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Mobile app dev meets agile best practices

The demand for mobile apps and how quickly those apps need to change is persuading some companies to embrace agile best practices.

Maxim CTO Michael Le Du is trying to sort through the same problem many IT leaders face these days: how to quickly turn around mobile apps on a budget.

And -- since competition is fierce in his business with plenty of other men's magazines jockeying for the attention of the coveted smartphone audience -- Le Du might feel even more pressure than other CTOs.

The challenge we have now is trying to figure out the most cost-effective way to get mobile apps to the marketplace without having to spend a lot of resources and time to do that.

Michael Le Du,
CTO, Maxim

On the bright side, Le Du has a tried-and-true strategy. As a self-described "Agile Unitarian" (as opposed to "Agile dogmatist"), he plans to apply his Agile best practices of choice to mobile dev projects -- namely, small iterations with minimal features and functionality driven by end-user feedback.

Le Du took the same approach with the relaunch of Maxim's website last January. At the time he moved Maxim off its legacy content management system and put it on a Drupal open source content management platform. These days he has his eye on converting video content to play on mobile devices for his readers' viewing pleasure.

"The challenge we have now is trying to figure out the most cost-effective way to get mobile apps to the marketplace without having to spend a lot of resources and time to do that," Le Du said. He's considering third-party services -- including Brightcove Inc.'s App Cloud -- to build mobile apps using HTML5 and JavaScript; Sencha Inc. to develop HTML5-based Web apps; and RubyMotion, based on MacRuby, to build iOS apps.

"The good thing is the underlying technology doesn't matter," Le Du said. "We can apply Agile development practices like small iterations and rapid development to any of it."

The marriage of mobile app dev and Agile

At Chicago-based Solstice Mobile, an Agile development Scrum-based framework is the method of choice. The consulting firm's Fortune 500 clients are fine with that, even though it takes some getting used to, said J Schwan, the firm's founder and president.

Many enterprises are more familiar and comfortable with software development approaches like waterfall, but the Agile Scrum approach is really designed to accommodate the unpredictable nature of certain projects, like mobile app dev, which may need to turn on a dime, he said.

The marriage of mobile app dev and Agile development methodologies is being driven largely by time to market, Schwan said, as companies need to respond quickly to new opportunities or respond to a competitor's new capability. But what is equally driving this Agile/mobile app development partnership is consumer behavior.

"Consumers have been trained to understand that these [mobile] apps are iterative in terms of how they are developed," he said. "When you downloaded Angry Birds, for example, it started with 30 levels, but then they released another 30 and so on. We are trained for these app updates to occur and we are more forgiving if it doesn't have all the features that we want because we know the app will continue to evolve."

As a result, enterprises are bringing mobile apps out of the gate more quickly by involving end users in the Agile development process. "That's the underlying tenant of Agile development: making the end user part of the development process and utilizing iterations to drive the product forward," Schwan said. "With mobile app dev that [approach] just makes sense."

Agile drawbacks

But the user-feedback loop has its downfalls, particularly for companies developing customer-facing mobile apps and open source content management systems, as few want all of the negative feedback flowing through the app store reviews. Instead, Schwan advised companies to build an app-feedback mechanism into the app. "The majority of all feedback will stay in the app-feedback mechanism that you can control, respond to and develop new features based on," he said.

Le Du also foresees Agile best practices becoming the de facto approach to application development -- mobile or not -- but he believes it will take longer to make its way into the largest of organizations.

"I've seen that they have very engrained cultures where it's hard to introduce Agile because business folks like to control processes and plan everything out, even if it's not the most efficient approach," he said.

More on mobile app dev and Agile best practices

Tuning your business to the mobile channel

The culture behind Agile practices

On the other hand, Le Du, like Schwan, believes that since mobile app dev is still fairly new, larger companies are more willing to use mobile projects and open source content management systems as a starting point for an Agile practice.

Underestimating the power of corporate culture to sink new ideas -- even a small Agile mobile pilot project -- is a mistake, Schwan agreed. "A lot of [project and application development] methodologies are set up to promote boundaries and keep areas of responsibility very clearly separated, with a lot of documentation around those boundaries," he said. "Agile best practices are all about breaking down boundaries, encouraging transparency, frequent feedback loops and less documentation in the development process."

Agile best practices also break down boundaries between the business and IT by diffusing the blame game. With Agile iterations and feedback loops, business stakeholders aren't expected to predict what the business, market and apps will be a year out, and, at the same time, IT won't be held to an unattainable timetable based on those predictions.

"IT can say to the business, 'We don't expect you to have all the answers or know exactly what you want in six, nine or 12 months,' and IT won't be told by the business, 'You got it wrong because you couldn't predict how long it would take,'" Schwan said. "Instead, it's about focusing on the most important features first, building that, and then looking at what's next."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, editorial director. For more tips on Agile best practices, check out our Business Process Management section. For midmarket IT news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ciomidmarket.

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