Why the Iowa Caucus app disaster matters to broadcasters

In the News Social & Digital

Regardless of your political orientation, the mess created at the Iowa Caucuses primarily by the reliance on a mobile application has lessons for all broadcasters. Today, radio and television stations rely on all forms of technology to manage information, connect with the audience, and distribute content. But in many cases, this technology is just as new to broadcasters as the app was to a committee chairman in Ames. Let’s face it, did your station have an Alexa skill two years ago? Did you even know what an Amazon Echo was?

Our mobile app company, jācapps, has built over 1,300 mobile applications since 2008. We’ve had our failures, which you have with new technology, but fortunately, our batting average is really good. But one thing we learned back in the early days through today, is that over 90 percent of our mobile app clients have never bought one before. They don’t know the questions to ask, the process behind it, and the difference between a great app and one that does the basics.

And this is the first place where mistakes get made – if you don’t know what you’re buying, you don’t know the questions to ask. And most importantly, you don’t know how to tell the difference between a competent developer and one that can create real problems for your business.

So I want to share with you a few things to think about when selecting a mobile app developer (or frankly, any technology you’re considering):

Does the developer understand business? When we first started the company, our background was as consultants, so we inherently understood customer service. We didn’t know a ton about software development but knew we could hire the right people to execute our business plan. As we grew, I began studying other software companies, and one common trait I found was that most were led or founded by a really talented developer, but in many cases, the company’s focus stayed there – they were weak on understanding the customer, their needs, and the end user.

Part of the failure in Iowa is attributed to the fact the end user – that individual in a small market in farm country who volunteered to work at the election – might not understand how apps work, how to download them, and how to use them. But because this software developer was focused on software development and not how it actually was going to be used in the field, it failed fast and hard.

“Be quick, but don’t hurry.” I love this quote from the legendary college basketball coach, John Wooden, and the app development company for the Iowa Caucus should have adhered to it. When we found out they had two months to develop this app, it became instantly understandable why it failed. This was a complex piece of software that should have taken at least two months to simply design – not develop.

Too often, we put pressure on providers to do the impossible, oftentimes because we don’t understand the process. When this occurs, the worst case scenario can happen – a total failure and national embarrassment simply because they weren’t afforded enough time to do things the right way.

What is their development process? Great software requires more than code. Developing software is hard and complex, but if there is a proper process in place, risk is reduced. Any company you hire should have a deliberative process, from concept creation, design, interim testing, approvals required at key milestones during the process, UX (user experience) testing, and in the case of Iowa, field testing.

Why should this app have been tested in the field in Iowa? Like Wisconsin, the majority of Iowa is rural, and there isn’t high-speed wireless available everywhere. Yet, this app was designed to be used in every district in the state. Had they had enough time to go out into the field they would have instantly understood the basic premise of the concept was flawed.

Where is their staff? Several years ago, we were advised by supposedly smart financial people we should outsource some of our development to a Southeast Asian country because this would reduce our expenses considerably. On paper, it made sense, and a lot of developers were doing this. But then a surprising thing happened: we began getting calls from businesses that had selected another developer over us because of cost, but now needed our help because of the quality of work coming out of Bangalore wasn’t as good as they needed.

Being located in Detroit, we like to tell our clients we are here because “Detroiters know how to build things.” Plus, they are accessible to our clients as needed. Free and open collaborative communication is imperative when buying high-end software.

In Iowa, there are stories that up to 40 percent of end users never downloaded the app. New software, inexperienced users, no training. Where was their staff? Are you surprised things worked out the way they did?

At the end of 2019, there were 2.6 million Android and 2.2 million iOS apps available in the stores. While not all of them are great, the fact is, the overwhelming majority of the best apps went through a sensible process and were done the right way. When it comes time for you to make the investment in mobile apps or other high-end software, remember the following words: “Don’t be the Iowa Caucus.”

-Paul Jacobs, Jacobs Media

The WBA Hotline is a free service provided to members with the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. If you have any questions about mobile, social, digital, content marketing, websites, etc., contact Jacobs Media at pauljacobs@jacobsmedia.com.