Creating A Mobile App for A Non-Profit

Consultation and Creation

In February 2014 when I consulted with Lyon Arboretum on what types of issues they were facing with their social media and technology platforms (see LADIP post dated July , 2014) I discovered that the main three problems they faced were as follows:

  1. Lack of control over the information on their website;
  2. Inability to post updates and format website updates; and
  3. Spotty availability of Internet-hosted audio tour created through Guide By Cell due to poor cell coverage at the arboretum.

While the website redesign eliminated the issues of control over their information and ability to post updates, they were still faced with the inability to give users and visitors access to the audio tour and other information via mobile devices while at the site. Therefore, I suggested that they create a mobile app. The hope in creating a mobile app was to provide the audio tour to visitors while they are on-site through an easily accessible and reliable medium. As the Internet service is spotty at the gardens due to the lack of cell towers, the idea was that this app would allow users to access information about the gardens as well as the audio tour without needing cell service (such as the GBC service which required Internet availability for access as it was basically just a mobile website).

Therefore, to test this idea, I created a mobile app through the Como™ App Maker service for free. Then after implementing all the desired features, I presented the web-based version of the app to the powers that be. They liked the idea and functionality of the application and moved forward with implementation. Therefore, in July 2014, Lyon Arboretum moved forward with sending the Lyon Arboretum Mobile App to the Google Play, Amazon Apps and iTunes App stores.

While the app is not yet available in stores (it takes time for the requests to be processed), you can go to the landing page and test it out via any computer. Until it is available as a downloadable app from one of the stores mentioned above, you may access it through your mobile device directly by going to To see the landing page from your computer, please click on the image below.

landing page

A Little Information about Como

According to the company website, Como™ is the world’s leading do-it-yourself app-creation platform, powering more than one million small business apps around the world—with over 4,500 new apps created every day. Founded in 2010, Como makes it easy for brands and businesses to become an integral part of their customers’ lifestyle, helping them build lasting loyalty and thrive in today’s digital world. Featuring a host of customization options, advanced features, and marketing tools, Como’s unique platform enables anyone to quickly and easily create custom mobile apps and sites for all major mobile devices (iPhone, iPad, Android, Amazon Kindle Fire, and HTML5), with minimal cost and no coding necessary. Como is a division of Conduit Ltd., a leading global software innovation company (Como™, About Us, 2014). They have also received several business and interactive awards since 2011.

Why I chose Como™

I did a lot of searching online for a reputable company where I could create a mobile app without any coding. Since I am a graduate assistant, my position is yearly and after I graduate, I will need to pass my duties to either the new GA or the staff at Lyon Arboretum. Therefore, the main concern with choosing an app design platform, was the ability to create the interface without any coding knowledge.  I also wanted to use a service that would allow me to design a complete app and test it before committing to a purchase. Finally, I wanted a design platform that was Internet-based so that anyone on the team could update it at any time, from anywhere. Como does just that.

Although creating the full app is free, it has its limits. For example, the free level allows you to only have up to 50 visits a day and 5 downloads per week. This can add up very quickly as one visitor may hit the pages up to 50 times in one visit. Therefore, if you want a fully downloadable mobile application (not just a mobile website) through app stores like Google Play, Amazon and iTunes, then you must purchase the app outright for a one-time fee (Diamond Plan) or you can purchase a year-long level of access (Gold Plan). After the year has passed, the information still belongs to your organization, but is not downloadable through the app stores and defaults back to a mobile site (see pricing options).

After careful consideration, Lyon Arboretum chose to go with the Gold Plan, because this would allow them to go through a year-long testing phase to see how well the app assisted visitors in their experience and if it solved the issue of access to audio media regardless of cellular access (similar to playing solitaire in airplane mode). Later in this post, I will talk about the testing phase.

Features of the Como™ Design Platform

Some of the great features about this site is that you can see the changes in mobile view as you make them. Also, it easily integrates with many social media platforms and allows you to use HTML within each page design if desired. Additionally, including a new page or feature is as easy as clicking on the add icon and selecting what item you wish you use and changing the order is a simple drag and drop. Below you can see the design dashboard and the various options you can add to your app just with a click of a mouse.

