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Mobile Computing | Feature

Campus Apps With a Personal Touch

While most colleges now have a mobile presence, cutting-edge schools are creating personalized apps and mobile-optimized websites that delivered customized info to user groups.

The initial rush to develop a mobile campus app--any kind of app--is over. Now the focus is turning toward making these apps as relevant and useful as possible. And, increasingly, schools are looking at personalization as a way to make it happen.

A case in point is Georgetown University (DC). While the university already offers a website that renders differently based on whether visitors are using a computer, tablet, or smartphone, school officials felt that the site's information should also change based on a user's interests. Working with mobile developer Modo Labs and the university's Office of Advancement, the school created an app that features two personas: one for alumni and one for current Hoyas. Users can toggle between the two personas if they desire.

"This [approach] enables us to provide a personalized experience, by delivering apps that have unique value to a particular community, while at the same time delivering apps that everyone in the institution uses," noted Judd Nicholson, deputy CIO, and Beth Ann Bergsmark, senior director of enterprise services, web, mobility, and data management.

"We're excited about the ability to extend our engagement with alumni into the mobile environment. As many of our active faculty, staff, and graduate students have alumni affiliations, they can also switch between personas in order to engage in both areas."

Building on this role-based approach, the school is now evaluating new apps for student orientation, prospective students, and public safety.

It's a similar story at New York University, which is testing personalization on its mobile-optimized website. With a total enrollment of 50,000 students and five major centers in Manhattan, the NYU challenge is to provide a user interface that is easy to use and simple to navigate.

"The mobile, on-the-go experience is one that fits our urban university naturally," said Jim Robertson, NYU's executive director of the Digital Communications Group, Public Affairs, and ITS. "We feel that personalization is one way to help us and our users manage that interface and retain that focus."

NYU launched its native app version before its mobile website. "We were comfortable launching the native app first," explained Robertson, "because our web traffic has shown us that over 97 percent of our mobile web traffic is coming from iOS or Android devices. We then launched our mobile-optimized website to close that gap."

Focused on its internal community of students, faculty, and staff, NYU will be using authentication, geo-location, and personalization to present different "views" of the app to different audiences, and as a way to organize the growing number of features and modules. "We feel that this approach will provide an app that will be easy to use, and provide the robust features we know our users want," said Robertson.

Role-Based Personalization
The personalization efforts of NYU and GU are part of a growing trend toward the development of role-based programming in apps, says Andrew Yu, founder and chief operating officer of Modo Labs, which provides mobile solutions for colleges and universities based on an open-source development platform. "You go to the app or website, and you identify yourself," he explained. "You then have a different user experience if you're an alumni or a student, a prospective student, or faculty and staff."

"The ultimate trend for mobile," continued Yu, "is that everything is ready to go when you go to the website," with a "responsively designed website" solving specific use-case problems for the university community, as opposed to a more "general website," which is the face of the university.

As with most IT initiatives, the key to success lies in securing buy-in and in collaborative planning. According to Yu, schools must take into consideration not just students, but the broader external community that is interested in the university. "They have to be able to articulate and execute on their strategy, and cater to many different audiences," he said.

At NYU, the Digital Communications Group led the development of the mobile app. This is a blended group that spans University Relations and Public Affairs, as well as IT, and encompasses the school's central web, mobile, and social media initiatives. A broader Community Life Committee serves as a steering group for mobile strategy and decisions. According to Robertson, "We look at three factors to inform the choices we make in enhancing and expanding our mobile offerings":

  • Direct and indirect feedback from users via focus groups, feedback mechanisms, and user reviews.
  • Market research that examines the larger trends in mobile directions.
  • Analytics that show how people are actually using the app and what they are trying to get from it.

At GU, the emphasis has been on partnering with campus communities. "Mobile app development is often not coordinated, with different campuses or areas of campuses building their own apps," said Nicholson and Bergsmark. "In some cases, this results in duplication. At GU, we wanted to create a consistent experience and leverage our capabilities throughout the campus."

As evidence of this, Nicholson and Bergsmark cite the example of a faculty member traveling to GU's School of Foreign Service in Qatar (also known as SFS-Q), situated in the capital Doha. With the new GU app, the faculty member would have access to the SFS-Q persona, providing maps of Doha rather than DC, while still retaining access to many other GU apps. For the developers, no reinvention of the wheel is necessary to create such functionality--it's as simple as changing a data source.

"Our recommendation to other schools starting down the mobile path would be to use this as an opportunity to bring your communities together and imagine capabilities beyond the traditional mobile apps," concluded Nicholson and Bergsmark. "Our strategy is to embrace mobile at every layer where you live, learn, and work."

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