Archive for November 19th, 2012

Designing the Mobile App

Posted November 19, 2012 By Tom

This is the second of several articles about the journey of developing a mobile application for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope mission.  Part one was entitled My First Mobile App.

The idea for the application came about due to a request we had from a couple of scientists at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January 2011.  They asked if we had a mobile application that would allow easy access to some of the public data that we were already releasing on the mission website but which would be nice to be able to quickly access on their phones.

At the time we didn’t have such an app or plans to create one so the answer we had to give was no.  However, the requests started us thinking about what it would take to create such an application.

While at the meeting I sat down with one of the mission scientists and she and I went over what such an application should provide, both in terms of functionality and data.  Over the course of a couple hours we worked out the initial design of the app.   This was by no means a continuous process as we both were on duty staffing the mission booth and answering questions about the mission to those who stopped by and so were continuously being distracted from the design process to talk with others about the Fermi mission.

However, out of that process came a fairly straightforward design of what the application should do.  In all, the final design was barely over one page of hand written (by me) notes that included the basic functionality of the the app, the various user interactions it should support, and basic sketched out screens for the various parts of the app.

The initial design we came up with in those few hours at the AAS meeting has served remarkably well to guide the development of the application through its initial release.  Although I should say that the application is fairly simple.  It is serving up basic plotting data and then a lot of textual data and as such didn’t need a complicated design.  Even so, having the design provided good guidance throughout the later development process and kept me on track of what to do and what to leave out.

One of the best things you can do when designing any software, is sit down with potential users and find out how they expect the app to function.  While I knew this already, the process of designing this application reminded me of that truth.  Working with the scientist on the design was very helpful.  While I have a Ph.D. in Astronomy myself, we were working with data that I didn’t use and had no experience with.  She was someone who would actually be using the application and the data it provided and so was invaluable in providing insight into how the app should behave and how the data should be presented.

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