A few years ago I co-founded a startup called Terriblyclever Design with one of my childhood friends, and soon recruited some other buddies I met at Stanford. With social and online interaction becoming a much bigger part of people’s daily lives, we were helping Best Buy, Comcast, Sprint, Doritos and others get their brands onto the world’s biggest social platform by creating Facebook applications.
That work was a great outlet for our interests as developers, even as we continued to move through our daily lives as students at Stanford. During this time I remember standing in line one day at Moonbeans, my favorite campus coffee shop, and noticing something: everyone in line for coffee was doing something on their smartphone. Their activities probably comprised a mix of checking Facebook and email, playing games, checking stocks (oh, Stanford…), texting friends or listening to music. They seemed to be doing just about everything on their phones except interacting with the university itself.
It was about that time that Stanford’s registrar, Thomas Black, approached us with a question that none of has had thought of: “What interesting things can Stanford do with mobile devices?” It was a pretty interesting question. The iPhone was becoming huge, and all of a sudden everybody had a smartphone or Web enabled device. And while there were lots of apps for games, sports, art, food – you name it – there was pretty much nothing that connected to our campus or our experience as students.
So we jumped at the chance to work with Tom and his team, and after a few iterations we landed on the idea of an app called iStanford. The thinking was that anything you needed from your institution or wanted to get access to, you’d find there. It would be Stanford, in the palm of your hand. So instead of sifting through a cumbersome galaxy of web pages to search for a course in the catalog, there’d be an “app for that.” Instead of going to your laptop to look up friends or instructors in the directory, you could use iStanford. You could check campus news and sports scores. You could get bus schedules from the app, and even see where the buses were in real time. And, of course, you could use the GPS on your device to get directions to campus buildings.
The iStanford app had some 60,000 downloads soon after we launched it. We realized that it wasn’t just students and faculty using it – parents, prospective students and alumni were downloading the app too. Anybody who wanted to be connected to the university in some way had a reason to use iStanford.
iStanford was Terriblyclever’s first mobile project and it became the nascent version of a mobile platform that we still operate today. After six months, we had signed up another eight universities (including Duke University, University of California-San Diego, University Washington and Texas A&M University). In 2009, we met Blackboard’s CEO, Michael Chasen and found a common interest: we wanted to make these apps for as many colleges and universities as we could. As such, Blackboard acquired Terriblyclever Design, seemingly regardless of the fact that we still had another year left at Stanford (but that’s another story).
Today the team of students that started Terriblyclever have become Blackboard’s mobile division. Our development efforts have expanded fast, as have our resources, and we’ve now built apps that are powering different experiences at hundreds of institutions around the globe. In addition to our campus application we’ve also built one for mobile learning that enables the things we felt students need to do as part of their coursework for the mobile world.
It’s a pretty exciting feeling to have seen our work spread so far and so quickly, and the spirit of development keeps us all focused on what’s next. A lot has changed since we started just a few years ago, but if there’s a philosophy that runs through everything we do, it probably comes down to two key ingredients: creating excellent user experiences and fostering a community with our platform. These two qualities are common threads that are woven into everything that we do.
Unparalleled user experience: more isn’t better. Better is better.
User experience is at the core of everything we do. With so little screen real estate on a mobile device, every pixel matters. Maybe it’s inspiration from Apple’s general attitude on minimalism and elegant design, or maybe it’s our academic roots in Human Computer Interaction, but having an intense focus on user experience is a crucial part of our team’s philosophy.
So how does this philosophy manifest itself throughout our development process? We make sure that every feature we add deserves to be there. We question ourselves often, and consider whether there are better ways of implementing certain features besides the commonly used paradigms. And quite importantly, we resist the temptation to throw in the “kitchen sink.” Instead we focus on building with a phased and rapid approach, making sure that we do less but do it better. We’ve found that this keeps end users engaged, since they come to expect constant iteration.
