MM Awards

App Designer for a Day

Alex Spencer

Apps can often feel like a mere tick in the box for a brand which wants to appear to have a mobile marketing strategy. As you might expect, it's a particular bugbear here at Mobile Marketing, but how do brands avoid it?

To find out, I jumped the fence for a day, and joined digital creative agency Made by Many for their What's it like to be an app event, part of Internet Week Europe.

Experiential prototyping

“It's easy for companies to come along and say 'we've got to have an app', and ultimately it does nothing, or is just an advert,” says Made by Many service designer Rory Hamilton, one of our hosts for the day. “Our attitude is that the apps we produce should improve services for the customer.”

Amen to that. Fortunately, according to Hamilton, brands are starting to come round to the idea that a great, useful app is genuinely valuable. Even apps which have no obvious link to what a brand is known for can help build its reputation – so the important thing is that they're a good product, in and of themselves.

The answer being preached by Made by Many is experiential prototyping – taking a proposition, building it up, and testing a basic version of it out in the real world. Which seems fairly obvious, but the difference is that this step comes before anyone starts to get their hands dirty.

Not the kind of testing that follows the months-long turnaround of app creation, but after days or even, in our case, hours, using 'sketched' prototypes hacked together from bits and pieces of other easily-available technology – SMS, Tumblr pages, other apps – or even just pen and paper. 

That was lucky for me, with no coding or technical abilities to speak of. In the morning, each group was given two randomly-picked words – 'Intergalactic Nostalgia' in our case, but also things like 'Fear Hive' and 'Idiot Niche' – then had to work them into a concept and a workable prototype which we could test before the end of the day.

Getting iterative

The same couldn't be said for the prototype itself, however, which consisted of a dozen 'screens' drawn hastily on post-it notes, which could be flipped between as the user pressed different buttons. The process involved a lot of arts-and-crafts, but the point of it all soon became clear: the importance of the iterative process, based on immediate feedback. 

Most groups had two test subjects for their app, and talked about the quick changes they'd implemented based on the reactions of the first in time for the second test. Features were added and dropped, images were resized and text was simplified, and the feedback of the second user were uniformly more positive.

Starting with a silly name, a few loose ideas, and a stack of post-its and coloured pens, Intergalactic Nostalgia had started to feel like a viable app by the end of the day. A social media accumulator linked to a gesture-navigated timeline, which adds in what was happening to space news that day – it sounds like something you could find in the App Store, though perhaps not in the Top 100.

Emotive connections

“It's a compressed version of what we do with our clients,” says Charlotte Hillenbrand, client partner at Made by Many. “We wanted people to just go through the process themselves, rather than just the idea, which is very different to what many our clients are used to. It helps create more engaging apps – increasingly brands are trying to create emotive connections, because that's at the heart of a customer lifetime value relationship.”

Of course, you couldn't sketch out every app this way – Facebook couldn't be prototyped in a day, nor could Angry Birds – but the point wasn't to simulate the technology. Experiental prototyping is about putting a test subject into the mindset of using the service, and then observing their reactions.

In the case of the aforementioned Fear Hive, which evolved into a real-world game about scaring fellow players, that involved sending texts to a volunteer telling them their location was being tracked, followed by a second user jumping out of a bush and scaring them senseless. How much more emotive can you get than that?