The Minimalist Guide To Developing Apps

The other day, I was discussing with William how the enthusiasm for a new project tempts us to rush into a project with a list of features, rather than stopping to make a Wireframe, a very important step that saves much time and aggravation.

I’ve never heard of a contractor who builds homes without some form of schematic. The borders of the property need to be mapped out, the lines must be drawn, and the project must be visualized before the first hole is dug. Imagine being halfway through a project when you realize the bathroom is on the wrong side of the house. Whoops.

In software development, a wireframe is a very useful tool and can be created with minimal effort on the back of a napkin, but there are also some very good tools out there that give you a more modern representation. These aid in the understanding of information design, navigation design, and interface design. A good wireframing tool lays out all the buttons and menus and lets you click and drag them into place. Easy peasy.

The mere process of sketching out your website helps you add and subtract features to fit the scope of a project by giving priority to the kinds of information that are displayed and the range of functions that will be available. It goes beyond a mere list, which always gets bigger as the project moves forward, and projects that start that way almost always go over time, as well as over-budget.

There are several wireframe tools out there, both free and paid versions (see below). Paid versions are often more mature and have larger list of features. Free versions are generally newer and are working hard past the awkward teenage years in order to become a paid version. Either way, the mere act of creating a wireframe will save you much time, effort, and aggravation.

Just as web applications need good planning, so do Mobile Applications.  JQuery Mobile has a fun schematic markup on their homepage that gets you thinking about Mobile Development.  They have helped names like Disney and IKEA and allow you to quickly adapt a standard website into a mobile version of your site.

These tools do allow you to upload images to gain a more detailed rendering, but in some ways that defeats the purpose. A black and white representation is often best to grasp work flow and will help you to own the project before you launch development.

Below is a video example from Balsamiq:

Of course this is a good exercise to perform with the developer, but you might even try doing it yourself beforehand.  It’s a simple process that won’t take too much time, but will always give you a return, benefiting both you and your developer.

WireFrame References:
Free Service: Moqups
Paid Services: Mockingbird, Balsamiq


Meaningful Use – The Math behind Health I.T.


The healthcare industry is in a mad rush to get up to digital speeds and to become relevant in the new world of ObamaCare.  The impetuousness came with ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), when the federal government offered to pay medical practices and hospitals the money to upgrade their Health information technology (health IT) if they qualify under Meaningful Use (MU).  It is an investment our government is making that should also provide a healthy return.

The United States spent more on health care per capita ($7,146), and more on health care as percentage of its GDP (15.2%), than any other nation in 2008 and in December 2011, the outgoing Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Dr. Donald Berwick, asserted that 20% to 30% of health care spending is waste.  This waste comes in the form of over-treatment, failure to coordinate care, administrative complexity, burdensome rules and fraud.  So with the government making such an admission, it means they are desperate to see a more efficient system, where tax dollars are no longer lost in the shuffle.

The waste they hope to dispel comes in the form of proactive efficiencies that will help providers reap benefits beyond getting money for an upgrade; reducing errors, increasing the availability of records and data, providing reminders and alerts (making healthcare more proactive), providing clinical decision support, and by automating the process for prescription medication. As redundancies are reduced, costly errors decrease.

What is great about this is that while the Federal government is bankrolling this process, they are not micro managing.  This allows the free market inventors to solve the problems in a way that streamlines the process and really works for medical professionals who will be shopping around for the best solution.

To give you some idea of the math involved: ARRA authorizes a net $27 billion in spending to support EHR (electronic health records) adoption through 2017.  In perspective, it’s a shadow of what is spent annually on healthcare by the US Government.  Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – together accounted for 21 percent of the budget in 2011, or $769 billion. Nearly two-thirds of this amount, or $486 billion, went to Medicare, which provides health coverage to around 48 million people who are over the age of 65 or have disabilities. The remainder of this category funds Medicaid and CHIP, which in a typical month in 2011 provided health care or long-term care to about 60 million low-income children, parents, elderly people, and people with disabilities. Both Medicaid and CHIP require matching payments from the states that will also benefit from the stimulus.

If the $27 billion spent on EHR eliminates only 5% of the waste, a conservative amount for the sake of argument, the US Government will save $38.45 billion annually.

Is there a downside?  As this data becomes more digitized, privacy advocates are rightly paying attention.  But MU requires that the facility “conduct or review a security risk analysis per 45 CFR 164.308(a)(1) and implement updates as necessary and correct identified security deficiencies as part of this analysis.”  In other words – they must be compliant with HIPPAA, a topic for another future post

There are always risks with such an overhaul – but the math involved makes an extremely compelling argument in favor of Meaningful Use dollars.

Whiteboard-IT creates custom software for many industries, including the healthcare industry.


Less is More – What’s The Big Idea

When Apple took the world by storm and created the iPhone, it was the device’s simplicity, rather than its complex list of features, that won the day. In technical terms, we call this elimination of unnecessary state; the process of reducing the list of options to eliminate the clutter.

