Going mobile? The key to any successful project is asking tough questions before you write code

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The following is an article written by Don Coleman, Director of Mobile Development, which was originally published in the July issue of NJ Tech News.

About half of U.S. businesses will be in the mobile market by the end of 2012, according to a recent survey by Robert Half Technology (“Mad for Mobile.” New Jersey TechNews, April 2012). Nearly a quarter of the CIOs surveyed said they planned to develop a mobile application for the first time this year. The mobile boom is in full swing. Developing mobile apps can be scary and exciting, especially for managers who must make difficult business decisions in a rapidly changing technology landscape. Asking tough questions before you begin mobile development can save a lot of headaches down the road.

Are you focused?

It’s a good strategy to kick off a project with some blue-sky brainstorming. Sometimes ignoring reality is the best way to get all the ideas on the table. But the hard part is taking your big ideas and breaking them down into much smaller ideas that you can actually execute.

Do you have a clear idea of what you’re going to build?

There is a wide spectrum of possibilities. You could be building a mobile version of your website. You could be building a task-specific app for clients or customers. Perhaps you are building a set of tools to help your employees work smarter and more efficiently. Make sure you are not trying to do too much. Often it’s a good idea to start with the minimum number of features you need to satisfy your users. You can always add features later.

Probably the biggest thing to keep in mind is this: it’s not an effective use of resources to go mobile just for the sake of it. The rush to mobile now feels a bit like the dot com boom in the late 90s—building websites just to build websites. Be thoughtful. Focus.

Have you considered your audience?

This might seem like an obvious one, but managers and developers often make assumptions without really understanding their users. If you are building something for your customers, do you know what they want or need? What is you target market? Do you have any studies to back this up? What devices do your users have? Android and iPhone are the most popular, but you might also have to consider other devices, such as the Blackberry or Windows Phone.

It’s also important to be realistic about how much time your customers will spend using your app. Some product managers have this fantasy that they will hold a user’s attention for an hour and a half. Try five minutes.

If you are building tools for your employees, do you understand their workflow? Do you know what kind of hardware they are using? Does the tool need to work offline and online? You want to build something that your employees will easily (and willingly) adopt. It’s important to understand how these mobile tools will be integrated with other software and hardware systems in your company.

Also, don’t forget about the bigger picture for your users. How are you making their lives better or easier? In addition to solving problems and meeting needs, you might consider ways to bring a little fun into their mobile experience. Create something that delights them.

Is your team ready?

This is a tough question, in part because it may force you to consider longer-term business strategies. Is your mobile project a one-time endeavor or do you intend to make mobile development part of your company’s skillset? Is it better to hire someone to build the app for you? Or are you willing to spend time and money training your existing team? If you have good software developers they can become mobile developers. A consultant can help you plan the project and get your team up to speed. This could be a good strategy if you have developers willing and excited to learn. If your developers aren’t willing and excited to learn new technologies, you have much bigger problems.

Which technologies will you use?

In some ways, choosing technologies is the easy part—easier, at least, than understanding your users and getting developers up to speed. It’s also easy to get into the trap of using shiny, new, cool tools without putting people first.

The first decision you’ll have to make is whether to develop a native app or a web app. With a native app—for instance, one developed specifically for the iPhone or Android platforms—you can easily access each phone’s built-in devices, like the camera, microphone, and file system. If you are going to build native applications for multiple platforms, start with one platform first, instead of trying to develop on multiple platforms in parallel. Your applications won’t launch at the same time, but you can take what you learned on the first platform and apply it to the others.

The mobile web allows you to build applications that are not platform specific and can run in the browser on any phone. But browser capabilities vary across devices. Geolocation support is good. Camera support exists in newer Android and Blackberry but is unavailable on the iPhone. One solution is to use a framework like PhoneGap that will allow you to build cross-platform native apps using HTML5. PhoneGap provides access to device features (camera and file system) that are not yet available in all web browsers. PhoneGap applications are packaged like native apps and delivered to users through the app stores.

The good news is that the line between web apps and native apps is blurring, and a year from now this distinction might not be a sticking point.

How much are you willing to invest in the project?

Obviously, developer and designer time will be the most expensive resource. All of the plumbing around the project—planning, marketing, and managing—can also add up. Building custom software is expensive, and your first mobile project could be more expensive than you think, especially if you have to train your team. The scope of the project and your vision for your business will likely determine the cost of going mobile.

A consultant could set you on a good path, but only if you do your legwork first. Although there’s no silver bullet here, asking tough questions before you dive in could lead to a more successful mobile app, one that makes your users happy and won’t break the bank.

Bio: Don Coleman, director of consulting at Chariot Solutions, helps businesses put together clear roadmaps for mobile development. He loves equally solving interesting technical problems and making businesses work better.