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Digital users come first with mobile app buoyed by big data

Linda Tucci, Executive Editor

Bernardo Rodriguez faces a challenge that’s becoming a top concern for CIOs across many industries: He needs to make the company's data dance for the digital user.

"My job is to help the organization become a more digitally centric company, and a more user-centric company," said Rodriguez, named chief digital officer of

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Kaplan Inc.'s test prep and admission division last year.

That means taking Kaplan study materials, used in countless classrooms by hundreds of thousands of students, and delivering them in digital formats to the mobile devices these students use. By year's end, registered students will be able to download free electronic copies of their course books to all iOS mobile devices from Apple iTunes. These e-books take advantage of the interactive mobile medium, allowing students to ask questions or score a test and pull up explanations for questions they answered wrong.

"When you log in with your Kaplan ID and password, we will give you all the course books that you need to be successful in your class," said Rodriguez, who has a Ph.D. in computer engineering. Kaplan customers can sync their accounts with up to two mobile devices.

IT leaders must embrace ... a business driven by customer relationships, where the customer is everywhere, and so must be your business.

Sounds simple enough for the digital user -- which is exactly the point, said Rodriguez. Getting there, however, is anything but. The effort is backed by Rodriguez's digital group, a team with more than 100 experts in Web and mobile app design, as well as instructional design. Working with Kaplan's technology team, the digital group used an agile methodology to develop content that worked with Kaplan back-end systems and could be tailored to students’ needs on the fly. For students who rely on their phones to learn, for example, the digital group had to identify the possible use scenarios and all the elements that needed to be shown on the screen.

"The important thing is to figure out how to combine the traditional digital user experience with the best practices of educational design, to make engaging products that at the same time teach you something," Rodriguez said.

The push to digitization extends to Kaplan's online classrooms as well. There, the ongoing challenge is to keep the attention of the online audience by producing interactive content with the right mix of teacher instruction, informational slides and staff-monitored chatrooms, Rodriguez said. Recycling Web applications for mobile use or filming a classroom session and sticking it online won't work.

On the back end, Kaplan chose a database server from MarkLogic Corp. designed for handling “big data.” The server uses an indexing system that looks more like a search engine on steroids than it does a relational database. The platform handles the complexity and variability of data coming in, and speedily dispatches the information going out -- in a format and on the form factor required by the digital user, according to the vendor.

Focus on the user experience

Digitization, mobility and the consumerization of IT were major themes at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando, Fla., as was the need for IT to focus on "people-centric design." CIOs were exhorted to increase the percentage of revenue generated from information and Internet technologies. Unlike the first wave of the digital revolution, which was largely synonymous with a company's Web presence, the next-generation digital enterprise, according to Gartner, will be digital from the front to the back office and beyond. Key to monetizing those digital assets will be applications and platform designs that adapt to how users think and work.

"IT leaders must embrace … a business driven by customer relationships, where the customer is everywhere, and so must be your business," said Peter Sondergaard, a Gartner senior vice present and head of global research. "You must pursue simplicity by putting people and their needs at the center of design."

Application developers at investment firm The Charles Schwab Corp., for example, worked with the business to build online trading applications that "think like active investors think," said Schwab's Erik Cottrell, director of active trade product development. The feat required jettisoning the firm's legacy apps and "starting from scratch," he said. The payoff is a streamlined trading platform touted for its power, depth and ease of use.

Gartner analyst W. Roy Schulte, who covers operational business intelligence, advised CIOs to budget for a “director of user experience” whose mission is “to match the presentation of information to the way people think” and on the platform of their choice. “The last thing CIOs budget for is user experience, but thanks to Apple, that is key,” said Schulte, invoking Apple's legendary focus on customer delight.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.


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