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    Five Questions To Ask Mobile Application Developers

    Spending a little bit of extra time upfront getting to know the agency you're considering can spare you a lot of headaches, money, and time…

    Introduction

    A colleague of mine recently sought quotes for a mobile application, and received responses ranging from $30,000 to $150,000. What are we to do when faced with such wildly divergent figures? How can we make a choice and have confidence that we will get value for money, that the project will be completed on time and to our specifications, and that we will end up with a quality product that matches our expectations, those of our funders and, most importantly, those of the end users?

    There are no easy answers to these questions. But as someone with a foot in both camps – I am both an online entrepreneur and a software developer – as a buyer and seller of such services; I have some advice. Specifically, five questions you should ask the next developer who is eager to tell you exactly how you should spend your hard-won project funding. Naturally there are a great many more than five questions that could, and should be asked, but I consider that the majority of them can be formulated and understood by most people, or at least, most people who have ever commissioned anything . You will want to know how experienced the contractor is, and perhaps talk to their previous clients. You will want to know that they have experience in developing applications or “apps” with some commonality with your project. You will ask questions relating to timeframes, extra costs, guarantees, intellectual property and so on. The questions I propose here are related directly to the field of mobile app development, and specifically to the underlying structures with which apps are built – their DNA, if you like. To most people “an app is an app”, and although they may be able to judge the good from the bad, they may be less able to pinpoint the characteristics that make it one or the other. These questions may assist in doing so, and in helping to insure that, when complete, your app falls into the former category.

    However I am going to make you, the reader, work a little before giving you the questions. I will begin by describing some essential characteristics of mobile applications, and some important considerations. In digesting this, you will more than likely formulate a list of questions for yourself; you can test your own comprehension by comparing them to mine, which I will provide at the end.

    Mobile apps are not born equal

    Like so many things, there are several ways you could categorise apps. You could reasonably say that there are five basic kinds of app, or three, or 20. I will say here that there are two types, or rather two ends of a spectrum. At one end are native applications and at the other are those variously called web apps , browser apps , or non-native apps . Each has pros and cons, and it is essential to know which your developer is proposing.

    Native apps are built with a specific family of devices in mind. Presently, one could build a native app for iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch), for Android devices (a plethora of smartphone and tablet devices made by various manufacturers, which run on an operating system developed and maintained by Google), for Windows-compatible devices (Microsoft’s latest Windows operating system is compatible with some third-party smartphones and tablets, as well as Microsoft’s own newly released Surface tablets), for Blackberry, or for one of a few smaller players.

    Each of these operating systems requires that native apps be built using a particular coding language. For those taking notes, it is Objective-C for iOS, Java for Android, and typically C++ or C# for Windows. They also provide a set of protocols for accessing the various interface objects, functions, utilities, aerials and sensors of modern mobile devices. These application programming interfaces (APIs) give developers access to extensive frameworks and tools that are written by the platform curators, specifically for that platform. The use of these APIs for both visual elements and under the hood functionality conveys the native “feel” of an app. In addition, APIs enable developers to build apps which can directly access device features such as cameras, GPS aerial, accelerometer (the sensor that detects the orientation of the device), microphones, and so on. Non-native apps may be able to access some of these features, such as the camera or user location, but they do so using non-optimal methods.

    Native apps are distributed directly by the companies which manage the operating systems, such as Apple, Google and Microsoft, via applications stores on the device, or on desktop computers. Upgrades and bug fixes are also managed in this way – developers who wish to modify their app must do so via a submission to the relevant application store, and wait whatever time that store takes for approval. Some platforms take a curative approach to distribution, requiring apps to be checked for functionality, security and content before being approved for distribution (Apple has been famously stringent in this respect), while others take a more handsoff approach.

