How To Shop for a School District App
More and more school districts are adding a mobile app to their communications toolkits.
When the district decides “we should have an app”, district staff are often sent shopping without a clear idea of how an app can add value for the district community, or even what separates a good app from a bad one.
Aside from being functional and reliable, what should a school district app actually do?
Unfortunately the quality of most school district apps is very low. Before you make the leap and choose an app for your school district, read this quick guide to shopping for an app.
1. Your app should be more than the web
Your app should offer a different user experience than your website. Otherwise, what's the point of having an app at all? Sadly many school district apps are little more than a “wrapper” around regular web content.
We see it over and over again. Tapping an icon in a school district app simply opens a webpage in a browser, and the page often isn’t even responsive on mobile devices. Or the app includes a Facebook or Twitter icon that opens the district’s social media page inside the app’s borders, when Twitter and Facebook already have hugely popular apps that offer a far better experience for your followers.
Think of how your school district app can offer more than the content that’s already accessible to everyone on the web. Can it send reminders, bus updates or emergency notifications to the app with a push? Can it aggregate all your district’s various news feeds and calendars into one easy-to-use feature? If not, your app might just be a collection of webpages with a fancy border.
2. Send push notifications
One of the most important ways good apps differ from websites is by sending notifications to users' phones with a push. Push notifications have an advantage over other communication methods because app users don't have to actively check their voicemail, email or a website to receive an urgent message, and unlike email or SMS messaging you don't require up-to-date contact information from app users. You'll grab app users' attention the moment you send out your message, even if they're on the go.
A good app and a good website work together. Make sure your app lets you include links in your notifications. Keep your notifications short and link them to detailed information on your website if necessary. In the end having a great app will drive more people to your website, not less.
3. Think like parents and students
Parents and students will be the core audience for your app. Whether or not they enjoy using it will determine whether your app is a good investment for your district. Start with a core set of features that you know they will find useful, like constantly updated calendars and notifications from their schools. Don’t try to fit everything into your app. Focus on the features that are most important to parents and students and make sure your app does them very well. Simplicity and ease of use are very important to app users!
4. Save time. Integrate your app with your websites.
First and foremost, a parent or student wants to receive content from their own school in the app. Your app will be more successful if you can empower school staff to update content regularly and keep their school communities engaged. Make sure school staff don’t need to enter school news or events in two places. The app you choose should save time and effort by pulling in events, news and other content directly from your website CMS.
5. In-app content vs. external content
Your app can be a great launching pad to all the online services your district community relies on, like student information systems, registration forms and fee payments. But poorly designed apps often create confusion by blurring the line between these external services and your in-app content.
If a user taps an icon in your app not knowing if it will take them out of the app, the user experience is unpredictable and frustrating. Instead, make sure your external links are separated into a “Quick Links” area of the app, so users know what to expect when they tap.
6. Watch out for “template” apps
Apple caused a stir recently when they revised their guidelines for app developers, particularly concerning which apps will be accepted into the App Store. Guideline 4.6.2 says:
Apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service will be rejected unless they are submitted directly by the provider of the app’s content. These services should not submit apps on behalf of their clients and should offer tools that let their clients create customized, innovative apps that provide unique customer experiences. Another acceptable option for template providers is to create a single binary to host all client content in an aggregated or “picker” model, for example as a restaurant finder app with separate customized entries or pages for each client restaurant, or as an event app with separate entries for each client event.
What does this mean for school district apps? Well, a lot of district apps might fit Apple’s definition of an app created from a commercialized template. If your app is identical to the apps at a hundred other school districts, apart from displaying your logo and colours, it isn’t truly “customized” or “providing a unique customer experience”.
At Box Clever, we prefer to use the “picker” model that Apple recommends. Our SchoolGuide App is a single entry in the App Store that allows the user to choose their district and schools in the app. We believe it’s the way smart app developers and school districts can avoid nasty surprises as Apple begins to crack down on “template” apps.
The best apps are simple, user-focused, functional and reliable. Keep that in mind and you'll find the right app for your school district!