The present paper presents the abstract of a guideline on elements to include and steps to follow, in the setting up of a mobile application. It is based on two ongoing projects, one in sub-Saharan Africa (Liberia) and one in Asia (the Maldives). The choice of presenting a generic approach rather than one practical experience in particular was retained because the objective of designing a usable guideline seems more useful than relating a single specific and localized situation.
The basic rules to remember are in fact valid for any tool development: "Focus on benefits, not features". Have the end user in mind at all time. Constraints will come in the path all along the system development, and this is why, when choosing sideways, it is crucial to remember the end user, so that the separate roads that are taken still reach the initial objective. Also, good chances are that partners will join the project during its life and, they too, need to be shown the objective clearly.
Another useful rule is to put the project concept to regular tests, including with future users. This is useful for two reasons. The first one is because, even after a complete needs assessment, there are always details that can come up that were not considered previously. The second one is because the environment keeps on changing, particularly in the IT domain, whether it is in a developed or a developing economy.
In order to develop a mobile solution for small businesses from a developing economy, there are several contextual elements to consider. These can be put in three main categories: the country, the user and the telecommunication network specificities.
At country level, things to consider are very numerous. In fact, they should be considered before the application development is even decided, at market study and needs assessment levels. The national context can be important for things such as the political situation, the geographical and topological specificities or the national transport situation (including road quality).
A study on the target user is perhaps the most important of all. It will allow to define things such as the average mobile phone usage, as well as the capacity to use IT devices functionalities (i.e. the impact of the literacy rate on textual functions). This will give an initial yet decisive orientation for the later technology selection, prior to designing the application.
The feasibility of a mobile business solution naturally requires to evaluate the telecommunication network capacity. This network is generally composed of many telecommunication operator networks. Each of these has a different capacity (i.e. with or without GPRS/Edge capacity). This telecom level study should also include an evaluation of the territory and population coverage by the network and the average cost of provided services.
For the design of an innovative type of business application, a preliminary study should allow to define in detail how the traditional trade take place. This is a rather complex area that requires to focus on a limited quantity of future user types in order not to have to many supply chains and trade types covered.
Among the functionalities of a business matching information system, there are two main categories: the "seller offer" and the "buyer offer". Major online business matching systems have become successful by presenting offers to buyers, offering sellers the possibility to advertise their offers and not buyers to advertise their need. It is up to the system designers, according to identified needs, to decide if the system should be offer-driven, demand-driven or both.
After information has been sent to the system, as with other mobile applications, the right balance between pushing this information to users, and expecting users to pull information from the system needs to be established. For instance, in some cases, a potential buyer of a certain category of product may wish to receive automatically the offers, after having subscribed to this type of message. With communication tariffs currently applied in the mobile phone world, the cost implied by automatic messages has to be measured carefully. Typical questions to ask will often be "will the user (here the potential buyer) have to pay a connection every time a product of his/her interest is posted to the system?"
Some of these system functionalities' choices and cost implications are closely linked with technology choices and often need to be studied altogether.
After having gone through all the previous steps and when the main business matching system functionalities have been pre-selected, the technology options should be narrower. This is desirable as there is a great number of technical options.
Two of the main options are the SMS and the "data", GPRS option. Both options have advantages and drawbacks. Bellow a brief list of them are presented
- limited in terms of application flexibility
- closely tied to telecommunication operators
- it has more controllable costs
- quite popular where illiteracy is not a major issue
- enabled on the most basic mobile phones
- great flexibility in application development
- can be developed independently from network operators
- more complex to control the associated costs
- still often limited to a wealthier section of the population
- enabled on more expensive mobile phones
In some cases though, disadvantages may convert into advantages since high-end mobile phones may be more easily customized for illiterate people, with text-to-voice and voice-to-text applications.
Note: Overall, the "data" choice is very likely to be the future channel of choice, as the Mobile Web will increase in size and connection costs steadily reduce.
Within each of the two presented options, numerous specific questions remain at the system design stage. For example, when one has opted for the GPRS option, the possibilities exist to use the built-in browser (not present in all GPRS enabled mobile phones) or to design a custom application. Among the other technical elements to take into account is the mobile phone operating system, since it defines the framework of applications.
But other IT solutions also need to be explored. Web-based applications can have a complementary role to a mobile business matching solution. They can be used as a basic system monitoring tool, enabling to follow the system activity, but it can also be used as the business matching system itself. As an example, farmers, fishermen and craftsmen can post offers by SMS that are then instantly made available to big buyers such as tourism resorts.
In order to obtain a sustainable mobile application, the technology choice and system design need to be complemented with a valid business model.
Once the system is set up, tests have been conducted and the fine-tuning is done, the usual tool roll-out needs to take place. Steps of the roll-out are not specific to mobile applications. They include training of system managers and marketing of the solution. But the advantage of a well-designed mobile solution is that the marketing can quickly be done by users themselves, as in viral marketing. And the big advantage of affordable business-facilitating solutions is that they spread even faster, for the benefit of users and their families.
Author: Raphaël Dard
Personal email: radard [at] free.fr
Date: 21 January 2009