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The Mobile App Labyrinth: Seven Questions Higher Education Institutions Should Ask

As a leader in a higher education institution, you'll be familiar with this paradox: Every solution can lead to more problems, and every answer can lead to more questions. It’s like navigating an endless maze. When it comes to mobile apps, the same holds true. So, the question: Should your institution have a mobile app? The Answer? Absolutely.

Devices, not computers, are how millenials communicate, gather, inform, and engage. Millennials, on average, spend 90 hours per month on mobile apps, not including web searches and website visits.

Students are no exception. A 2016 Nielsen study showed that 98% of millennials aged 18 – 24, and 97% of millennials aged 25 – 34, owned a smartphone, while a 2017 comScore report stated that one out of five millennials no longer use desktop devices, including laptops. Mobile apps have quickly filled the desktop void, and as students grow more reliant on mobile technology, colleges and universities are in the mix, creating apps to bolster student engagement.

So should you create an app? Here are some questions you should answer before creating a mobile app. Welcome to the labyrinth! But don’t be frustrated—answer these questions to help you avoid dead ends and overspending.

1. Is a mobile app part of your IT Strategy? Including a mobile app in your IT strategy minimizes confusion at all levels about the objectives of mobile app implementation. It also helps dictate whether an institution needs multiple mobile apps for various functions, or a primary app that connects users with other functionality. If an institution has multiple campuses, should you align all campuses with a single app, or if will each campus develop their own?

2. What will the app do? Mobile apps can perform a multitude of functions, but for the initial implementation, select a few key functions in one main area, such as academics or student life. Institutions can then add functionality in the future as mobile adoption grows, and demand for more functions increases.

3. Who will use the app? Mobile apps certainly improve engagement throughout the student life cycle—from prospect to student to alumni—but they also present opportunities for increased faculty, staff, and community engagement. And while institutions should identify the immediate audience of the app, they should also identify future users, based upon functionality.

4. Who will manage the app? Institutions should determine who is going to manage the mobile app, and how. The discussion should focus on access, content, and functionality. Is the institution going to manage everything in house, from development to release to support, or will a mobile app vendor provide this support under contract? Depending on your institution, these discussions will vary.

5. What data will the app use? Like any new software system, an app is only as good as its supporting data. It’s important to assess the systems to integrate with the mobile app, and determine if the systems’ data is up-to-date and ready for integration. Consider the use of application program interfaces, or APIs. APIs allow apps and platforms to interact with one another. They can enable social media, news, weather, and entertainment apps to connect with your institution’s app, enhancing the user experience with more content for users.

6. How much data security does your app need? Depending on the functionality of the app you create, you will need varying degrees of security, including user authentication safeguards and other protections to keep information safe.

7. How much can you spend for the app? Your institution should decide how much you will spend on initial app development, with an eye toward including maintenance and development costs for future functionality. Complexity increases costs, so you will need to  budget accordingly. Include budget planning for updates and functionality improvements after launch.

You will also need to establish a timeline for the project and roll out. And note that apps deployed toward the end of the academic year experience less adoption than apps deployed at the beginning of the academic year.

Once your institution answers these questions, you will be off to a good start. And as I stated earlier, every answer to a question can lead to more questions. If your institution needs help navigating the mobile app labyrinth, please reach out to me

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