The Making of an Smart Phone App–An Interview with Michael O’Boyle

Karol: First off, tell me about your experience with application design.Also, how often is the detailed work of application design glossed over by small and mid-sized businesses aiming for what they have in their mind’s eye?

O’Boyle: First of all, I appreciate this opportunity.  Blogging and interviewing is compelling to me because I’ve learned so much from blogs and interviews myself. I believe a wealth of information is locked away in the minds of professionals who have the potential to accelerate positive change worldwide.

Tapping this resource is hard for a number of reasons. For one, traditional means like apprenticeship have been replaced by consolidate learning in universities where the professionals are professional educators and often not active professionals in the area of interest.

Secondly, and perhaps as a result, professionals are usually encouraged to focus exclusively on their profession. This leaves little time for things like apprenticeship, mentorship and blogging.

This brings me back to my intense interest in blogs and interviews – which I see as bridging the gap and connecting me with actionable professional knowledge.

 O’Boyle: You’d asked about app design. Technology and complexity share the same space in most peoples’ minds.  Karol, as example, has spent decades evolving and fine tuning their order fulfillment operations. It no doubt starts with what the client needs! The trick to effective application design, as in many professions, is determining why, before what, and how.

Determine why you need technology before you decide what kind and how it should work. For instance, you may think that what you need is an iPad app because your competition does.

By that logic, what features should it have? The same as the competition? What the competition has — plus something to make it even cooler?

What if you found out that no one actually uses your competitor’s app after the first time they download it?  What if you found out that people downloading your competitor’s app were really only interested in one thing.  (Like their current account status, or when their next appointment was — and that information was either missing from the app, or so hidden in all the other features that might as well not be there!)

The “why” is often a problem you are trying to solve.  For example, “My customers pay late because they forget when payment is due, or don’t know the amount. But they would pay if they could easily check or be reminded.”

Maybe all your app needs to do is provide customers fast access to one or two bits of information. An app like that costs a lot less and can be available much sooner. Maybe the best solution isn’t an app at all. Maybe email or sms reminders with one or two bits of info are more effective — and you don’t even need an app!

I come back often to a book my friend, Dan Noll, ( gave me about 20 years ago called The Goal, by Eli Goldratt (

More than anything else, this book taught me the value of stepping back far enough from complexity to evaluate and, if needed, correct the trajectory.

KarolI appreciate your careful response about how, why, IF an app is needed.  Just this early morning, I envisioned the clatter of apps in front of us these days. Everyone is on this band wagon, correct?

 In real terms, can you give me one or two app projects that titillated you?

O’Boyle: I’m currently working with a group of inventors who’ve created this tiny box that plugs in where your mechanic typically plugs in his computer. It’s called a Vehicle Health Monitor or VHM for short. It quietly sips information about the health and performance of your car and the safety and fuel efficiency of your driving.

The group that developed this technology is Prova Systems The VHM also cleverly deduces a bunch of additional data from the data it gathers. All of this information can be invaluable toward preventing costly repairs and identifying expensive gas guzzling driving habits.

The challenge with Big Data technologies like this is distilling the dizzying amount of data into snack sized, actionable, information. This is my favorite kind of problem to solve. “Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” I think the saying fits but the breadth and depth of Big Data precludes learning all the necessary fishing skills.

I say “Teach an app to fish” and let the “man” focus on eating and other things computers can’t do.  At Prova Systems, this meant creating a web app that would provide a central storage for all the data and a clean and simple dashboard to separate the needles from the haystack (or is it the fish from the sea?). To further simplify things, we’re also integrating email and sms notifications — so the “fish” find you.

KarolFascinating app projects. How often must you “drill down” (i.e., attempt to simplify the goals of your clients) when making an app?

Every time. If someone doesn’t see value in pausing to identify their ultimate objectives — before investing time and money in a project — then I likely don’t have the skills that they need. I really need to know and share my client’s vision so that I can make it a reality.

Karol: And, overall, where do you see apps going in the near future?

O’boyle: The apps that interest me most right now are those doing their best to disappear, or at least shrink to a size appropriate to their function. The single stripe that Any.DO adds to my Gmail, politely offering to create tasks of items in my email I might want follow up on.

The best design, like Carson the butler, is humble enough to know when to speak up and when to dissolve into the wallpaper. GPS and other sensors are helping apps that find the right moments to interject.

Google Now is a good example, anticipating the best times and places to share different kinds of information. Google Glass will take the invisible assistance to the next level with hands-free, heads-up simplicity. I really think things are just getting started.  It’s hard to imagine what this will all look like when my kids hit college. Exciting times indeed.


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Michael O’Boyle of O’Boyle + Associates runs a boutique consulting firm with practices in application design and development. Located in Scranton Pennsylvania, O’Boyle’s website is

Karol provides storage, packaging, distribution fulfillment business solutions to e-commerce, other business, non-profits, and associations for over 37 years. Email: