Tips for Making Your First Mobile App a Success

About a year ago we launched the Gimme Engine (gimme.scottsdalelibrary.org) – a mobile web book recommendation engine.  Choose one of the categories – Gimme a Clue, Gimme Something Good to Eat, etc – and the Engine will offer you a staff-recommended book from the Scottsdale Public Library collection, complete with summary, staff review, and a quick link to the mobile catalog to check availability or reserve.

Since launch, our app and the Gimme Engine Brain Trust that created it have won a number of awards – including a 2012 OITP Cutting Edge Technology in Library Services award.  What’s our secret?  We are happy to share what we learned in our process with the hope it will help you in your next technology process.

Find out what your users (and future users) want

When our team got together for the first time we had more ideas than we knew what to do with – everything from a mobile formatted version of our web site to a Dewey-caching in library scavenger hunt. We soon realized that in order for us to create a successful, and more importantly, sustainable mobile app, we needed to poll our customers and find out what exactly they want out of a mobile app. Though we had done some basic surveys of staff in the past, we didn’t feel that we were the experts best suited to properly create & distribute a survey that would ultimately drive our entire project.

We hired a local experience design agency called Forty to craft a survey to get the information we so desperately needed. Forty also helped distribute the survey via their social media, email lists and other outlets. This meant that in addition to our customer we would get responses from non-customers as well. This would help us understand if there was a difference in need between customers and future-customers (at least that is how we like to think of our ‘non customers’.)

What they want might be what you already have

There was in fact no real difference between customers and non customer need in the survey results but one thing was clear:  current and future customers had no idea that we already had a mobile catalog with most of the standard functionality that they wanted.  Great, we thought, just get the word out about the mobile catalog and our job is done!  Then we realized no, we still have all this LSTA money that the Arizona State Library was nice enough to give us . . . we should probably spend that out.

Maximize your resources

So we looked at the highest items on the list that we didn’t have in mobile – book reviews and staff recommendations.  That’s when we decided to make the book recommendation app.  As it turned out we already had a lot of the raw materials for the project.  Staff was already doing book reviews and posting them on GoodReads.  We had content enrichment services for bib data and book jackets(Syndetics).  And we had the mobile catalog and the ability to generate RSS feeds of items in the collection (AirPAC and FeedBuilder from Innovative Interfaces).  All we needed was someone with enough experience to put that together.

Back to Forty for the design work and to hire a programmer.  We had so little money to work with that I thought for sure the end result would use a rubber band.  But when we sat down with the programmer not only was he able to do the project he actually saved us $3,000 in expected software costs by putting together the feeds, mobile catalog, content enrichment with some JavaScript and the GoodReads API.  The end result is a very simple, easy to care for web-based app that keeps working as long as we keep feeding it the raw materials – staff book reviews.

Maximize your expertise

From the outset of this project, we engaged all levels of staff. This was critical to ensuring that whatever product we created would be supported throughout the organization, as well as vetted to ensure that we didn’t leave out any crucial elements.  One of those elements was the encoding that allowed FeedBuilder to pick up the items for Gimme.  A quick chat with the catalogers solved that problem – they created a series statement utilizing controlled vocabulary that would identify the item as belonging to a particular Gimme category and pasted the review into the MARC record. By adding Library staff review_[gimmeCategory] in the 830 field of each record and indexing it, not only were we able to create a constant flow of records for the Gimme feeds we were able to give all library staff easy access to these reviews when searching in the catalog.

The other process we had to create was a standardized way for people to submit reviews.  Here we called on the cataloging group, the folks who where posting to GoodReads, and our IT department to create a book review form on SharePoint.  The form itself was easy – staff at any level go to SharePoint (which functions as our intranet), type in their name, info about the book and their review and submit.   The catalogers and GoodReads group developed a process to “hand off” reviews that ensure that it gets encoded, posted in both the catalog and GoodReads,  and at all times is associated with the ISBN of the same edition so that everything seems to magically link together.  Having staff who don’t normally interact working together on the share outcome certainly fostered a sense of ownership and respect in the group.

Don’t just build it . . . make it fun

Once the Gimme engine design was complete, and we had the back end programming to make it work, we were ready to unleash Gimme out into the world. Our biggest concern was that Gimme would get lost amongst all of the other products and services the library offered. One evening while cooking a delicious shepherd’s pie, a light bulb went off over Ann’s head. Since we were using our library staff book recommendations to fuel Gimme, why not turn our Staff in marketing vehicles? The next day a call went out to staff asking whoever wished to help to come forward. The end result was 15 life-sized cardboard cut outs of library staffers, highlighting their personalities. Attached to each was a ‘speech bubble’ that directed customers to go to http://gimme.scottsdalelibrary.org to see what books that staff member recommended.

The next phase was to create floor decals to put in various spots in our five library branches, so as customers walked through the library they would gain exposure to Gimme. We created corresponding buttons for staff to wear, which helped spur conversions and questions from customers, “What is Gimme?” This marketing plan engaged all level of staff, which helped make the launch of Gimme a success.

One year later the Gimme Engine is continuing to grow with new categories and increasing stats.  Not only was the project a success but it by integrating the various workflows we’ve been able to make it, as well as doing fun reviews by staff, part of our culture.  We hope that our experience can help you in some way make your next project as successful as the Gimme Engine.

 

About Our Guest Authors:

Aimee Fifarek is the Library Technologies and Content Senior Manager for the Scottsdale Public Library in Arizona.  She has an MLIS and an MA in English from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and spent 6 years as the Systems Librarian at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge before going to Scottsdale.  Her professional interests include ebook platforms & development, self-publishing, and mobile technologies.  She can be found on Twitter @aimeelee.

Ann Porter is the Community Relations Coordinator at the Scottsdale Public Library. She has over 11 years of marketing, PR and media relations experience, working for organizations such as a major cosmetics company, an online retargeting agency that was recently purchased by Ebay and for a major NFL team.

 


One Comment on “Tips for Making Your First Mobile App a Success”

  1. Tiffany says:

    Thank you for sharing this look into the practical aspects of creating an app. I was surprised (and inspired) by the number of people involved. I checked out the app, and it is really easy to use, with some great recommendations. Well done! On a side note, I love the term future-customers instead of non-customers.