Every year, we bring our community of developers, customers, and partners together at our annual conference, NextStep. In 2020, we were planning three events to serve different geographies and time zones, including Asia, America, and Europe and the Middle East. But as a “new normal” started to evolve, we had to move our event to the virtual arena. This blog post tells the story of how we changed our event’s mobile app in record time to serve the new format.
Do you know how at the end of the year, everyone does those word clouds with the most frequent and important words of the past 12 months? Aside from the obvious ones like “COVID-19”, “pandemic”, “new normal”, there’s one a bit more optimistic I’m sure we’ll also find at the end of 2020: “adaptability”.
Business strategist Jarret Jackson describes adaptability as:
“(...)Both an attitude and a capability: It’s thinking differently about problems so that there are always opportunities over obstacles.”
I couldn’t agree more. We are living extraordinary times where changes that were slowly happening in some of the most forefront companies, like digital-first customer interactions and remote work, have become crucial for business survival almost overnight. Today, ingenuity and adaptability are key factors to the future of organizations.
And we, at OutSystems, are no exception. Like every organization that had big plans for 2020, we were planning the biggest NextStep ever, designed for our community of developers, customers, partners, and those who just want to learn more about the upcoming technology trends.
Knowing that it would be impossible to ensure our guests’ safety, we decided to take this challenge as an opportunity to be truly universal and reach people that wouldn’t otherwise be able to join us due to geographical or work incompatibilities. And so this year, we decided NextStep will be virtual and free for everyone.
NextStep App: A Real-Life OutSystems Use Case
Once we had that solved, it was time to get to work. But there was still one question pending.
As a technology company, NextStep is the perfect moment to showcase our platform’s potential with a mobile app 100 percent made in OutSystems. The NextStep app was originally introduced in 2017—you can read the story behind it, and all the technical development details in this blog post —, and every year, we iterate and improve it based on the users’ feedback.
But this is an atypical year. The event is already taking place in a digital space, which sparked a lot of uncertainty and discussions around whether it made sense to have an event app. On the one hand, we don’t want to miss the opportunity of showcasing the power of OutSystems, and give a chance to those who are still exploring the platform to interact with an end-product. On the other hand, we don’t want to drive people away from the first screen where the main event and the sessions are happening.
Given that we are already losing the networking and experience sharing that are a part of any physical event, we concluded that the app could be the bridge to close that gap. This way, we can take the NextStep digital experience to the next level by boosting an environment of networking even though the participants are not in the same physical space.
We needed to be careful, though. The second screen—the app—shouldn’t replace the first one but simply complement it. So, we needed to be very clear about the different user’s journey on screen one and screen two.
From Ideation to Delivery
The end-goal of the second screen is to support the first screen. How could we do that?
The first step we took was to bring everyone involved in the project together for a brainstorming session. This session included the stakeholders (i.e., the team organizing the event), the mobile and front-end developers, the designer, and the product owner of the project—me.
A lot of great ideas came out of this session. Given that we only had four months to do the full revamp of the NextStep app, we immediately identified what made sense based on the type of event we were hosting, and what didn’t.
Here are the top five features what we came up with:
- Authentication: the app needed to be synchronized with the ticketing system and platform hosting the event so that the app works as an extension of the first screen.
- Agenda and “My Agenda”: just like in previous years, the app should give the attendees the ability to visualize the agenda and “save” the ones they’d like to watch.
- Chat: in a time where everyone is facing a common challenge, we want to provide our attendees a space to interact with the sessions and speakers, and network with their peers. To do so, we incorporated a versatile chat that attendees can use to have discussions in groups with their peers in specific “rooms”, to comment on sessions, and to schedule meetings with our sponsors and OutSystems experts.
- Rating: to collect the participants’ feedback on the sessions, we added a “rating” feature. This feature also allows us to add a gamification experience, where attendees who rate the most sessions receive an award (spoiler alert: start building a wishlist on Amazon).
- Feed: we also need a way to communicate with the attendees, to provide additional information and notify them whenever a session is about to start. Given the smartphone's portability, it was clear this feature needed to be in the app and not on the first screen.
Besides all this, we also needed to update the app's branding, since the whole look and feel of the NextStep brand had also changed.
Bringing It All Together in Record Time
We officially started the revamp of the app in May. The team included:
- A part-time tech lead;
- A part-time front-end developer;
- A full-time mobile developer;
- A part-time designer.
Although we had a small team, we were able to deliver the new app in just four months. A few things were crucial to making it happen:
1. Planning and Alignment
From the very first day we started the project, we defined we were going to work in two-weeks sprints. Meaning, that every two weeks, we’d gather the development team and the business stakeholders to show what had been done so far.
This way, throughout the project, we had frequent checkpoints to ensure the project met the business stakeholders' vision and to make trade-offs between business and development if necessary.
In addition to that, the development team also felt more confident with the work they were doing, because they had almost immediate validation from the stakeholders. If there was something the business didn’t agree with, the development and design teams could quickly fix it.
You can learn more about how to set up a team to deliver your first OutSystems project in our Talent Playbook.
2. Reusability and Forge Components
Applications built with OutSystems allow us to share and reuse code at all application layers: UI, business logic, and database. This way, the mobile developer doesn’t have to develop everything from scratch; he could simply build something once and then replicate it throughout the app.
A good example of that was the chat. OutSystems provides a repository of reusable, open code modules, connectors, UI components, and business solutions, the Forge, that are built and maintained by the OutSystems Developer Community. For the NextStep app, instead of developing a chat from zero, the mobile developer used the chat room component available on the Forge, and adapted it to the logic of the app, accelerating the development process and helping us meet our tight deadline.
3. UI and UX
Many people have the idea that designers and front-end developers are limited by the pre-built blocks provided by OutSystems UI, which is not true. Because the NextStep brand changed to a more modern and simple look and feel, we had to adapt the app to reflect this new branding. So, we needed to go beyond OutSystems’ out-of-the-box themes.
All the new assets were created by the designer and then developed by the front-end developer who had no trouble incorporating them into the app.
Also, OutSystems has built-in mobile capabilities to make your apps responsive to any operating system, and any mobile screen size, saving us a lot of time in building different versions of the app.
4. Testing, Testing, Testing
Besides our biweekly status meetings with the business stakeholders, we also included user testing groups in the development phases. This way, we were able to catch bugs and improve the user experience while developing the app.
Getting Ready for a Changing World
As the “new normal” continues to unravel, companies need to be ready to adapt to their business needs faster than ever. To learn how your peers and leading companies are dealing with the challenges of 2020, join us at NextStep 2020 on September 15-16.
No matter if you’re a developer, an IT architect, a strategic IT leader, we are waiting for you. Come learn how the future of modern application development looks like.
Hope to see you there!