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The Revolution Will Be Mobile - How to Build an App that People Will Actually Use


Note from Lori: This blog is a recap of Sam Dorman's session "The Revolution Will Be Mobile - How to Build an App that People Will Actually Use" presented at the Web of Change conference in September 2012. Building a mobile app from scratch doesn't make sense for most nonprofits, but if you are considering it (or any project where you are building new software), these are some important things to keep in mind. 


Rocket Man app

The overall question for many of us is – how do we get people to do what we want them to do?  The question for designing a good product asks -  how can we fill a real need people have in their day to day lives? How can we make someone’s life easier, more convenient and fun!

For instance, think of an app on your phone that you use daily. Maybe it is your online banking app or google app. For me I could not live without a public transit app called Rocket Man. It tells me exactly when the next bus is coming and allows me to plan my day better. Ultimately, it makes my life easier and more convenient.

Here are the steps to make sure your app solution does the same thing:

App development cycle

Step 1. What is the problem you are trying to solve? - Focus on a key insight. Too often we try to do too much in an app. For instance, one organization wanted an app that would track when people picked up trash. The app would show how this action improved the health of the ocean. Then, it would take you to the organizations website. Then to a petition to save the ocean and so on. But, the reality was - if you want to pick up trash off the street, why would you bother to take out your phone and track it? It is a lot easier to just pick up the trash! This is called a "Frankenstein" app - a project gone wild with too many ambitions, goals and directions. Decide on one key thing and ask yourself – why would I use this app?

Step 2. Goal Mapping - What are you really trying to do by creating this app? Is it to build awareness, gain support, help people take action? Beware of too many stakeholders (like board members) calling the shots. Figure out your goals, prioritize the ones that are most important, write them all down on paper and then play! Change your ideas when it's cheap, on paper and pen. Visualize different scenarios. Experiment. Just don’t sink money into making the wrong product.

Step 3. Audience Mapping – Who is your audience? You can’t build an app for everyone, so focus on a group. Choose a specific audience and target them.

Step 4. Audience Interviews – Once you know who you are serving, write an interview script. What are the goals of this audience? Try to identify patterns, then start to boil it down. For example, “People know and care about the environment, but don’t know where to start”.  Then generate solutions to this situation.

Step 5. Gain User insights – What is the key insight you discovered in this process with your audience? How can you focus your goals and product to adapt to this insight?

Step 6. Prototype and Test – Keep doing user testing, go out to the community and get feedback. This will help you design the right kind of app based on their needs.

By following these basic steps, working out major assumptions and really focusing on the users needs (not your organization's needs) you can avoid the common pitfall of building an app that no one uses and come up with a great product that will help bring awareness to your cause.

For more resources on this topic check out: Does a mobile app make sense for your nonprofit?