goes one step further: He would also blow up the traditional website and start again. Wroblewski advocates what he calls a "mobile first" strategy: Schools should design sites for mobile devices first, and then create their standard websites based on the mobile ones.

"Designing for mobile forces us to think of anyone/anywhere use cases, because these devices are always with us," says Wroblewski. "When you start to frame thinking around that, you naturally gravitate toward use cases that are real world." 

Some other benefits of the mobile-first approach:

  • You meet the needs of a booming population of visitors to your site. By optimizing for the devices that visitors use, you make your site relevant.
  • The constraints of mobile devices--smaller screens, varied bandwidth, less precise inputs (finger press instead of mouse click)--mean development teams must focus and simplify. "If we can deliver only five things, what are the most important five things?" Wroblewski asks.
  • You can take advantage of mobile capabilities not available in a laptop or desktop, such as a built-in camera, microphone, or gyroscope. "All these technologies allow you to innovate," Wroblewski says. "What can we do differently if we know somebody's location within 10 meters? How can we do things differently knowing they have a camera?"
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