Q&A: Developing Mobile Apps at Drexel University

How a team of five university students developed a cross-platform, mobile, real-time app for managing presentations with no mobile development training.

Most students spend their senior year of college crossing off to-dos from their bucket list – skipping class, having lunch in the quad, taking weekends away with friends. In the midst of all of these activities, a team of five students at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA added an unusual item to their list -- designing and developing a fully functional, cross-platform mobile application. Using the Unisys ClearPath ePortal solution -- a special-purpose processor that originated in the mainframe environment yet allows development and modernization of apps via industry-standard software tools -- the students built UniConf, a conference management app that facilitates collaboration and scheduling. From scratch.

I asked Jedi Weller, lead student developer on the Uniconf team and a recent addition to the Unisys staff as an associate engineer, and Mike Kain, Unisys consulting engineer and adjunct faculty member at Drexel University, to discuss how the student team went about creating the app within the ePortal development environment.

Enterprise Strategies: What is Drexel’s Senior Design Competition and what was most rewarding about this experience?

Jedi Weller: The Drexel Senior Design Competition is the capstone experience for all engineering students at Drexel – an opportunity for students to showcase our knowledge and hands-on work experience. It’s a cumulative nine-month project where all students design and implement a complete and working software product from the ground up. This includes steps such as initial concept, prototype, testing, revisions, and final implementation. It was a great and rewarding experience for our team to make it to the finals of the computer science department’s competition.

The most gratifying part of the development process was using our product in a real-world setting. Unisys provided us with the opportunity to demonstrate our product at two conferences -- the UNITE user conference and the North American Client Exchange Forum, which brings together senior IT executives from Unisys clients. We received positive feedback and praise from both events and are looking forward to improving our app for future conferences.

Tell me a little bit about the UniConf app. What business problem does it solve?

UniConf (which is now being called Unisys Meeting Manager) is a conference management solution using mobile technology. We designed our product to utilize what users have with them every day -- their hand-held devices.

We saw a problem in the current method of hosting conferences and presentations. It’s often a struggle for presenters to provide necessary information, resources, and important updates to their audience members in a timely fashion. As a consequence, we’ve found that audiences often feel disconnected from the conference that they are attending. We believe that interactivity is the key to collaboration -- and that’s what our app does. We allow conference members to collaborate using their mobile devices.

What was the thought process behind creating and designing UniConf?

We wanted to provide conference-goers with a way to avoid this familiar scenario:

You’re attending a conference at a convention center in Florida. As you arrive, you check your printed pamphlet for the time and location of the presentation you want to attend. When you show up at the venue, you see a notice on the door that the presentation time has been moved. You’re now late and have to rush to make the presentation. You imagine how nice it would be to have live updates go straight to your phone or tablet.

As you arrive at the presentation locale you’re a couple minutes late and, as a result, have missed the handouts. The presenter then starts his presentation and you become quickly lost when he references the supplemental materials you are missing. To top it off, the presenter rushes through the presentation and is speaking too quickly for you to follow. You wish that you could have those slides, documents, and worksheets available so you could view them at your own pace. The presentation ends. You’d like to provide that feedback to the presenter, but the line for the ”pen and paper” surveys is too long and so you leave for the next event and don’t have time to ask questions or provide feedback.

You can see from this example how useful it would be to have a tool that allows the presenter to update the time and place of the presentation, upload his presentation slides, and provide virtual copies of all the supplemental resources. In addition, you can see how helpful it would be for the audience to be able to access these documents on their personal devices as they follow along with the presentation. Once we identified these key features, we were able to quickly evolve the app into its current form.

What skills did your team have? Were all of the team members experienced developers, no matter what the platform?

Our members came into the team from very diverse backgrounds and various levels of technical expertise. We all shared one thing in common, though -- we had little to no Web development experience. We were all just students with some experience developing for Mac and Microsoft Visual Studio based on classwork, but none of us had ever used ASP before, which is what we used for the project.

The challenge we faced was typical in creating a mobile app -- there are a large variety of smart devices on the market with different operating systems, versions, and aspect ratios. This diversity makes it difficult to provide an interface that will appear native on multiple devices.

The ClearPath ePortal development environment met our needs without requiring that we have an expert developer for each device. We created a Web application using ASP.NET, and with ePortal we were able to automatically provide a native-looking app to both iOS and Android devices.

How does the programming environment on ClearPath ePortal differ from other programming environments you were familiar with?

Using ClearPath ePortal was quite simple. For our purposes, ePortal acted as a wrapper for the ASP.NET framework. Many of the controls that an ASP developer is already familiar with exist within ePortal, so it wasn’t necessary to learn a new API. The ePortal automatically scaled and adapted each request for every device as that device made a server request. This was a great help to us because it allowed us to learn ASP.NET development practices from online resources and then apply them to the ePortal framework.

App development can be quite a lengthy process. How long did the app take to develop?

By using ClearPath ePortal and designing our app as a Web service, we were able to drastically reduce production time by avoiding device-independent development. The entire process (including design, documentation, and implementation) took us about seven months to complete. Out of that, only about two months were totally dedicated to development.

How did you test the app? For example, were Drexel students outside your team involved? What feedback did they provide?

Testing was a very big part of our process. We knew that we would have the opportunity to demonstrate our application at the UNITE conference and North America Client Exchange Forum, so we had to make sure that our app was stable, useable, and secure.

The first phase in this process was a beta test by another group of students in the Senior Design Competition. Having another technical team test our product gave us great insight to the strengths and weaknesses of our current design and allowed us to address many issues.

We also did extensive testing on our own using a tool called JMeter for stress testing. It had tests designed to assure functionality after each newly added feature. In addition, we heavily tested input validation to make sure that the system handled any invalid data entry correctly.

What were your favorite moments of the development process and the competition?

My favorite moments would have to be the days of the UNITE conference and the Client Exchange Forum. The team and I were on call to provide support if necessary, but at the end of each day we would receive feedback letting us know that the product performed well and there were continuous positive reviews. It’s a great feeling when users are so excited that they can’t wait to use it the next day.

Mike Kain: I was at the UNITE conference, acting as on-site support. It was amazing how many participants came up to me wanting access to the application -- asking for user IDs so they could check out presentations, submit presentations for posting and use the chat and other functions. At the end of the first day, I believe that I’d given more than 50 attendees access to the application and uploaded about 25 presentations

What are the next steps for the UniConf app? Are you going to release it as open source or market it privately?

Kain: I think that the capabilities of the UniConf app would be valuable in a range of settings that require coordination and collaboration -- for example, schools and universities as well as commercial and academic conferences. This app came out of a labor of love, and we’re still actively pursuing new features, enhancements, and directions for what could be the future of mobile conferencing.

Do you have other apps planned? Do you expect them to be for smartphones as well?

Kain: Unisys intends to continue to enable students, interns and other young technical professionals to continue developing mobile apps that take on new kinds of business challenges. We definitely envision more development programs like the UniConf app initiative.

Weller: Personally, I have many ideas lined up for future mobile apps. Mobile technology is where the future lies and all I can say is that you’ll have to check your smart phone or tablet for the next great app that we develop.

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