7 mistakes to avoid when developing a campus mobile app

Commentary: UCF’s mobile director says not getting to freshmen and overplanning are two of the most common mistakes schools make.
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At the University of Central Florida, we’ve been fortunate to get many things right with our campus app. Currently, more than 85 percent of our students use it to access a wide variety of campus services and features. It has become an indispensable part of the UCF community and our college experience.

Over the past few years, I’ve advised or consulted with more than 40 different schools on making mobile technology work better, while giving advice and insights on our successes. In working with other schools, and learning valuable lessons from our own experiences, I’ve collected some common mistakes schools make when investing in their campus apps. 

Here are eight common campus app missteps that leaders should be on the lookout for:

1. Not investing in making mobile indispensable


Unfortunately, many schools simply assign their apps to overworked communications teams or the IT department, while not dedicating resources to a person who manages the entire mobile process. That’s a mistake because if mobile is one of 19 things your IT department has to do, it won’t be their top priority. Students and app-users will be able to tell. If mobile engagement is a top strategy for your campus, investing in the people to prioritize it is essential. 

2. Going mobile only

Investing in a great mobile experience for your campus should not be the only line of communication and engagement. Think about how mobile fits in with and amplifies existing modes of contact with students and others. Each campus communication channel has different functions, different strengths. Don’t go all-in on mobile while letting everything else wither. Integrate your communications and let them work together.

3. Not getting to freshmen

Using a mobile app is a learned behavior and it takes time to become a habit. It has to be good and worth it, but that also means that your school should not expect to go from 10 percent engagement to 90 percent in a year. Start with new students and get them engaged early while aiming for year-to-year growth. We ask freshmen and parents to download the app at orientation and once they start, they use it throughout their academic careers, and after. 


4. Allowing one department or function to take over

A campus app has to work for the whole campus. It has to be built that way and whoever is running it has to be confident in its place. Don’t allow financial aid or campus clubs to take it over and make it just about what they do. For a campus app to work, make it a collaborative experience because it has to work for everyone and all the campus needs. 

5. Using mobile to access your website

Many campuses and departments use their mobile platforms simply to link to their existing websites. Mobile users want and expect more than that. If a department says “we can just put our website on there,” go to them and start over. Mobile needs to be engaging, faster and easier than laptop and online. In other words, your app can’t be just a smartphone version of your website.

6. Not engaging students in design and use


Campus apps are very student-driven. At UCF, between 90 percent and 95 percent of our users are current students. That means that in most cases the people designing the app or making decisions about it aren’t the actual users. That’s a mistake. Schools need to get the opinions of students on designs and features, bringing them into the process. After all, it’s a product primarily for them.  

7. Overplanning

Some campuses spend way too long planning their apps. It might seem counterintuitive to good planning but my position is to get it out there. Talk to your students and get something published. Even if it’s not 100 percent, you can adjust as you go. There’s enough technology out there to get a mobile app out in weeks, not months or years. I recently talked to a school in Pennsylvania that implemented an entire app in less than a month with a very favorable reception. At UCF, we used Modo, a software-as-a-service app-building platform. A product like this lets you get a basic mobile presence up in a few days. Then you can build and grow from there.

Building a great campus app and a great app experience does not need to be complicated, but it does need to be a priority. And it should be. By now, everyone knows that students are mobile-dependent and expect services and information on mobile devices. Schools can do that and should do that.

Ryan Seilhamer is the assistant director of Mobile Strategy and Innovation at the University of Central Florida. He has consulted with more than 40 schools developing mobile applications for their students.

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