This post is part of a blog series exploring the development of the Beyond Flipped mobile app for Coventry University.
Around 4 months ago, myself and the rest of the Beyond Flipped team sat down to start work on an interesting new project; to develop an educational app, designed to compliment the various projects in the CU Beyond Flipped programme.
Why build an app?
Good question, and one that, I admit, I had my reservations about initially, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, most apps are, let’s be honest, terrible. They date quickly, take a great deal of time, energy, and money to develop, require regular updates, need to support a variety of platforms, and last but not least, suffer from epic feature creep.
I am feature-creep, destroyer of worlds!
For those who have not heard this phrase before, feature creep is when a project’s scope or feature list spirals out of control, which inevitably leads to a final product that is both overcomplicated and no longer performs the task it was initially designed for.
With this in mind, we aimed to adhere religiously to our initial plans for the app. Naturally feature creep would still occur, but we’d be aware of it’s presence and try to cage the beast before it wreaked too much havoc!
Minimum Viable Product
I’m a big proponent of the MVP method of working. This is where a team creates a product with the minimum features required to achieve the goal, setting a strong foundation to build upon, and providing insight into future development. So, instead of building an all-singing, all-dancing mobile app that does a million things in a mediocre way, our aim was to build a lean app that did a couple of things really well. These things being delivery of project information and access to a set of virtual L·E·A·R·N cards.
A great example of MVP in practice is the development of our app prototype, designed to test the waters as to how a Beyond Flipped app might function. To achieve this we would use an ancient technology for a totally different purpose than it was ever intended for. The technology in question? PowerPoint.
Alan Richards, our project lead for Beyond Flipped, was attending a conference when he saw a speaker using PowerPoint as a user interface design tool rather than as a presentation aid. When Alan returned to the lab he wanted to find a way to leverage this concept within our own work, and the Beyond Flipped app provided the ideal oppourtunity to do so.
Creating a 16:9 portrait canvas, Alan threw together a simple app prototype, complete with interactive menu elements that could be displayed full-screen on a smartphone. The results were impressive and took just a few hours to construct. This minimum viable product provided a powerful proof of concept that no paper sketch could have conveyed, and seeing the app in action cemented our beliefs that the project was worth undertaking.
Adding Meat to the Bones
With our nifty PowerPoint prototype in hand we set about building a more elaborate mock-up using our existing Beyond Flipped design language. For this, we wanted to take Adobe’s new Experience Design app for a spin. A new app – still in beta – that enables fast and rich app prototyping on the desktop. XD is a fantastic tool for testing different ideas for content, and comes with the ability to map navigation to individual page elements, turning you screens into an interactive experience. One you can push to a mobile device, providing your with a native app-like experience. Brilliant!
Over the course of the project we created several versions of the UX flow, the example below is version 1.6. As you can see, even without using the interactive preview, the Adobe XD authoring environment is very informative and provides an excellent top-down view of the various spaces within the concept app. This interactive storyboard-come-animatic was incredibly powerful when articulating the app concept to colleagues. Many of whom thought the mobile preview was actually a finished app. 😉
Now that we knew what we wanted to achieve, and with a mature prototype in-hand, it was time to find someone who could help us build it. Not only did we find that person, but we also broke new ground in terms of the app’s underlying structure, which meant we’d be able to achieve a huge amount more from our minimum viable product than we ever thought possible from such a modest budget.
More on that in the next post…