This platform also makes creating navigation and your theme easy to format. For example, you can add your own logo and background color to match your website themes and colors, or simply choose an already created template theme from the site. They also provide four different navigation styles to choose from. It is all fairly easy and simply requires uploading your images, typing in the content you wish to appear and the app does the rest. Additionally, changes and updates can be made at any time through this internet-based platform and once submitted, will be sent to corresponding stores for update.

The main sections of the Lyon Arboretum Mobile App feature the following information:

  • Welcome: General information about the research unit, including hours and social media information.
  • Info: More detailed information about Lyon Arboretum which includes a subset of the following pages
  • Plan Your Visit: Includes Hours and Directions, Admissions & Tours, Accessibility Information, Safety Guidelines and FAQs
  • Gardens: Trail Map and a description and image of each garden.
  • Education: Message about UHM Instruction, and information relating to community class, school tours and a link to related educational resources.
  • Conservation: Detailed information about Conservation efforts and research conducted at Lyon Arboretum.
  • Plants: Description and images for various plants found around the Arboretum.
  • Audio Tour: Audio tour regarding grounds and plants as narrated by Richard Sears of Lyon Arboretum through the help of the UHM Museum Studies program.
  • Map: This shows the location of the arboretum within a map.
  • More: This tab includes the full list of options for users when they utilize this mobile app.
  • Event Calendar: List of all events in the Lyon Arboretum calendar.
  • YouTube Channel: Embedded YouTube videos from official Lyon Arboretum YouTube channel.
  • Visitor Reviews: Embedded Yelp reviews from visitors to Lyon Arboretum.
  • Photos: Instagram feed.
  • Contact Us: Physical address, telephone number, email and website address. 

Problems and Solutions

While designing the mobile app, I encountered some issues. Below I list the problem and the solution for each.

Original theme was non-conforming with new website template and design.

Solution: Used website background, logo and newly photographed images of plants and incorporated them into the mobile app so the “brand” would be familiar to users across all media.

  • Free version of mobile app only able to be viewed up to 50 times a day and 5 downloads per week.

Solution: Purchased the Gold Plan (One Year) ownership of the mobile app to test out its popularity with users and functionality. Includes unlimited downloads and views for up to a year and ability to make app available in mobile app stores for various devices and OS types.

  • Updates to the app rendered a $null code in the header of the newly changed section.

Solution: Contacted technical support and received an answer and solution in 24 hours. The issue is known and caused when there is no price for an item (many apps are used to sell things), their developers are working on a resolution in a large scale which could take sometime. Luckily the workaround was quite simple, in the meantime the tech support representative added a 0 (number zero) to each item which resolved the issue.

Testing Phase

Below is a testing phase table that I created for Lyon Arboretum. These tests can be performed by a volunteer, employee or student intern in various spots around the location to verify that the service will work throughout.

Usability Testing This includes text visibility in selected language, navigation between screens, and verification of functionality online and offline and ease of download and findability.
Compatibility Testing This includes testing to see if the app loads on various devices and in multiple platforms.
Interface Testing This includes the validation of each screen, buttons, text inputs, navigation flow, images, audio, video and outside links.
Services Testing This includes verifying that the app service function as expected. Do all menu items bring up content as expect? Do the images show, or are they broken? Do links and email links work properly?
Performance Testing This covers making sure the app downloads properly from the store, or mobile site, that it can be used with WIFI, data or no Internet connection once downloaded and that all the areas work as required/expected. We should also consider the set up/flow of information on the app, depending on how you would like users to experience the arboretum (is it a school group or private group or just random visitors?).
Operational Testing This includes an archive of the layout, content and design of the app in case it needs to be transferred to another service and for reliability of content. Also, making sure that the app is easily downloaded again from the user’s mobile store, does not crash and does not overly deplete battery usage.
Final Phase Creation and implementation of a web-based user survey at the end of the year to find out what people thought of the app service. This would beneficial when deciding to outright purchase the app. This will also show how current visitors interact and connect with information regarding the facilities and justify the usefulness of the app for enhancing visitor experience.

