DAILY INSIGHT: Do not ignore the mobile app tidal wave

By Steve Young, CIO Advisor

How many smartphone users consume their favorite social media sites like Facebook, Linked In, or Twitter via a mobile web browser? The answer is very few, and usually they only do so if forced to use the browser by clicking a link that opens it. Why is this? Why do consumers want to avoid surfing web sites on their mobile devices’ browsers? The answer is that most standard websites, when looked at via a mobile phone’s browser, are hard to see, hard to navigate, and often don’t support mobile browsers well. The end-user experience in these browsers is about as pleasant as a trip to your local Department of Motor Vehicles to renew your license.

Social media providers have long figured this out and built apps for major phone and tablet platforms. Stores are increasingly figuring this out and following the likes of Amazon with building mobile shopping apps. Banks are all over this bandwagon. But schools and districts have not figured this out.

Schools typically still only provide a normal web site to mobile devices. Sure, some provide a parsed-down mobile version, but even these are somewhat hard to find. Are schools’ customers different than retail or social media customers? Heck no—they are the same people with the same preference for consuming web through mobile apps. Most school customers are still getting Y2K versions of web sites built for Netscape Navigator delivered to their smart phones.

School CIOs need to address this shortcoming and build mobile apps with easy-to-navigate user interfaces. And to have a successful app, it will need to be for both Android and iOS. Additionally, it must have data that is personally important to parents and students. That means grade and attendance data is a critically important inclusion. Other high value content such as menus, athletic schedules, athletic scores, and assorted news are welcome additions.

There are many roads to getting this done. Some are expensive, such as hiring a third party to build custom apps or hiring personnel with app-development skills, but this may be a fine fit for a large district. Sometimes more limited apps are included with a student information system (SIS) and are probably the best fit for small districts and schools. Consider including this as a requirement when adopting a new SIS. There are also low-cost or free ways to get an app. At Judson ISD we built an award-winning app for a low cost without personnel dedicated to app programming by using the low-cost, web-based Conduit mobile platform. A full presentation of our app and experience is available on Slideshare.

Or you may use a simple free service such as iSchoolBox, which may be a great way to test the waters and get your school into a mobile app (one app hosts many schools’ mobile sites). At the end of the day, the consumer demand is there, and as CIOs and technology leaders we need to stop delivering craptastic web sites to phones and tablets when our customers’ preferences have evolved well beyond this.

Steve Young is CTO of Judson ISD in Texas and founder of the San Antonio Area Technology Directors group. He blogs at CTO Technotes, where this is cross posted. Follow him on Twitter as @atemyshorts.