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What a Clinician Needs To Know To Build An App

Think you have an innovative tech idea and want to roll it out as quickly as possible? Clinicians are utilizing all sorts of technical tools every day when providing care, and no doubt many are constantly noticing gaps and dreaming up new solutions they’d like to use. If you wish there were a mobile app or web service to solve some problem, there has never been an easier time to rapidly build and deploy such a solution thanks to cutting-edge software development tools which are facilitating an information technology boom in healthcare. Ask yourself hard questions such as whether providers and patients would enthusiastically embrace your solution. If you’re pretty sure the answer is still yes, then it’s time to move forward.

So what do you need to get started? A capable coder with a proven track record. I once sat down with a nephrologist who had taught himself to write the code for some demo apps. Kudos to you if you’re motivated enough to pick up enough coding skills to build a prototype, but most clinicians should not be competing with professional software developers and if your idea is truly worth pursuing, you’ll try to find the best person to help you execute your vision. Whether you need a freelancer for a month or two or you’re hunting for a full-time CTO (chief technology officer) for your new tech company, make sure to ask around for someone dependable. Otherwise you may end up spending money for a project that’s poorly executed or never finished. Verify they have built something similar. Collaboration tools make it easier than ever to hire a remote programmer, but the money you save by hiring someone on the other side of the planet may be eaten up by poor communication so finding someone local is ideal. And if you can’t afford the top talent in town, he or she can probably refer you to other competent people.


Next up, UI and UX. If your project requires a UI (user interface) which your users will be viewing and clicking or tapping, you will probably want to find someone who can make it pretty and ensure that best practices are driving the UX (user experience). Most developers are not designers, and you’re probably no Rembrandt either, so try to avoid getting stuck on insisting the final rendition look the way you first imagined it. Even though your industry insight is important for helping your technical team understand how the app should work, experienced designers and developers should point out to you where the look and feel and behavior should be tweaked to conform to UI and UX best practices. There’s nothing worse than a brilliant idea fleshed out in such an ugly way that no one wants to use it!

Software developers like to talk about architecture. We consider elements such as the colors you see, the buttons you push and the text you read to be the front end of the application. The back end is where most of the brains should be. Let’s say your users can interact with your online service through their iPhones, iPads and desktop computers. Perhaps they’re performing a search and paging through results. Your designer may have to adjust aspect of the layout such as the widths and heights for each of the screen resolutions of those various devices. In a properly architected application, you must make changes to the front end to account for that, but the back end would require no code changes. Likewise, the front end of your application will hopefully need no edits just to tweak the logic of the search since that will be contained in the back end. Without following best practices such as this, the application will be harder to maintain over time. This is yet another reason to avoid cutting corners at the beginning by hiring a cheap programmer whose work may lead to greater costs in the long run.

eNgage diagraph

Diagram by Carl Dahlberg, MD, Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Speaking of costs, what kind of budget is reasonable? A common rule of thumb for iPhone apps is $10,000 minimum. That’s for the simplest app you have ever downloaded onto your phone. Anything more involved will only go up from there, and don’t forget that once your solution is built and released to the world, ongoing maintenance will be needed. If it’s a mobile app you want to run on both iOS and Android, there are tools such as Trigger.io and PhoneGap which make it easier to write the code once and run it on both, but regardless there will be some overhead when deploying to multiple platforms. If your solution involves a web service, then you must pay for the servers which are running that code. There are some platforms such as Heroku and Google App Engine which allow you to start out for free, but these days there are plenty of low-cost options and your CTO will be the best person to determine the right fit for your needs.

How much time will it take? I can’t tell you that without hearing your business case, but the one thing I will tell you is to pare down the requirements to the minimum amount needed for your users to get value out of your solution so that you can test its viability as soon as possible. If you can get up and running with only 10 percent of the features on your wish list, then do that and add the rest later! If customers are willing to pay for a barebones version, fund the future enhancements with your initial revenue. If it’s going to end in failure, it would be better to find out after a couple months rather than a year of work.

Joe Kvedars iPhone

This is just the beginning of your journey, and you’ll need plenty of help along the way. There are numerous resources online and you should do plenty of research yourself, but also make sure to run your idea by other people experienced in healthcare and technology. Encourage them to challenge your assumptions and look for holes in your proposal. Don’t let personal pride or fear impede your success. As much as you may be wary of competitors stealing your idea, in most cases a lot more will depend on the actual execution of the idea. Keeping so secretive that you don’t obtain the advice you need actually puts you at greater risk of failure. Choose your team wisely and be sure to appreciate their efforts to bring your dream to life!