    At the other end of the spectrum are non-native web apps, designed to work across many devices and operating systems. They use common languages accessible on all devices, including HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and Javascript, languages used for general web development. These apps are essentially websites that have been optimised for smaller screens, although optimisation is a challenge when the developer is trying to support literally hundreds of different devices, all with different screen sizes, resolutions, central processing units (CPUs) and graphics processing units (GPUs). Users receive a URL address, just as they would for a standard website, and navigate to it using the browser on their device. The operating system and device manufacturers have no control over content or functionality – developers may make changes at any time, with immediate effect.

    In the middle of the spectrum are so-called hybrid apps, which take web-based functionality and wrap it in native containers. This results in a set of native applications, one for each targeted system, sharing web-driven content. These are distributed via the appropriate application stores and, while some core functionality may only be altered via a new submission, other content may be updated immediately. There are also emerging technologies that enable developers to write an app using a single language, then to translate that code into native code for various devices. Perhaps the fairest thing that can be said about this approach is that “results may vary”. The tools are improving all the time, and there have been some very good apps built using this approach. However, there have also been many that were demonstrably inferior.

    It is very important to be clear about which of these approaches a developer is proposing. It is particularly important when dealing with this last category of hybrid or cross-platform apps, as there is great potential for confusion and misplaced expectation. A developer could say that a hybrid app, built using large amounts of webserved content, using a cross-platform complier, is native – it uses some native APIs and is distributed via the appropriate application stores. They could also make the case that this is the best of both worlds, and in some cases they may be right. However, if they are right, it is because this approach is an effective solution to the particular requirements of the app project under discussion. Not because it is the best solution per se . It is vital to understand the advantages and compromises inherent in each approach.

    Some apps will always be more suited to web or hybrid development than others, and it is not always easy to know when this is the case. However, there are a few considerations that may help in the analysis; characteristics of apps, which may mean they may be suited to development as a web or hybrid app:

    Apps which have a lot of content that must be delivered via the web. Some apps need regular or even constant content updates – Facebook and Twitter are good examples. In this case native development has fewer advantages, with respect to download speed and impact on a user’s download quota. The app will need to retrieve data no matter how it is built. Furthermore, users will need to have an active connection to use the core functionality of the app.

    Apps that need to be updated regularly and quickly. Web and hybrid apps have much greater flexibility, and no one needs to monitor or approve content or structural changes, aside from the developers and content managers themselves. It should be noted, however, that the time taken for native app approval is not unduly long in most cases. At the time of writing, the average approval time for the Apple iOS App Store was estimated at 8.35 days.3 Google’s Play Store, for Android, takes a less-curative approach, and apps are often approved on the same day, sometimes within the hour.

    If you use a smartphone, consider the apps on it. In particular, consider the apps it came with pre-installed. You may not even think of these as “apps” - the phone dialer, the address book, the email client, the music player, and so on. These apps share common elements such as tab bars, buttons, content choosers and navigation structures. These apps, and the common structures, were built by the company which developed your device’s operating system – Apple if it is an iPhone, Google if it is an Android phone, and so on. Now consider the other apps – the ones you chose to download. Some of those apps have similarities with the inbuilt ones – tools and structures where the developer has chosen to use the native APIs. Some will have less in common, and some will have nothing in common at all – they are said to have a completely custom user interface. Generally speaking, utility apps that have roughly similar kinds of features to the inbuilt apps tend to use somewhat standard interfaces (although many do not, and the number continues to grow). Games, on the other hand, tend to be entirely customised. As noted above, web or hybrid apps that try to replicate native user interfaces often do so poorly. Apps, like games, which have their own unique look and feel do not need to be concerned with this; they actually benefit from a consistent look from one device family to another, and a non-native approach to development may be entirely appropriate.

    Apps which must be accessible to the widest possible number of users, and where this must be achieved within a limited budget. The various options for nonnative development can make it feasible to develop for multiple platforms relatively cheaply, thus theoretically making it available to the largest number of potential users.

