We love apps. Apps can provide interactivity and features that web pages simply can't. They can tap in to your phone's hardware to use the camera, connect to your address book to help you remember birthdays or send push notifications when important events occur.
But there are many things that web pages can do just as well as apps. They let you get updates on news and events, connect through social media or buy things online.
So, once every few months, when we are approached by someone with either an idea for a mobile app or a brochure from a vendor who promises the world, we ask a few questions.
- Does this information already exist on our web pages?
- If yes, then what extra benefit would an app bring? Who would maintain the two versions?
- If no, then does it exist anywhere else? How would making this into a University of Bath app improve it?
It often turns out that the information or functionality does already exist. Unless a new app is likely to provide a highly polished and professional interface (think about the Amazon, BBC News or Facebook apps) then we recommend that teams spend the equivalent time and money improving their existing web pages. This could be either by transitioning them to the Content Publisher to make them work better on mobile devices, or simply using usage data to improve the existing services they deliver.
Mind the gap
In the cases where we agree there's a space that a dedicated University of Bath mobile app might be able to fill, we ask three questions before beginning a trial:
- How can we tell how often it's being used and which features are popular?
- How does it look, feel and behave at the front and back-ends in real use?
- What are the security implications of this app?
Gathering usage data is critical, and yet many apps we've seen don't deal with it at all. We are committed to making decisions with data, and because we know that 77% of users never use an app again 72 hours after they installed it, we want to ensure there's a good return on investment.
Apps that are free to a user aren't free to the University. They have ongoing costs in terms of developer licenses, contracts, maintenance and brand association. This means that usage data (which is very easy to collect in mobile apps) is a requirement for being able to measure success.
We also always ask to use the app for a short while ourselves so we're not assessing a special demo version, or making a decision based solely on what it says in a brochure. This helps us to judge if the reality meets the promise. Is the content easy to update? Does the custom branding work well across multiple devices? Does the app work as expected?
If an app collects or uses user data we put it through a security check. If the source code is available, we will review it. The Security Manager in Computing Services will also take a look at any Data Protection statements and ask a provider to answer questions about data security and storage. It is not uncommon for apps to want to store personal data on servers in the United States, which breaks the University's eighth principle of Data Protection and means the provider will need to switch to a European data server.
Whilst we maybe have a more permissive view than the Government Digital Service, we always ask that University groups understand their users' needs and can ensure the quality, sustainability and security of an app before starting a trial.