Written by guest blogger, Stephen Huey. Stephen can be contacted at stephenhuey@gmail.com, www.linkedin.com/in/stephenhuey, and @stephenhuey.

Stephen Huey is a senior software developer at HealthPost in Houston.  He grew up in Nigeria, studied computer science at Rice University, and has over a decade of experience in various industries such as energy and investment banking, but he’s now having more fun than ever dreaming up solutions in the world of healthcare.
friendly headshot of stephen huey

HealthPost is a global search and booking platform that is reinventing access to healthcare across the broader ecosystem. HealthPost delivers choice, convenience and control to patients, while making healthcare delivery more productive, efficient and coordinated for physician groups, hospital systems, ACOs and health plans. HealthPost’s innovative products are deployed around the country and at several of the top ten hospital systems.  HealthPost has partnerships with innovative companies such as Tea Leaves Health, Vitals, Healthgrades, and Athena.

Stephen Huey

Stephen Huey

    Stephen Huey is a senior software developer at HealthPost in Houston. He grew up in Nigeria, studied computer science at Rice University, and has over a decade of experience in various industries such as energy and investment banking, but he’s now having more fun than ever dreaming up solutions in the world of healthcare. Stephen can be contacted at stephenhuey@gmail.com.

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    1. Nathan Cowan Nathan Cowan says:

      Great blog post. I worked with Stephen Huey and JP Morgan and we keep in touch from time to time. I enjoyed reading it and is a good primer on what to expect when you are expecting to build a mobile app. The hardest time I’ve had is finding a great designer to help with my app on the UX and UI in general. If you know of any, please pass them my way. I’m nearly complete with my iOS app and need to find someone to make it look nice.

      One thing I’d note that has been an indispensable tool is a free service called Test Flight App. I’ve used it for my own development and on my consulting engagements. If you are hiring a mobile developer, ask them to use this tool. It always for seamless distribution of your app during beta testing. When a new update is available, it will notify all the beta testers and they can get the new version quickly, easily and without having to plug in your phone or tablet into iTunes. Not sure if it works with Android as I’m just an iOS developer. This is one the best ways to connect end users and developers. Also, it has logging and session management so the developer can see what triggered an exception if there is a problem.

      Enjoyed the post.

      -Nathan Cowan

    2. Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for the comment. Stephen Huey is great, right? Such an energetic, supportive, and caring person–really a great representation of the Rice University product! Thank you so much for your insights into the product development process. We look forward to hearing more from you.

      Jen Joe

    3. Nathan Cowan Nathan Cowan says:

      Stephen was definitely fun to work with and hope to get to collaborate on something with him in the future! Rice is such a small community, always great to see and hear what others are doing.

      One other tool I wanted to recommend is an iPhone app called “Prototype on Paper.” This is fantastic for prototyping mobile apps. The thing I like about it is that it requires absolutely no technical knowledge and you get what looks like a running application that runs inside your iPhone. What you do is basically draw out your storyboard and screens the old fashioned way – with pen and paper. Then you take photos of each drawn screen. After you do that, you then “link” up the screens within the app. For instance, if you drew a button that shows a particular screen, in the app you’d mark a “hot” area over the drawn button which you point to the next screen. After your done, it actually runs like an app within the phone, you can click around on it and you can quickly see if what you’ve mocked up makes sense. And of course you can share it with potential users to see if its on the right path, then pass to the developer who can then code it up. Check the app out, its great for mocking up apps quickly and sharing your vision with others.

    4. Keynote/Keynotopia is the best prototyping tool for apps that there is, and you need zero technical skills to use it. You can build a full clickable prototype and even run it on your iOS device as if it were an actual app.

      iOS and Android development have a steep learning curve, and if you have no programming experience, it will take a very long time to get to the point where you’re competent enough to build a decent app. One place to start though if you’ve done some coding is with Stanford’s iOS development courses on iTunes U. Also, it’s important to work on a real project rather than just learning/reading, so force yourself to do the exercises. Otherwise you’ll gain a bunch of theoretical knowledge, but find yourself stuck when you try to build an actual app.

    5. Hi Nick,

      Great, thank you for the insight. We love that you are following our blog and look forward to hearing more from you!

      Jen Joe

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