Now is the Time for Real-time
Solitary, single-user experiences referred to as 'static apps' still represent the bulk of our online and mobile usage. In these apps content changes only when the user clicks a button, requests a new page, or does a “reload.” New information is presented only when the user asks for it.
But now more and more mobile apps are becoming connected to artificial intelligence systems and business analytics systems that are using real-time and historical data to anticipate and predict user needs. In order for artificial and context aware systems to work in real-time environments, they must be connected to real-time data. In addition, this data must be analyzed by a system fast enough to support the operational tempo required by the users.
Real-time technology has always been complicated and expensive. But that’s changing. Until recently, real-time was an expensive proposition, roughly analogous to keeping a connected phone line open to all of your users, all the time. Thanks to the elasticity of the cloud and some innovative technologies, the costs of these dedicated connections has now dropped substantially. Live data feeds that used to cost mobile developers tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars are now just thousands of dollars.
However, real-time apps still cost more to develop. In a post written by John Rainey about How Much Will my Mobile App Cost to Create? John mentions that a simple static app will cost between $8,000 and $20,000 to create, while dynamic apps average $12,000 to $30,000 and up (per platform) to make. So why the large difference?
A lot has to do with the web services, and needing to connect to a database to pull in information. This provides a new set of challenges for developers to not only access the data, but to also try and pull in that data without "breaking the bank" so to speak on the size of data. Imagine having to pull in images on your phone that are each 5 MB in size, pulling one might not be so bad, but having to do that over and over again can really slow down your app, which provides a lesser user experience. High quality apps want to be fast, provide accurate information, and allow your users to quickly interact with them.
The more times you need to access a remote server, the more planning and set-up is involved, testing, and configuration as well. Though with all of this planning often comes a much better mobile app that provides your users with something they will want to return to over and over again.
Transportation is one of the earliest areas where we can see real-time technology changing our day-to-day behaviors. I was recently in London and Rome, and in both cities used Uber, generally hailing a cab within 5 minutes wherever I was. The price was affordable, the drivers courteous and competent, and the vehicle quality exceptional. The app had it's quirks, like if I hailed a cab from my hotel room in the middle of the building, the cab might show up on the street behind me, not by the front door. But that is where user experience designers can help, by guiding users to understand technology limitations, and provide prompts and assists to help users work with the system to handle it more reliably. In this case with my Uber experience, the app could prompt me with this message: "If you are calling for a driver, where possible please stand on the side of the road".
Things get really exciting when apps are designed around the “audience experience”, instead of the “user experience.” In this regard a growing area of real-time mobile app technology is sports, and it's an area that I have spent the last year deeply immersed in.
In the new live event sport prediction app I designed, we relied on real-time data collected on the field that was served up to mobile devices about as fast as the live TV broadcast is delivered - around 7 seconds. This speed of data delivery allowed for a second screen experience for TV viewers, as well as being fast enough for games like soccer for the spectator in the stadium. In soccer the spectator has such scant access to on-field data that the additional data coming via the app adds great benefit to their onsite experience. One benefit the mobile app has over the TV broadcast, is that it is able to aggregate social user activity into the experience, uniting the event viewership in new and exciting ways - via chats, news feeds and messages.
One of the challenges with real-time apps is the reliability of the incoming data, as it is 'raw' and can suffer from glitches that might occur in user bandwidth, Internet connectivity and similar feed issues. When designing apps with real-time feeds, it is important for the user interface to provide fallbacks when the live feed has temporary issues. UX Designers need to architect various assists and in-app helper systems to 'rescue' the user experience if the real-time data is slow to arrive, or if the data fails temporarily.
One of the biggest untapped areas for real-time apps is live audience participation to affect the actual outcome of the event. This has been demonstrated already with popular shows like American Idol where the audience is permitted to vote with their phone. But this category is growing to involve live event participation at concerts, political events and motor races. The larger the crowd, the greater the potential for monetization and therefore development capability to author more complete experiences. More and more event data providers will be providing real-time data at more affordable rates, and app developers need to take advantage of the new services to enhance their in-app experience.
Realtime functionality is definitely where mobile is headed. Users are increasingly coming to expect their mobile applications to be realtime. But with those apps comes a number of considerations, including power, CPU, and bandwidth consumption, as well as security and unreliable networking. A reliable, globally scaled data stream network is the best way to connect mobile devices, and will continue to grow the mobile and Internet of Things space. As the real-time data providers become more cost-effective, you can expect this mobile app category to grow, and more and more engaging mobile products to emerge.