Pencil, Paper, Programming

Steinbeis experts for app development

To develop software and ensure it’s extremely user-friendly, it often makes sense to use prototypes early in the development process. Especially at the beginning, simple paper prototypes are excellent for demonstrating the underlying interaction concept and getting signoffs from others. This was also confirmed by a recent collaboration between the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Usability and Innovative Interactive Systems for Information Logistics and the Aachen-based company Utilitas GmbH.

Vacations can cause a lot of work, as Prof. Dr.-Ing. Thomas Ritz, director of the Aachen Steinbeis Center, knows from a collaborative project with Peter Haupt, managing director of Utilitas. Together they worked on the development of a smartphone app for managing annual leave. The software developers at Utilitas provided the technical know-how while the Steinbeis experts were responsible for usability engineering. “For the use of a mobile app, there are no training courses!” – and according to Peter Haupt, this was the precise motivation for the collaboration with the Aachen-based Steinbeis experts, who attach great importance to userbased development and employ different usability engineering methods for mobile software development.

Developing mobile apps means taking a large number of special requirements into consideration, especially the usage environment of users on the move, but also the style guides of different operating systems, since users are accustomed to their operating principles. When it came to the development of the vacation management app, another requirement was to maintain consistency between a desktop application, which already existed, and each mobile operating system. The interaction concept actually covered three systems: iOS, Android, and WindowsPhone. Thanks to an intuitive interaction concept for all three platforms, which followed official style guides and also considered the interaction patterns of the previously developed desktop version of the app, the basis for a high usability and for the recognition of the original app was provided.

The functionalities of the existing web app for desktop use were reduced for the mobile version due to the different context of use. Using the desktop app while sitting at their workplace, users have access to a variety of functions such as detailed vacation planning and administration – for entire departments, from the perspective of the bosses and the HR department. The mobile app provides a reduced set of functions since people are “out and about.” It merely allows them to quickly submit vacation or have it approved. To agree on the structure and interaction patterns of the mobile app, the Steinbeis experts started with simple paper prototypes, making it possible to quickly scribble down functions and overall screen flows.This way the basic concept could be modified without huge effort and approved quickly.

For the developers at Utilitas and the interaction designers at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Usability and Innovative Interactive Systems for Information Logistics, initial technical requirements and design guidelines were determined by then. The next step was for the Steinbeis interface designers to create high fidelity designed screens for the most important parts of the app, such as the list overview of vacation requests and the different forms to submit and approve holidays. For the programmers at Utilitas, the screens designed in photoshop served as a template for the implementation. In general, whenever inital prototypes of an actual software need to be created, software tools for interactive prototypes are a good choice. Especially for apps mit more complex functionalities these tools can be recommended to create easy interactive prototypes and to increase the degree of complexity step by step. When developing user-centered software, the top priority is iterative usability testing. To do this, the Steinbeis Transfer Center performs usability tests with target persons and prototypes of different development stages. This approach makes it possible to optimize prototypes over several iterations, ideally until they hit a high level of usability. Each iteration can be assessed using previously defined benchmarks, such as the maximum time or the number of clicks a test person needs to perform a predefined task. By integrating usability engineering into the entire development process – starting with the analysis of requirements and finishing with the implemented software – it is possible to develop highly user-friendly systems. To implement the vacation management app, Utilitas decided on a cross-platform development with Xamarin. Compared to native applications, the advantage of cross-platform development is that apps do not have to be developed from scratch for each separate operating system. In the case of the vacation management app, all three versions (Android, iOS, WindowsPhone) are based on the same underlying template, adding special features for specific platforms. Cross-platform development is not always the best choice, but for apps destined to be used on several platforms it is often the cheapest option. By contrast, the advantage of native development is that most of the required components are available in a software developer kit (SDK) and there are no barriers to access hardware functions of the device. Multi-platform apps can be distributed through conventional app stores. The vacation management app will be available in the app stores of Google, iOS and WindowsPhone and the desktop version is already available as a web app through Utilitas.

Collaborative projects between the experts at Steinbeis and a mediumsized company like Utilitas show how valuable knowledge transfer can be, especially in the way it is offered by Steinbeis Enterprises – in different areas of expertise, directly from science to industry. To support SMEs, the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Usability and Innovative Interactive Systems for Information Logistics offers business-related training to service providers in the field of software development. The aim is to integrate methodological elements of usability engineering in their development processes in order to enhance their competitiveness, even versus large players. These methodological elements are part of a toolkit model developed by the Steinbeis Transfer Center for SMEs and they resulted from a research project called KompUEterchen4KMU funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

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