Graeme Addison explains the range of choices and some of pitfalls in do-it-yourself app design. He will be leading a workshop on app creation at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism, Johannesburg, on 28-30 July. Contact the IAJ 011 482-4990. firstname.lastname@example.org
Mobile apps – those little programmes to run and have fun with on your smartphone – have become so popular that it’s been suggested our devices should be renamed appphones.
These days everyone uses apps and every business wants at least one. They are not just playthings: they serve us with weather, maps, messaging, games, health advice and much more. The world is going mobile and your organisation needs to get with the trend – just so long as your apps work properly and contain the kind of services people want.
They say that on the web Content is King. The same is absolutely true of apps: fix your sights on communicating with the user and helping the user to communicate with others.
In effect this means you start by drawing up a storyboard of what you want the app to provide in an easy-to-navigate way. Visualise it as a set of interconnected blocks. It must flow. It must look good. It must not try to do too much. And above all it must satisfy a particular need.
Mobile apps promise three handy advantages over desktop and laptop computing: speed, portability and focus. You can access information and complete tasks quickly; do it on the hoof; and know exactly what you are getting because the app was designed to be task-specific.
With conventional computer applications – also termed apps, by the way – you have a wider choice of tools but at the same time there may be too much detail. Microsoft Word is a powerful writing and layout programme with spell checker, tables, footnoting, mail-merge, editing tracker and so on. But do you want all that if you simply want to message someone with WhatsApp?
So apps have exploded on the scene and the millions of apps currently available are only the start.
To meet the demand for DIY apps, programmers have come up with many competitive off-the-shelf apps like Appery, Good Barber, BuildFire, AppyPie, AppMakr and Como to design and build your own apps. Some are free, some fairly inexpensive, and others pricey; but this may still be preferable to paying a software design house to provide you with a customised app that will set you back more than wedding at the Mount Nelson.
You can literally build an app in 20 minutes and have it running on your phone, free – but within a 3 to 30 days you may have to pay the DIY platform to keep it running.
If you are prepared to put in the sweat equity, then App Inventor – the app builder developed as Open Source by Google and now maintained by MIT – may be the platform for you. It is free and it is the most flexible but also the most demanding route to DIY. It’s limited, however, to Android.
Oh, are you aiming to make money from your app? Then, perhaps, DIY on an existing set-up is not for you and you are going to need to spend a lot more money for professional help unless you are hot on coding.
For small business needing marketing and communications in particular it makes sense to go the DIY route. There are lots of functions available at the touch of a button. But beware, it’s not all plain sailing on the do-it-yourself front.
NATIVE AND WEB-BASED
Firstly, the different mobile phone platforms – iPhone, Android, Windows Phone and even Blackberry – use differentlly coded “native” apps. In reality most apps run in the background off web-based systems so they are hybrids of native and the web. Once downloaded on your phone they constantly revert to the web to update themselves and carry out functions.
Many of the DIY packages now offer all platforms, so the native problem is being overcome. Some programmers believe that in due course a universal app language will develop (as with hypertext protocol on the web) and that native apps will disappear. This is doubtful because the big operating systems seek the corner as much of the market for themselves as they can.
Secondly – and this is the nub of things – no matter how good the DIY offering may be, there are still things you will want to do that take some cunning adaptation of what’s available to you. Apps must be built for purpose – be it selling your products or comparing dog breeds – and this inevitably involves some knowledge of how databases work.
The promise that “no coding is involved” is true, but it takes some imagination to work with the DIY tools in a way that produces the results you want.
Usually a website needs to be running in the background of most apps, even those that promise full functionality on the phone itself. Some app-building software is designed to integrate with websites like those running WordPress, and this can make life a lot easier.
SET YOUR AIM
So where does this leave the small business or the would-be app-maker? You’re not aiming to make a lot of money directly from sale of the app – just enhance your brand and reputation by providing a useful service.
What you have to do is turn the design problem on its head. Start with the outcomes that you want (or rather, research what people want), and then find the tools to make it possible.
This all comes before you start worrying about the technical platform. You can pick and choose want you want in the technology when you know what you want to achieve. The final outcome – putting the app online – is easily soluble because you can either submit to one of the big online providers like AppleStore or Google Play, or distribute through your own web channels.
Apps in their present form are sure to develop into the Next Big Thing as mobile technology itself develops. We’re already living our lives in an environment of wrap-around wireless technology.
In time the mobile touchscreen with its natty, colourful icons will probably give way to spoken instructions or even brainwave pulses telling the software to do this or find that.
For now, you can be quite comfortable making an app for the smartphone, learning as you go.