Apple understood this concept, and made brilliant decisions to reduce features in order to give it the friendly factor. You will notice one button instead of 18, one device instead of exposing their iOS to the open market, one place to download apps and music, the latter of which has given them much control profitability.

Consumers rave about the iPhone’s intuitive and user-friendly nature. The reduction of state and good design is what gave it life, allowing only one application at a time with only one physical button. No confusion. Easy. beautiful.

Programming is the same in many ways, with no fewer temptations to add multiple features.

Look what happens if you add one parameter; You are creating a true condition and a false condition. Then add another parameter. Now you have 2^2 or 4 conditions that you will need to test. Add a third and you are at 8 conditions.  In this vein, Windows clearly offered many features and services (internet, phone, contact management) but its first phone, with all its working parts, was a bust.

More features = more working parts = more opportunity for clutter or failure. Complex API’s are necessary. Nowhere does this rule hold truer than when you are dealing with vast amounts of working data. In the end, if it is not simple to read or use, it will collect dust.

I have seen many instances where a new piece of software was installed to solve “every” problem a company was having. The challenge? Such solutions are big and scary and often come with a giant learning curve. This is why Basecamp grew so quickly (it solved one big problem), and why Workamajig, a much more complete system, requires so much effort to sell, train, and install, and why they need a one-year contract to get things going. If people don’t invest in the idea, they will not use it. It’s just too hard.

The world of apps is taking off so successfully for the very same reason. Mobile Apps handle one idea, big or small, at a time. So, if you want your launch to be successful, you may want to do a little elimination of unnecessary state on your own. What big idea do you want to solve?


Mobile Apps – How To Save Thousands of Dollars

The gold rush is on, and people have hitched their wagons to many different platforms as they pursue the mobile market. The tsunami of technology is hitting us so fast that consumers are both dazed and engaged as new technologies flood their mobile widget du jour. Even more confused are the companies trying to decide what is best for their organization. Trends are being directed by the market as it is played out through supply and demand. The question boils down to our clients in how should they think about Mobile?

Many are asking, “why do we have different concerns for different platforms: the Web, Mobile Web, and Native Apps? What should mobile web be?”

The good news is that it’s more a buffet than a battle – and under the sneeze guard you can choose options based on how you wish your viewers to engage. Do you wish for them to shop, search, entertain, manage, inform, navigate, or connect? Is security your focus or functionality – or both? What is your budget and where should you invest?

Your Choices:
Mobile web (MW) – This is a browser-based application that is not downloaded from an app store and accessed when you type the URL on your mobile device. It allows fluid browsing, but developers need to code through a web-to-native abstraction layer to enable access to device capabilities that are not accessible in Mobile Web applications, such as the GPS, camera, and local storage.

Native App (NA) – This is an application designed to run specifically on the mobile device and allows use of Native Applications like the device camera, GPS, etc.

NA’s can do more heavy lifting with no need to download cookies because everything is loaded on your device, which provides added security and speed in contrast to a MW, which has traditionally been Read-only.  Still, NA’s are also much costlier to develop and need to be almost entirely coded for each device (Android, Blackberry, iPhone, etc..). Adding iPad compatibility, for example, can add up to 50%, due to the development cost. This provides less flexibility when new technology arrives. In contrast, having an out-of-date MW App is virtually impossible because it naturally adapts to the device.

Twitter and LinkedIn have also invested in both MW and NA. Compare the two iPhone screen shots and try to guess which is which:

Twitter:

LinkedIN:

Technology for MW is improving to a degree that it will soon be undetectable to the user.  Hint: Twitter MW is on the left, LinkedIn MW is on the right.  How did you do?

Compare the difference of the location of the tool bars; how do they act when you touch them? Which one is faster? Do they have the same number of functions?  Will they both allow you to upload a photo?

Boston Globe is another example of a website that has taken a hybrid approach, developing both MW and NA.  Their website is very mobile-friendly, adapting screen size extremely well using HTML-5. One way to test this on your screen is to play with the size of your browser while engaging with BostonGlobe.com. The responsive design is quite deliberate and well done.

The big mistake is to force a traditional media strategy into the mobile environment.  Companies need to realize that the world, and even the Web itself, have changed and continues to change quickly.  One advantage of MW is that it has the potential to adapt quickly and with less impact on your budget.  It is no longer the 2nd class citizen of mobile development and could overtake the NA, though Apple’s dominance should not be underestimated.  Consumers love the one-stop-shopping in the App Store, where credit card numbers are stored in one place.  They also like the one-click icons.

But if you ask, “What should Mobile Web be?”  Soon, it can be whatever you want it to be.  MW has as many advantages as Native Apps and should be equally considered.  My opinion is that developing web apps with the idea of using Cordova to make them native is the most cost effective solution for a customer.  It also delivers a good experience in both platforms.

Read this and this for more on this topic.