A close of peoples' hands as they work on mobile app designs on a board

5 Steps to Teach Mobile Application Design

Very few mobile marketing courses are offered at universities despite mobile marketing’s growth as it continues changing the way consumers interact and communicate with the world.

Marketing students are eager to adopt new digital technologies in the classroom faster than most schools can respond. So, it’s important that educators create effective learning environments where students learn marketing principles and the advanced technical requirements of the industry.

At California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, we built a digital marketing career track in our marketing department. As part of this elective option, students take courses in digital marketing, mobile marketing, social media, and digital analytics.

For these courses, I worked with a team of professors to create innovative curricula that better prepare our students for the realities of digital marketing careers. Following is insight into my mobile marketing course, with assignment guidelines describing step-by-step how students create a mobile application prototype.

Step 1: Teach the Principles of Mobile Marketing

In my mobile marketing courses, students learn about user experience (UX) and the relationship between people and organizations using mobile technology. The goal of this course is to teach how marketers can create mobile-enhanced experiences to connect people with their organizations across all traditional and digital media, devices, and networks.

For my course, we use the “Mobile Marketing Essentials” textbook, from Stukent. The textbook covers various topics, such as understanding mobile audiences, creating strategy for growth, marketing mobile applications, and profiting in the mobile future. I have used this textbook for three semesters and have been very impressed with the up-to-date materials and instructor resources. As my students learn about mobile marketing concepts, I then have them apply this knowledge to create a mobile application.

Step 2: Find a Client

To make class projects more meaningful to students, it’s best to incorporate client involvement. For one assignment, student teams created a mobile application for our client, Alumni and External Relations at Cal Poly Pomona. For this high-impact assignment, students were to build a mobile application to reach the given target group: alumni from Cal Poly Pomona.

The purpose of application was to connect with alumni, increase membership in alumni chapters, and improve engagement with the university’s alumni association. To meet these goals, the teams needed to better understand the alumni target market in order to create an app that would meet their needs.

For the assignment, students worked in teams of 4-5. Each step of the assignment — described below — was completed during class sessions. The activities each took approximately 30-60 minutes to complete. The assignment was to help students grow in empathy, creativity, critical thinking, and technology skills.

Step 3: Get Students to Think Critically

Critical thinking exercises in marketing curriculum are essential for developing students’ problem-solving skills. Incorporating design thinking, a method for practical, creative resolution of problems, allows educators to enrich team projects and enhance corresponding critical thinking skills.

My classes use the Stanford d.school model, which includes five stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. Here is how each stage was implemented in this course project:

Empathize

In this phase, teams used observation studies to understand the target market (alumni). For the empathy mapping session, students brainstormed to answer the following questions:

  • Say: What are some quotes and defining words alumni (target market) would say?
  • Do: What actions and behaviors would they do?
  • Think: What might they be thinking? What does this tell you about his or her beliefs/values/experience?
  • Feel: What emotions might they feel?

By creating empathy maps, teams gain a more thorough understanding of consumers and their needs.

Define

In this step, students are to define design problems discovered in the empathy phase. In my class, each team analyzed the empathy map and identified specific needs of alumni and then defined problems and specific areas in which they needed assistance. From this activity students can realize that understanding the target consumers’ feelings, emotions, and experiences is not only relevant but essential to solving their problems.

Teams organized these items as one specific problem category and determined that their mobile application would solve the problem.

Ideate

Next, students collaborate to design a solution to the target group’s problem. After student teams decided which specific problem on which to focus, they determined how the problem could be resolved using a mobile application.

This ideation phase is critical to design thinking. Students brainstorm a multitude of ideas in order to create a list of various innovative options. Teams leverage the collective perspectives and strengths of all team members. 

In this step, teams answer questions such as:

  •  What features should the mobile application have that would help solve the problem? (This question tries to determine how certain features will impact user experience.)
  • How should navigation of the mobile application be constructed for a user-friendly experience?
    (Effortful thinking among the group leads to members determining how the navigation of the application should help enhance user experience.)   
Prototype

Students in my class designed wireframe prototypes of the mobile applications they wished to create.

Wireframes are essentially mock-ups of what each page of the mobile application will look like, notes on what features are available on each page, and directions on how the buttons on each page will take users to other pages. Using wireframes allows groups to easily draft ideas and test possibilities.  