Marketing and Advertising

One question you may be asking is that after we are done creating the app, then what? Well, you will want to market it to your users, of course! Some of the ways that we will be marking this to Lyon Arboretum visitors is through social media, print materials and the Lyon and University of Hawai’i website. For example, a post about the launch of the application (when it becomes available) will be sent to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It will also be added to the University of Hawai’i main calendar, the University Press site, as well as the Lyon website as a highlight on the homepage. Finally, for those who do not use social media regularly, there will be a high quality, color poster printed and mounted before the entry of the gardens which will include a QR code so that visitors can download the app before entering the collections. Eventually, trail maps and visitor guides will also include this QR code for easy download.

If you don’t feel confident creating a splash page, or advertisement for your new app, then don’t worry, Como™ actually provides this for you by using a marketing genie (see sample below). However, I would encourage you to take a look at what they offer and simply use it as inspiration to get you started.

Website Marketing Examples:

Bishop Museum Mobile Tour
The Morton Arboretum Mobile Tour

 Como™ Marketing Genie Example



Overall Experience

In summary, I would say that the user-interface of the Como™ mobile app creator made the process easy. Because it is Internet-based I liked that I could see changes in real-time (with some delay). Also, since the interface is easy to maneuver through, I liked that the staff at Lyon can take over after I am done. I think the most difficult task was following the directions for how to submit the app to the various app stores as each has their own set of rules for submission. Additionally, working with a team of people with limited in-person meetings meant late additions, changes made that not everyone agreed upon and maybe even some hurt feelings or just plain confusion. Therefore, if you are planning to create a mobile app for your organization, below are a few suggestions to keep you on track.

Suggestions for Creating Your Own Mobile App

1. Know your audience. What type of information do they want? What are their expectations? If you do not know your audience well, then an Internet-based survey to members and your mailing list, and a paper survey to on-site visitors would be a good idea at this level. Also, do some research on other mobile apps which may be in the same field as your organization and get some ideas based on how they provide information to their users.

2. Plan Plan Plan. BEFORE you begin creating the app, plan. Sit down with your team regularly to plan and and decide what areas you want covered on the main navigation menu, then the sub-navigation menus. Look at examples of other apps for similar organizations and follow their lead. Think about content and also what images should be provided to supplement that content and what size they should be to fit into the areas of the app where needed. Gather the textual information, edit, edit it again and gather all related images needed and resize them based on the guidelines of the app platform. Decide what types of features you wish to use on the app and have a good reason why (is that what you want or what your user wants?). Finally, after you have decided on the content and menus, do not waver. Users will find it annoying if your navigation changes regularly and they cannot find the information they want quickly.

3. Design. The 2013 NMC Horizon Report Museum Edition talks about how uniformity of design across all media applications should be applied. For example, use the same logo in your website as you do in the mobile app. If your website is a certain shade of blue, or has a specific background, incorporate those colors and/or design into your mobile app. You don’t want to have a professionally designed website and then use photos from 10 years ago and bright pink for your mobile app because you are emotionally connected to those things. Last but not least, look at apps with high quality design standards and try to follow that standard so that your organization is represented in the best way possible. If you are not sure if you are following design standards, consult with someone who can give you good advice. For more information about upcoming technologies in museums, watch this video.

4. Do not Invest Before You Test. With limited budgets, be sure to test your item out first, before you make a commitment to purchase it. Come up with a testing phase plan and make a short-term commitment to the item. Be sure to survey users at the end of your testing phase to see if the mobile app enhanced their visitor experience, what issues they encountered and what their expectations may be for the app. This will help to determine whether or not your organization will want to move forward with a long-term commitment.

5. Archive. You are done with your app and have gone through all the trouble to plan, design, create content and gather images, now what? Save all that digital and printed information and keep an archive of the process. This will help those who come in after you to take over the project and will provide a safe place for all your content and images in case God forbid, your app is hacked, or Apple goes out of business. Be sure to migrate all digital content every 3-5 years to the updated version of software in which it was saved. If you do not need to save the functionality of the content (just textual), then save the items as as PDF or PDF/A (archival standard PDF). Whatever you do, save your process and content.