Mobile App Development Tips Shared at Apps World
By Tony Kontzer
Those who attended the Apps World North America conference in San Francisco on Feb. 7 and 8 hoping to gather tips for building more effective mobile apps were not disappointed. Numerous individuals and companies were on hand sharing best practices and lessons learned, highlighting the complex requirements of mobile apps.
For instance, one rule that came up time and again: Keep users involved. Too often in mobile app development, companies lose sight of this, turning their technical teams loose once they've decided an app is needed. The results, experts at the show said, often fall flat with users.
"It doesn't matter if I like what I've built," said Brian McLaughlin, a technical fellow and IT architect at Boeing who was on hand to give advice on ways to avoid mobile app failures. "The goal is to produce a solution that's acceptable to my end users."
At Boeing, that means things such as effectively turning old-school green-screen programs into mobile apps that free employees at airport gates from having to remain at their workstations.
In doing so, McLaughlin's team involves users at every stage of app development. The team works with users to determine pain points where apps can have immediate impact. It creates cross-functional teams that give every app stakeholder a voice in its creation. In addition, it re-engineers completed apps by working with internal users, customers and suppliers to identify bugs, tweak functionality and ensure maximum usability.
"It's important to remember that at the end of the value chain is a human being who's trying to solve a problem or perform a task," he said. "Don't over-focus on the tech."
Another valuable piece of advice: Don't bite off more than you can chew at a time. This has proven especially true at Los Angeles World Airports, where CIO Dominic Nessi is overseeing the development of a mobile infrastructure for Los Angeles International and two other L.A.-area airports.
Nessi, who was at Apps World to share details of that effort, emphasized that a four-stage approach was necessary because of the sheer complexity of trying to meet the mobile needs of airport employees, service providers, contractors and passengers. He said the effort started with mobile apps that enable construction documents to be accessed on an iPad by inspectors.
His team is now in the midst of stage two, in which existing enterprise apps are being converted into mobile apps. Stage three will bring users more into the loop, with iPads being distributed to each area of airport operations so users can play with the device and recommend additional needed applications.
In the final stage, a consumer app will give passengers handheld access to flight schedules, gate assignments and other pertinent airport data.
After that, who knows?
"We're just beginning to scratch the surface of our mobile world," Nessi said.
When it comes to developing traction for mobile apps that rely on Facebook integration, Prashant Sridharan, a developer advocate at Facebook, said it's important to dig deep after an app has been introduced. He recommended that apps makers use their own sites and Facebook pages to promote interesting examples of how people are using their apps.
Sridharan also suggested that apps makers take full advantage of Open Graph to cultivate more use of their apps, focusing especially on controversial posts that spark lots of conversation, thus widening the base of potential users.
Meanwhile, Michael Wnuk, director of technology for mock news site The Onion, cautioned attendees about the limitations of HTML5 in building mobile apps. HTML5 proved helpful in assembling multimedia content, but it also rendered apps less responsive than Wnuk had hoped.
The site's mobile audience is growing, and The Onion estimates that 50 percent of its traffic will be mobile within two years. Given that, Wnuk believes a hybrid approach—in which HTML5 is used to assemble content, and native code handles transitions to article screens and movements such as swiping—is going to help the company capitalize on its near-future mobile opportunities.