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Creating an Effective Mobile App for Higher Ed

A well-designed, content-driven app is key for universities to share information and engage with students and alumni
University Business, June 2013

Mobile applications are on the rise as the method for communicating with a university’s expansive audience. Though apps have the potential to deliver content in a new, dynamic way, many higher ed leaders are unsure how to best deploy an effective mobile app strategy. This web seminar, originally broadcast on May 7, 2013, addressed how the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) was able to successfully release an effective app for its campus community.

Director, Enterprise Mobility

The University of Missouri’s journalism school recently tweeted that 55 percent of news readers are using mobile devices to read the news. Only 44 percent use laptops or desktops. Clearly, we’re moving to using mobile devices more and more. Mobile phones and tablets are replacing PCs at a rapid rate. This mobile adoption makes having an effective mobile app a necessary method of publicizing your institution. This is much like how having a website went from a “nice to have” to a “must have” in the mid-1990s.

What we have learned is that a pleasing user experience that is easy to use, delivers useful content, and worth recommending to your friends is critical for mobile adoption. Otherwise, users download the app, then delete it without even using it. SAP is a world leader in enterprise software. Mercury Intermedia is an innovative mobile application developer. Together with Ole Miss, they partnered to create an effective mobile app that gives info to staff, students, and alumni on a device they carry at all times.

University of Mississippi

Ole Miss is a public university in Oxford, Mississippi, about an hour south of Memphis. We aim to serve our entire state. Our mobile application is one result of our desire to be considered a leader in the higher education sphere. We believe that if we are leaders in technology, then we will be perceived as leaders overall. Our IT landscape includes SAP for our enterprise resource planning system. This relationship began in 1998 and has been integral to the launch of our app. We do not have a large IT staff. This relationship with SAP and Mercury Intermedia has allowed us to get the most out of our limited personnel resources.

This past year, a survey by Educause revealed that 62 percent of U.S. students have a smartphone with a data plan. fifteen percent own a tablet. At Ole Miss, we aim to support all types of mobile devices. Bandwidth can be a major challenge; our internet provider recommended we plan for four to six network devices per student. That, combined with more video streaming than ever, creates real challenges in maintaining a good connectivity experience across campus. Our bandwidth consumption has followed an exponential growth path for the past five years.

In Fall 2011, we conducted a survey on campus that indicated 54.13 percent of students plan to use their mobile devices more and PCs less, which falls right in line with the statistic Mark quoted. We also asked about iPad ownership; 35 percent of students owned one, and even more alumni, parents, and staff owned one. We could clearly see this shift to mobile device adoption. From user interfaces to campus infrastructure to server responsiveness to web design, mobile adoption means great changes for universities. When I was looking at creating an application, I examined other university’s apps. Many of them looked the same and required users to click through many buttons to get useful information. The tablet version was often simply a blown up version of the smartphone version, so resolution was often poor on tablets. I was not satisfied with these experiences.

SAP introduced me to Mercury Intermedia, which helped Ole Miss launch a state-of-the-art mobile news app. Mercury Intermedia was already at the forefront of creating mobile news apps for the consumer market, so to apply their expertise to the higher education field was very exciting. We aimed to have a rich user experience, where the content was designed for each device type. We started with an iPad app to share news stories, HD photos, and videos. Mercury’s platform is called M3. Ole Miss set up content feeds that are consumed by M3. In higher ed, we often have conversations about whether cloud, on-premise, or proprietary software or open source is the way to go. The answer is yes to all. We have all types available in our app, from social media to a feed from our radio station. It is a hybrid of many pieces of information, but is presented to the user as one experience in the app.

We have organized our app by our primary audiences. News, announcements, photo galleries, and campus events that are filtered by audience type. We connected our university’s Twitter feeds to deliver dynamic content after hours. For example, if there’s a baseball game, the app shares tweets from the game. We also have maps and directories that are fed from our SAP system. We can even push notifications to the app, as well as link to other university mobile-friendly sites that perform specific tasks.

Vice President, Business Development
Mercury Intermedia

Ole Miss already has an iPad and iPhone app and will be adding an Android app later this year. This is an example of how we’re taking the uniqueness of a device and modifying it; we’re not simply taking the design of the iPhone app and using it for the Android. Analytics are a great way to monitor consumption, learn about your audience’s preferences, and optimize your content. You gain that mobile mindshare that drives the consumption of your information. In Mercury apps, you can pull the daily unique users, which showed us the huge impact of the iPhone app that was released in January at Ole Miss. Analytics revealed the heightened access to the app when there was a tornado near campus and a tornado alert was pushed through the notification system. People opened up the app to find more information about that tornado.

Also, when Ole Miss became the SEC basketball champions, user consumption increased. Over time, you can use analytics to see what is generating interest in your app. Analytics can also show which sections of the app are most popular and what hours the app is most commonly used. Monthly unique user reports at Ole Miss showed that on a campus with 18,000 students, there was over 7,000 unique visitors in March 2013. That is an amazing testament to the level of engagement that this app has been able to gain for Ole Miss. Gates: We conducted a follow-up survey last spring after we went live with the iPad app. We were pleased to see that reactions were very positive.

Some specific things people liked about the app included:

  • Convenient access to a lot of current information
  • The beautiful, well organized design
  • The variety of pictures
  • The ability to display horizontally and vertically

Responders said the app puts Ole Miss ahead of other universities. We are proud to have a new way to communicate. We also asked users how frequently they used the app to get information; within a month of the app being out, it jumped to the number one most frequent method of getting information about Ole Miss. The app gives us a way to convey the feeling of the campus. It shows the diversity in our population, our commitment to access and affordability, and gives us a way to engage with potential students and parents. The app gives us a way to feature news beyond just sports, including academic programs and achievements.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety please go to