Bob Kernen has served as COO of jacapps, our mobile app company, for more than six years now. And during that time, the company has grown into radio’s leading mobile app developer.
Bob was the first person I thought of when I watched Iowa Caucus coverage Monday night. And in today’s post, he puts this debacle in Iowa into perspective – what its means to politics, and more importantly, what it means to radio. Most of us know what apps do and how to use them. Like cars, designing and building them is a whole other thing.
In today's post, Bob looks at the growing mound of information about this primary disaster, assessing how it could have been prevented, and how broadcasters can avoid the same fate. -FJ
I turned on the news late Monday night to see the results of the Iowa Democratic Caucus. After a minute or two it became obvious that the results weren’t in. After flashbacks of the election of November 2000 dissipated, I learned along with the rest of the country the problem was with (gulp) a mobile application gone wrong.
As someone who runs a mobile app company, I had two immediate reactions: First, that visceral wave of nausea when the technology you’ve worked hard on fails, and second, thank goodness it wasn’t one of our apps!
Overseeing a company of this type is complex. It’s not just about writing code. Great mobile apps require a strategic purpose, time and thought about the interface and how will it be utilized, quality control, graphic design, attention to the user experience, training, testing, debugging, and a lot of hand holding.
As we know, there are two app platforms – iOS for iPhone and iPads, and Android for virtually everything else. Problem is, there are hundreds of different phone brands and models that run Google’s Android software.
You never want an app to go down, and you certainly don’t want to have problems like those in Iowa when a) the app is only going to be used one time, and b) that one time is on national television and a presidential election is at stake.
Most of us view mobile apps as those cute little icons on our iPhones and Androids that we touch with a finger and cool stuff happens. And when working properly, the consumer doesn’t notice just how complex this software is.
Over the past eleven years, jacapps has developed close to 1,300 mobile apps for radio stations and many other industries. We’ve built simple streaming apps as well as amazingly complex apps with powerful platforms behind them that perform multiple tasks, while managing huge quantities of information. While we sympathize with the developer of the failed app used in the Iowa Caucuses – now identified as a company named Shadow – we also understand how a mess of this magnitude can happen.
Based on the information provided so far, here’s our take on Iowa's epic fail, and how a mobile app disaster like this one can be avoided:
1. Don’t rush it. The media are reporting this app was rushed to market in 60 days. While we appreciate that speed is important for many of our clients, it’s hard to conceive that a project with this many moving parts could be done in eight weeks. It’s not surprising it failed. As the New York Times pointed out, “There was simply not enough time to build the app, test it widely to work out major bugs and then train its users.”
2. Test it in the field. There have been numerous reports that in rural areas of Iowa, the app couldn’t cleanly connect to the Internet. Poor cellular coverage in the farmlands of the Hawkeye State? What a shocker! It’s one thing to test an app in the lab (or even in a populous area) where there’s always excellent high speed Internet, but it was no secret this app was going to be used in fire stations in Pella and elementary schools in Waterloo. Simply sending someone out in the field (literally!) or provisioning the app to operate in one of these places might have identified the connectivity problem long before Iowans began caucusing.
3. Test it on humans. There are also stories of how precinct captains and volunteers at local caucuses couldn’t figure out how to use the app (and in some cases, couldn’t even download and install it). Once again, the developer could have brought in five people off the street, handed them a phone with the app on it, and observed them work through it. And in a couple of short hours, the developer would have a much better understanding of how to make the app more user-friendly. The people who built the app should never be the ones to test it either. These are called usability tests, and they're effective. And inexpensive.
4. It requires training. Most of the people reading this post know their way around a smartphone or tablet. You’ve been downloading apps for years, and you know the in’s and out’s of how to manage mobile tools. But many of the key spokespeople at Iowa precincts presented themselves very differently. Some are self-described Luddites. Other simply weren’t interested in learning new systems and technology. I actually heard some say, “But, we've always done it this way” when referring to phoning in their results. The Shadow team and the Iowa Democratic Party needed education sessions so that all 1,700 precinct captains knew what they were doing. Under the best of circumstances, that’s a heavy lift. And as it turned out, the Times reported that only about a quarter had downloaded and installed the app prior to the commencement of the caucusing. It's no surprise why we saw this system fail Monday night.
5. Apps are, by nature, complex. Many routinely believe everything actually happens on your phone – that’s where the code and “stuff” resides. In fact, more complex apps are connected to a platform on a remote server that contains all of the data that flows into the app, including registration information, etc. The app used in Iowa could have failed in many different places – the app itself, the cloud-based platform, the connectivity, and more. There are numerous potential points of failure. And when things go wrong with an app, there's a debugging protocol that needs to be followed.
6. Do you even need an app? Smart brands that need to connect with customers or users via mobile do, of course. But for this type of “one and done” function, it might have been simpler to create a secure email account and have the caucus reps all send their results using a format that (hopefully) everyone knows how to use.
7. Don’t try this at home. Apps like this one Shadow developed aren’t cheap, but too often organizations like to cut corners and either develop them “in-house” or hire a firm with minimal experience with mobile do the job. In virtually every case where we’ve seen this occur, failure happens.
It turns out, this was likely the case with Shadow and the Iowa Democratic Party. CNN describes Shadow as a “voter-technologies” company that features tools like push messaging. That doesn't make them mobile app developers. As a Democratic official explained to CNN, “Our impression was they don't do software development, to be honest.” And a check of 10 self-identified Shadow employees on LinkedIn revealed only one had “significant coding experience.”
This is multi-faceted software that needs to be developed by experienced experts to handle multiple devices (how many hundreds of different Android phones are on the market?), operating systems, erratic WiFI or bad cell service, and other unforeseen events.
It’s one thing to cut a corner or two for an app that’s going to be around for years and can be course-corrected with updates over time. But for an app that’s going to be used for just one night? You’d better make sure it’s as perfect as possible and pay whatever it takes to a qualified and experienced team in order to achieve that.
Every radio broadcaster needs to be part of the Mobile Revolution. But simply checking off the “app box” by buying a mediocre product often comes with hidden costs – from operational problems to user issues. Your biggest fans download and use your app – why provide a sub-standard experience to these important users?
Developing great apps is challenging, and we sympathize with the developer of the Iowa Democratic Party’s app, who clearly had a worse day than even the candidates waiting on pins and needles yesterday for the hand-tabulated results of the caucus. But a lot of this could have been avoided.
This was an epic fail, a complete disaster, and as some described it to the news networks, a “cluster.” For a party trying to unseat an incumbent President, there was a lot riding on the outcome of this first primary. The candidates, their hard-working staffs, a whole lot of Iowans, and Democrats everywhere were victims of this tech meltdown. A horrendous mobile app experience that could have been easily avoided may have been the root cause of all these problems.
So, when all else fails, try an abacus.
Or hire an app company that knows what the hell they're doing.
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