A guide to implementing custom apps to meet business needs

Digital transformation is here; changing how organisations work, collaborate and innovate. It is delivering clear benefits to businesses and with further increases in mobility and BYOD on the horizon; organisations of all sizes are embracing the power of technology to drive their transformation further.

In recent years many businesses have turned to apps in order to reduce inefficiencies. It might seem the easiest and best answer would be to buy off-the-shelf apps. However, it’s important to consider apps of this type tend to be generic in order to appeal to a wide audience. They may get the job done, but there’s little to no personalisation available and you may pay for features you don’t need.

Therefore it is important for businesses to consider how custom apps could be the answer to their needs.

Why custom apps?

Custom apps are created to meet the unique business needs of a team or organisation. Apps can be made based on a new idea, by modifying an existing starter app, or by importing data. They enable employees and customers to securely access vital information at any time, from any place and extend mission-critical business processes far beyond the boundaries of the enterprise.

There was a time when custom app development was out of reach for small and mid-sized businesses, but that time has passed. It can be faster and less expensive to build a custom app from scratch than to buy and try to customise off-the-shelf software. And by designing the app in-house, businesses are sure to get the features they want within the required budget.

Evaluate goals and define needs

Once the decision has been made to create a custom app, the first step is to evaluate the goals of the solution you’re setting out to create. Defining the needs and requirements of team members (the app users) will ensure all specific pain points are met and the app is an internal success.

Write user scenarios and define requirements

Writing user scenarios which summarise how individuals will use the app is imperative. This will help define the necessary features and functions required. For example, user scenarios tell stories about how tasks get done and how they use data; helping to create the requirements for the app. Determine what people and groups will use the app and then write a user scenario for each role. What are the users’ roles and responsibilities? Will multiple users use the app at once, and are their roles similar or different?

Next, think about what users need the app to do. What problems are users trying to solve?

Businesses also need to consider the logistics of how and where users will access the app. Will it be used in bright light? How about at night? Will users always be able to connect to the server? What devices will be used to access the app? How will the custom app need to interact with current systems? Think about when people will use the collected information.

Now it’s time to define the requirements. Include an overall description of how the custom app will work, and a detailed list of features and functions based on the user scenarios.

Address integration and security

Custom apps need to integrate with the other systems already in place. It’s essential to address not only integration but also security and deployment. First, the access businesses have to a data source is a major factor in determining the complexity of the custom app. If businesses own and control the data sources, they can build and deploy more easily. If an administrator or another system is needed to provide access to the data, the complexity increases.

Every custom app needs security. Before building your app, carefully consider whether you will be storing customer or employees’ personal information. Will you be storing other sensitive material, such as trade secrets, future product plans or credit card information? What, if any, regulations must a business comply with?

Businesses can manage security authentication internally by creating user accounts and passwords using app software. Alternatively, use external authentication from outside systems, but this may add complexity. If businesses need to encrypt your data, that may also add complexity. If the team has IT support, find out what options might be available.

Prototype and test

Now there’s a clear vision of users’ goals and requirements, it’s time to design the custom app. Start with a prototype, or draft; it can even be a paper prototype. By showing a prototype to the users, businesses can test functionality and usability early in the development process. This ensures users understand the direction the business is taking and agree it will meet their needs.

Then, validate your design with the intended users before spending too much time in development. Good development is iterative. Keep revising and refining the design, while getting feedback from users about each revision.

Use available resources and support

Although anyone can learn to make a custom app, there will be a learning curve in the beginning as you start to explore the possibilities and how all of the pieces will work together.

Evaluating the level of technical understanding first will help determine the best way to proceed. For instance, does the team like learning new software? Have you designed webpages? Even if the answer to these types of questions is no, that doesn’t preclude a business from using the DIY route. Whether a business decides to develop its own or bring in outside help, there are online communities, forums, tutorials and more to guide you along the process.

Creating the just-right solution

These aren’t the only considerations to be taken when it comes to implementing custom apps for a business, but they are important ones – even before the creation or deployment processes begin.

The speed of change today calls for rapid responses to business needs. It would seem to make sense that a packaged retail solution would be the quickest answer, but it can result in wasted money and time when paying for features that aren’t needed and try to customise the solution to fit a specific business needs.

Thanks to new platform offerings, a customised app can be built from the ground up without a huge budget and within a short timeframe. With a little time and effort, and some conscientious planning, a team will soon be collaborating and producing like never before.

Andrew LeCates, Director, Solutions Consulting, FileMaker, Inc.

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