    But once again, it is important to consider the implications. Developing an application capable of functioning on a wide range of devices requires compromises. Each of those devices has different specifications and capabilities, and non-native development will often involve the “lowest common denominator” approach described above, to deal with these differences. Application art – graphics, images, buttons and so on – may need to stretch to accommodate different screen sizes and resolutions, and this will typically lead to an inferior visual experience. Alternatively certain kinds of art may need to be avoided altogether. Developers will need to trade off performance and robustness – optimising the app for high performance may mean it is likely to be “buggy” on devices with lower capabilities, while opting for “safety-first” could mean the app has poor performance, even on higher-spec devices.

    These compromises may make an app less palatable for users, who have come to expect a high standard in mobile software. The danger is that, in trying to maximise your potential user base, you have effectively limited your reach by creating a compromised product. When Facebook delivered a substandard mobile app, hundreds of millions of people still used it because they wanted to access the service via mobile and, to them, subpar was better than nothing. It is fair to assume that health professionals looking to develop a mobile application do not begin with an existing user base of a billion people.

    My point here is that, although in general terms maximising accessibility is a worthwhile goal, it is not a simple calculation to make. If this is true for print resources, it is especially true for software, where so many more variables are at play.


    Conclusion (and, finally, the five questions)

    Mobile technology provides many opportunities for a range of professionals, service providers and promoters. It is immediately accessible, is quickly becoming ubiquitous, and is increasingly turned to by all and sundry for all manner of information, including health information.

    However, the process of contracting developers to build software can be fraught. Quotes can vary wildly – to the extent that it can be possible to wonder if different developers are proposing to build entirely different things. In fact, this is a pertinent question to ask, because this may very well be the case. Software development is not an “A+B=C” equation. When presented with a particular task (your application concept), a developer must choose from a multitude of different ways to accomplish that task, taking into consideration another multitude of variables. Not dissimilar to what a GP would have to do when asked the question, “Can you help me to be healthier?”

    There are many questions that can assist in understanding and comparing proposals from different developers. Some are obvious, and can easily be understood by people with no experience in software development – what are the timeframes, how experienced are the developers, what hourly rate is being proposed, what guarantees are involved, who owns the final product, and so on. But in the case of mobile software, I have made the case that there are other important questions that relate to the core DNA of an application.

    So, then, the questions:

    * Are you proposing to build this as a native or web application?

    * If it is to be a native application, is it genuinely native (i.e. written in a platform specific language) or cross-compiled (written using a third-party tool, then outputted for a range of devices)?

    * Which platforms will be supported, and why?

    * Why do you think this is the best approach?

    * What compromises will you need to make, in order to build using this approach?

    Of course, answers to these questions will not provide a straightforward answer to the pivotal one – “which of these proposals should I choose?” But the responses should assist in weighing up proposals and making educated guesses at the potential quality, reach and appeal for a given application. There are no right answers, but some are better than others. Generally speaking, “that’s the only way we know how”, “that’s the cheapest way”, or “I don’t really know” should be considered with caution.

    In case you need a personal recommendation. From me, featuring the team I find most worthy of outsourcing my application requirements to, I will spell it out as Creative27; a Los Angeles App Design Agency. They are probably a one-stop best mobile app design & development shop. Indeed, you might settle for them if you go through their portfolio including works for 500 Fortune companies and award-winning start-up concepts. However, in all you do, make sure to confirm that your eventual developer is suited to your particular needs.

    If nothing else, having a conversation that goes deeper than the practicalities of the application at hand, and touches on the developer’s underlying philosophy and approach to development, should provide insight into their knowledge and professionalism. Even if you do not understand everything they say, you will come away with a sense of the degree to which they “know what they’re talking about”. You may even gain some understanding of just what kind of product you’re about to buy.

    ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

    The author acknowledges the contribution of Mr. Adam Shaw, who provided technical advice on some aspects of this report.

    Footnotes

    CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

    The author works as an application developer, and consultant, on a contractual basis.

    CITATIONS

    White, J. Going native (or not) AMJ 2013, 6, 1, 7-14.http//dx.doi.org/10.4066/AMJ.2013.1576https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575060/

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