November 1, 2023

Decoding App Development: An Interview With App Specialist, Hamish Norton



Are you thinking of building a mobile app but don’t know where to start? Should your organisation build one in-house or engage an app development company? Are free tools worth the hype - do they actually work? We cover all these bases and more with our Senior Digital Consultant and app-building pro, Hamish Norton. Here’s what he had to say.

Hi Hamish. Thanks for sharing your insight with us today. We’ll dive right in with a question about what your most used app is and/or what you rate.

Hello – a pleasure. Looking at my phone, there are two apps I use a lot:

1. One is AndroidAPS

AndroidAPS acts as an artificial pancreas, taking in glucose values from a sensor stuck on my body. Using an algorithm, it communicates with an insulin pump (also stuck to my body) to deliver specific doses when needed. It’s super user-friendly which is important because this app keeps me alive. No, it really does.

2. The second app is called OpenLooper

I needed an app to help me improve my Type 1 Diabetes management. OpenLooper shows me how well I'm doing at keeping my glucose levels within range. This generates a positive feedback loop, so I can see my progress, motivating me to take more actions toward extending periods where I’m ‘in range’.

This app is one I've written myself using Flutter, and there’s no way I could have pulled an app together that works this well without it - it's both a joy to work with and fast to get results.

[OpenLooper has just been released to the public – you heard it here first!]

Wow! That’s pretty impressive Hamish. A developer never sleeps…

Moving onto the 'topic du jour’ – AI. How do you think app development will evolve in the next year? Is AI going to take over?

AI might take over to an extent one day, but not in the near future.

What we’ve been seeing so far is faster speeds for app development.

Reasons why include:

  • Designs can be easily pre-created and imported into your code base. In dev language we only need to tie the users ‘taps’, ‘gestures’, and ‘drags’ to the required application logic. In business language the development time is reduced because the templates are already available.
  • Software updates can now be delivered without waiting for App/Play store approval - this type of update is called "Over the Air" (OTA). It means users get the latest version of your app, with the necessary patches and enhancements, as soon as possible.
  • And in writing code
  • AI can help us develop the code and improve the quality of the code. Fewer errors the first time around means fewer errors down the road.

We’ve also seen the rise of free AI tools. With AI, you can bootstrap a bunch of tools together to provide a solution. However, it's often very challenging to make it engaging and easy for your users. It may look the part on paper, but can it really deliver on your business goals?

I’d still recommend getting an expert involved. The key benefit is guidance around user experience - helping you refine how your app interacts with users and ensuring it offers the value you intended.

We’re glad you’re not being replaced by a robot anytime soon, Hamish 😊 Moving onto the price, we know this varies, so how can businesses optimise costs when building an app?

There are 2 key things you can do:

1. Use a framework that allows you to build for both iOS and Android at the same time. My pick, as I mentioned earlier, is to use Flutter.

2. Build a "grey scale app" as part of your discovery process.

Typically, businesses will create wireframes they can view via a screen, but it’s not quite as powerful as having something closer to an app to interact with.

A grey scale app is the equivalent of a ‘first draft’. It has no design or connections set up – it only displays the key features you want. The benefit is that you and your stakeholders have something tangible to play with and get a feel for how your app will work for users. You can play around with ideas and use the insights to help you build with greater precision from the get-go and avoid any huge pivots later in the project.

With consumers becoming more conscious of how safe their apps are, what's your #1 tip to ensure apps are built securely?

Define what security looks like for the project and embed those practices in your work early on.

Security concerns often require multiple touchpoints, which makes it challenging to implement late in a project. The earlier you cover these bases, the less time you’ll spend on it later on and the more secure you’ll be in the long run.

Aside from poor security, what’s the most common pitfall you've encountered when building apps?  

Often, businesses don’t realise what an app can do until part way through the project – and this is usually due to unclear goals.  

The trick here is to set clear expectations from the beginning. Spend that little bit of extra time in the early phases – goal setting & planning – to get more efficiency out of your project in the long run.

I sometimes come across app projects that have dragged on for months after months over the planned timeline because user experience ideas and goals kept changing - but that’s not to say you won’t need to make little tweaks as you go (we all change our minds).

The important part is knowing what you want, as much as possible, from the start. This knowledge will benefit your project time and your wallet. It’s also a reason why the grey-scale app stage is really good.

So planning is essential. What’s your other top piece of advice for businesses looking to build from scratch?

Invest in the discovery phase! It will lift the quality and value of your app to end users. Ultimately, it gives complete confidence in the ‘plan to build’ and the ‘go-live’ process.

And what’s your advice when rebuilding an app?  

There are 2 parts to this answer…

Firstly, know your why for building an app.

You’ve got to be clear on the value it’s adding to your users and your business.

Second, I can’t stress this enough – use a platform that allows you to build for multiple platforms at the same time (iOS, Android, MacOS, Windows, Linux). We use Flutter because:

  • You can build high quality apps, quickly and securely.
  • It has a supportive, growing user community.
  • It’s easy to implement some parts of an app - you don't have to cut over in a big-bang approach. That said, the approach depends on the value you're going for. A complete app overhaul could be what secures your next customer.
  • It's a pleasure to work with!

Ok ok…converting us to Flutter fans over here….

Moving onto the wider world, how does the approach to app development differ in NZ compared to bigger markets?

NZ has been used as a technology ‘guinea pig’ by many global companies, which I think has contributed to an openness for change and innovation from both the developer and user side. It’s not only made Kiwi businesses more tech-savvy but also made it easier to introduce new customer technology.

If we look at technology progression, some communities (like the Flutter community) are only in their infancy. However, these communities are strong and growing in places like Europe, India, the UK, and the US.  In some ways, this makes it a little easier for us to adapt as developers because we get access to their fine-tuned resources. There are already multiple packages for us to use that can majorly cut down our development time.

And finally, how do you decide whether to build a mobile app in-house or with a technology partner?

You can do either - just make sure you have the right resources and advice.

The key to success with building in-house is to pick up a couple of experts who focus on enabling others. They'll help steer and manage the boat, which is a weight lifted off your shoulders. We can't all be cyclers/grinders - you need a Pistol Pete and a Glen Ashby to provide the finesse!

The bonus of using an external team is the extra layer of expertise, experience, and innovative ways to solve your specific business challenges. We like to bring something new to the table, which can be the difference between "usable” and outstanding.

Thanks Hamish. Plenty of great advice for businesses designing apps from scratch or rebuilding what they have.

If you want to carry on the conversation, Hamish and our other app specialists would be glad to help.

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