Real Time Communications Featured Article

Is a Custom App in Your Future?

April 14, 2016
By Special Guest
Andrew LeCates, Director Solutions Consulting, FileMaker, Inc.

Altimeter Group found in its State of Digital Transformation study that 88 percent of companies surveyed were undergoing a formal digital transformation effort. Like “big data” and “Internet of Things” before it, digital transformation has moved from theory to reality. Like its buzzword predecessors, digitalization (as it’s also called) has profoundly impacted how organizations work. Distributed teams are finding new ways to collaborate and innovate, and they now rely heavily on apps to accomplish their tasks.

To many, it might seem that the easiest and best answer would be to buy off-the-shelf apps. However, it’s important to consider that apps of this type tend to be generic in order to appeal to a wide audience. They may get the job done, but there’s little to no personalization available. You may pay for features that you don’t need, and you may not get the features that would best serve your team. These apps also cannot be updated to accommodate business growth and change. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that an off-the-shelf app will be compatible with external data or existing business systems.

Fortunately, there is another option: custom apps.

Why customize?

Custom apps are created to meet the unique business needs of your team or organization. Apps can be made based on a new idea, by modifying an existing starter app, or by importing data. Businesses use multi-platform custom apps on iPhone, iPad, Windows and across the Web. They enable employees and customers to securely access vital information at any time, from any place and extend mission-critical business processes far beyond the boundaries of the enterprise.

Types of content that can be accessed via a custom app include spreadsheets, media files, documents, custom forms, reports and signatures. Custom apps can be developed in organizations of any size but are very often done by small teams that consist of fewer than 25 people, be it entire small businesses or teams within larger companies.

There was a time when custom app development was out of reach for small and mid-sized businesses, but that time has passed. It can be faster and less expensive to build a custom app from scratch than to buy and try to customize off-the-shelf software. And by designing the app in-house, you’re sure to get the features that you want at the budget that you set.

Plan Carefully

Once you’ve made the decision to create a custom app solution, the planning process begins. One of the first steps when it comes to implementing custom apps is to evaluate the goals of the solution you’re setting out to create. Define the needs and requirements of team members (the app users) to ensure the app will address their specific pain points.

Write the Story of Your Users

Writing user scenarios that summarize how individuals will use the app is imperative. This will help define the necessary features and functions required.

User scenarios tell stories about how users get tasks done and how they use data; they help create the requirements for your app. Determine what people and groups will use the app and then write a user scenario for each role. What are the users’ roles and responsibilities? Will multiple users use the app at once, and are their roles similar or different?

Next, think about what users need the app to do. What problems are users trying  to solve? For example, a manager cannot efficiently collect, manage, and share a list of customers and assets with the main office. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of current processes and the requirements of different teams.

You also need to consider the logistics of how and where users will access the app. Will it be used in bright light? How about at night? Will users always be able to connect to the server? What devices will be used to access the app? How will the custom app need to interact with current systems? Think about when people will use the collected information, and also think about when you need your custom app.

Now it’s time to define your requirements. Include an overall description of how your custom app will work, and a detailed list of features and functions based on the user scenarios you have already written.

Integration, Security and Deployment

What good is a custom app if it won’t integrate with the other systems you already have in place? It’s essential to address not only integration but also security and deployment. First, the access you have to a data source is a major factor in determining the complexity of your custom app. If you own and control your data sources, you can build and deploy more easily. If you need an administrator or other system to provide access your data, the complexity increases.

Every custom app needs security. Before building your app, carefully consider whether you will be storing customer or employees’ personal information. Will you be storing other sensitive material, such as trade secrets, future product plans or credit card information? What, if any, regulations — such as HIPAA — must you comply with?

You can manage security authentication internally by creating user accounts and passwords using app software. Alternatively, you could use external authentication using outside systems, but this may add complexity. If you need to encrypt your data, that may also add complexity. If your team has IT support, find out what options might be available.

Draft and Validate

Now that you have a clear vision of your users’ goals and requirements, it’s time to design your custom app. Start with a prototype, or draft; it can even be a paper prototype. By showing a prototype to your users, you can test functionality and usability early in the development process. This ensures that users understand the direction you are taking and agree that it will meet their needs.

Then, validate your design with the intended users before spending too much time in development. Good development is iterative. Keep revising and refining your design, while getting feedback from users about each revision.

Anticipate the Learning Curve

Although anyone can learn to make a custom app, there will be a learning curve in the beginning as you start to explore the possibilities and how all of the pieces will work together.

Evaluating your own level of technical understanding first will help you determine the best way to proceed. For instance, do you like learning new software? Have you designed web pages? Even if the answer to these types of questions is no, that doesn’t preclude you from going the DIY route. Whether you decide to develop on your own or bring in outside help, there are online communities, forums, tutorials and more to guide you along the process.

Building the App You Need

These aren’t the only considerations to be taken when it comes to implementing custom apps for your business, but they are important ones – even before the creation or deployment processes begin.

The pace of digital transformation is accelerating, and in this world of fast-paced change slow and steady does not win the race. For this reason, it seems logical at first to grab an off-the-shelf app. However, trying to customize it after the fact can take longer and cost more than creating your own. Next-generation custom app platforms put the power in your hands to build exactly the app you need within a reasonable time frame and without busting the budget.

Andrew LeCates, Director, Americas Sales, FileMaker, Inc., an Apple subsidiary, is a 20 year veteran of this company that develops simply powerful software for easily creating custom apps that work seamlessly across iPad, iPhone, Windows, Mac, and the web.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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