Our focus on user experience also manifests itself through the ambition of some of our projects. Like what we did with our iPad application for Blackboard Mobile Learn – our courses application. We didn't just want to make our iPhone app bigger; we wanted to build an experience that truly leveraged the uniqueness of the iPad and its form factor. We even architected a windowing system (which we still haven’t seen in any other iPad application, almost a year after the iPad’s release) that allows users to easily manage their tools within the application, similar to how a student would hope to clear a clutter of homework and documents from their desk. It is precisely because this project was ambitious that we were motivated to undertake it. The windowing system of the iPad application probably took more hours to implement than all of the other features of the application combined. And it was worth it. We still get ”Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” whenever we demo the app.
Another important aspect of our philosophy is that user experience decisions should vary by platform. We engineer mobile solutions with scalability in mind so they can work across all platforms or devices, be it iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Palm or whatever comes next. But each of these platforms is different and before we develop on them we need to live and breathe that new platform. Although I carry an iPhone, I forced myself to carry a Blackberry for three weeks so that I could understand the paradigms and design standards of its platform. We believe that such a process is critical to creating an experience that is genuine to the platform, and leverages its uniqueness.
The world of mobile development and devices is rich and varied, and we want our applications to be the same way. So instead of taking a one size fits all approach, we’re creating apps that will look and feel different depending on the platform and form factor. We believe that this approach has the greatest possibilities for in-depth, immersive mobile solutions that leverage the unique capabilities available in smartphones to deliver a really engaging experience that is built with the medium in mind. It’s an ambitious task, but one we’re having a blast pursuing and that’s well worth the effort in our opinion.
A Platform with community built in mind: sounds like the App Store, no?
Good ideas can come from anywhere. But no one has a lock on where the next great idea will come from. So we’ve taken a flexible, platform-based approach to mobile development. One that offers the best of our thinking and development right out of the box, but one that has room to grow if a client or student has a great idea for something they want to do that’s unique to their campus. Often we’ll build it for them. Or they can build it themselves: perhaps with the help of some entrepreneurial, mobile-minded students on campus…
For us mobile is a platform. And we’ll build a lot on that platform to support our clients in a variety of areas. But we want our clients and others to be able to build on that platform too. To customize and create capabilities we might not have thought of or that address a particular need or interest unique to their campus. So we offer institutions the opportunity to customize the features and design of their apps, but also provide them with a Software Development Kit (SDK) that allows them to build and add new modules to their app (currently just for the iPhone). This SDK is built on top of the Apple iOS SDK, and allows anybody to create a self-contained application (game, utility, or otherwise) that can immediately be plugged in to any of our Mobile applications.
One of the best examples of this approach in action can be seen at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG), one of the oldest continuously operating medical schools in the United States, and the first to have its own comprehensive mobile app. Working with us they launched an app with campus directories, maps, videos, events and news. But they wanted to go further, and so they integrated their own custom-built medical apps using our Software Development Kit. The app now includes Med Abbreviations, which provides quick reference to medical abbreviations and MediMath, a robust collection of medical calculators. They also have ATP3 Lipids, with information on managing cholesterol, and OB Wheel, which helps calculate pregnancy due dates.
We think this open approach to mobile development offers the best opportunities for clients and the industry given the flexibility to deploy vendor built apps alongside customizations that can be built by institutions or vendors. This is still an early area of focus but we’re already seeing some positive signs of a mobile development community emerging in the education space around this idea. Last month, we hosted a number of our clients at a mobile summit in San Francisco that was focused on brainstorming ideas and inspirations for new opportunities in mobile. At the meeting they shared their own ideas for what they’d like to see us build but they also shared notes on their own development efforts and even agreed to share some of their applications with each other.
Even in the last two years since we started focusing on Mobile, the industry has changed significantly. Mobile hardware has improved, the developer’s toolbox has improved (thanks to ongoing innovation by Apple and other platform providers), and there has been a surge in developers who are creating powerful and creative mobile apps. The next year to come will surely bring even more change than the last.