The teams were provided handouts of blank mobile application wireframes and given 30 minutes to work on their prototypes in class. 

Six people around a table, looking at mobile app design illustrations
A team discusses its wireframe with Melissa Riordan, executive director of Alumni and External Relations, and Jinah Young, Cal Poly Pomona mobile applications lead.
Test

In the test stage, teams seek feedback on their ideas from their target market.

In my class, students presented their wireframes to a focus group consisting of Cal Poly Pomona alumni. The teams’ interactions with focus group participants centered on testing the wireframe prototype to learn what worked and what didn’t. Prototype modifications could then be made accordingly.

Students and alumni around a table, discussing mobile app designs
A team explains its prototype wireframe to alumni.

In this step, students gave demonstrations of the mobile application and received feedback on the user experience and app features. Focus groups were asked a series of open-ended questions to allow for discussion and constructive feedback.

First, general questions were posed. 

  • “What problems are you currently having?”
  • “Does this app help to solve those problems?”


Then, questions about the participants’ perceptions of the app prototype were asked. 

  • “What do you like about the app?”
  • “What do you not like about the app and why?”
  • “What is this app missing that would be helpful?”
  • “Is the app user-friendly, or what are issues [with] navigating the app?”

    In the class before students conducted focus groups, the professor lectured on how to properly moderate the sessions. Based on feedback, the groups then modified their prototypes on new wireframes, using color to signify their changes.
People around a table discussing mobile app designs
A team discusses technical feasibility with Melissa Riordan, executive director of Alumni and External Relations, and Jinah Young, Cal Poly Pomona mobile applications lead.

Next, the teams used digital design support company Marvel to convert hand-drawn wireframes into a movable prototypes. Using Marvel’s free design tool, the teams were able to create wireframes and mockups. The templates and assets (such as buttons, layouts, and stock photos) simplified the app designs so students could create prototypes even if they didn’t have experience with coding or graphic design. 

Step 4: Present Final Prototype to Client

At the end of the semester, each team created a presentation to deliver in class to the client. The team’s presentation slides included visuals of each step, including the empathy map, wireframe, and focus group findings. The teams also gave demonstrations of their final prototypes in Marvel. The presentations discussed focus group findings and how they made modifications based on feedback. 

Five students, four of which are wearing graduation stoles, presenting their mobile app design at the front of a room
These students presented as soon-to-be-alumni, wearing their graduation stoles for their final presentation.

Step 5: Handoff to Developers

After the presentations, students delivered their app prototypes to Alumni and External Relations and the university’s mobile app development team. Developers used the class designs to create the new app, which launched in December 2019.

A man wearing a Cal Poly Pomona alumni T-shirt and holding a mobile phone that is displaying the new alumni association app.
The new alumni association app launched in December 2019.

Final Thoughts

Higher education is becoming more digitally integrated, especially with the implementation of online textbooks, but there is still a long way to go in order to serve the digital nature of today’s student population.

This assignment offers an innovative pedagogical example that supports an applied context where students learn how to solve consumer problems and are presented mobile application experiences. Students are exposed to how empathy can influence understanding of a consumer need and how critical thinking and collaboration can produce various, insightful innovations to solve problems.


Author

Dr. Kristen Schiele is an Assistant Professor in the International Business and Marketing department at Cal Poly Pomona. She teaches Digital Marketing and Mobile Marketing courses, and is the Digital Marketing Career Track Advisor. Dr. Schiele is also an Advisor for NASA-CPP Business Start-Up program, where she leads consumer testing of product prototypes, and manages mobile application design and development. Dr. Schiele received her Ph.D. in Marketing from University of California, Irvine, and is on the Board of Directors for the Marketing Educators’ Association. Her primary areas of research are Design Thinking, Digital Marketing, and Innovations in Marketing Education. Some of her recent awards include Provosts Teacher-Scholar Award, Service-Learning Faculty Fellow, Wall of COOL, and “Best Overall Civic-minded Project Award” at the Cross-Disciplinary Civic Engagement Symposium. Dr. Schiele frequently presents her research and serves as a reviewer for professional communities such as, Marketing EDGE Summit, Marketing Educators’ Association, and Southern California Consumer Culture Community (SC4). She also has over 10 years of industry experience at various companies including: The Irvine Company, Fit for Green, Susan’s Healthy Gourmet, and as a Marketing Consultant.

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