What Businesses Can Learn from the Iowa 2020 App Disaster?

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Feb 2020
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Author : Pete Peranzo
Iowa 2020 App Mistakes

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Have you wondered what’s currently causing chaos in Iowa’s tech arena? You guessed it—a poorly built Iowa Caucus 2020 app that failed miserably!

Well, to be honest, not all apps are a massive success. There are several factors that affect the success or failure of an app.

But the bright side is that with every flop app there are valuable lessons to learn from the app development mistakes.

The Iowa Caucus 2020 App disaster is the talk of the town. It is at the center of scrutiny, with several tech-and-security experts ripping the app apart and examining to find out what went wrong.

As appreneurs, if you don’t learn from the aftermath of a busted and hackable app failure, then you wouldn’t know if you are making the same mistakes.

And, sometimes it can get worse.

In this blog, we will dive into what appreneurs can learn from the Iowa 2020 app disaster.

The Iowa 2020 App—The Background Story and Vital Facts

Let’s take a closer look at the Iowa caucus system. The Iowa caucus is quite unlike a ballot system. So, democrats show up at designated churches, gyms, mosques, and other such locations throughout the state to cast their votes to show their support for their preferred candidate.

The voting typically has two rounds. In the first round of voting, each candidate must secure 15% of votes to be eligible for the next round.

What happens if a candidate is not qualified after the first round? Then, people can join another group. Alternatively, they can try to convince others from other groups who are non-eligible to join their side.

The Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) plan was simple—to have an app that could facilitate counting support for candidates and report back via an app. Several precincts had to enter the results of these rounds into a new mobile app that was designed explicitly for the caucuses.

So who developed this app? 

Shadow (Shadow, Inc.), a Washington DC-based company headed by CEO Gerard Niemira, developed the app. Experts also disclosed that Shadow received two installments totaling $63,000 for web development and travel. Sounds a lot? No, it isn’t!

Just to give you a glimpse, when Microsoft bankrolled a similar effort for the 2016 Iowa caucuses, the developing company billed closer to a million dollars. And we’ll also deliberate on the mobile app development cost aspect in the later section.

If the IDP plan was simple, then what was the issue? 

On the night of the vote, the app broke, which meant the precincts were suddenly sending back totals through a clogged phone line, and in some cases texting pictures of the caucus worksheet. Because of the incomplete results, it took days to nail down who had won.

The problem was with the code in the mobile phone app that precincts used to report results.

Nearly 48 hours after the caucuses began, while the app was recording data accurately, it was found reporting out only partial results. The issue was analyzed as a coding issue in the reporting system, even though Shadow reported that it had already corrected the underlying technology issue.

Apps fail all the time, and it’s unfortunate to make it to the headline story. The Iowa Democratic caucus app failure has been unprecedented and has received the collective attention of the tech world.

The reasons for mobile app failure can help to avoid finger-pointing exercises and understand the heart of the problem. Putting politics and conspiracy theories aside, it is inevitable to find the exact reasons for the app crash. Was it a clunky design? Was it the cost question?

Let’s dive in to find out what went wrong with the app.

The Iowa 2020 App—Things that Went Wrong

Let’s look at things that went wrong. You can use this as a quick guide for not making the same mistakes, especially when developing a mission-critical app.

1. Late Project Initiation

The developer of the app, Shadow, was contracted to work on developing the app just two months before the Iowa caucus date.

It’s quite a no-brainer that developing a complicated app for two different mobile platforms in a few weeks is a recipe for disaster.

The developing company probably misjudged the difficulty of developing the app, and that’s where it all started wrong with cascading effects later.

2. Lack of In-depth Vendor Research

So, why was Shadow contracted to develop the app? Shadow as democrats worked as a qualifier. However, Shadow had app development only in areas such as text messaging and voter outreach.

Many experts believe that IDP should have chosen a development team with more expertise. They could have also outsourced development to developers in Argentina or Brazil.

3. Failure to Test the App

Testing an app is an essential step in the app development life cycle, so considering that testing isn’t necessary is quite disastrous. The Department of Homeland Security and others offered to perform testing, which the contracting company declined.

It was clear that hackers could easily hack the app, and that testing wasn’t at the heart of the app launch. The developers also didn’t test the app publicly or even get it audited.

4. Failure to Train Users

Many believe that with user training, quite a few of the app problems would have surfaced earlier during the training, which the developers could have fixed.

Many users saw the app on the morning of the caucuses. Training and technology experts agree that not training people during a technology transition is almost always a fatal and expensive error.

5. App Not Submitted to the App Stores

Many users were unable to install the apps.

Why?

The developers of the Iowa 2020 app didn’t submit the app to the typical players, such as the Apple App Store or Google Play, so the precinct managers had to side-load the Android app. As side-loading isn’t possible for iOS, jail-breaking the iPhones was the solution.

So how did the Iowa Democrats download the smartphone app?

The caucus officials got a link that could help download the app. However, experts believe that the site had low security and was vulnerable to tampering.

6. Installation Issues

The app installation was confusing with the new process, which involved going to a website and entering a security code.

The app needed the user to grant it special permission to run, which users could find in the phone’s settings. The process was not only confusing but also not user-friendly.

7. Usability Issues

One would expect that after the installation of the app, it would work intuitively. However, users had to log in with a PIN.

Experts reported that there might have been a test PIN and a final PIN offered for users. From a usability point of view, it wasn’t a seamless user experience.

8. Delay in Security Patch Installation

The reporting app had a security patch installed less than 48 hours before the first contest.

Many believe that it could be the reason for the mismatch between the app’s coding and the state party’s computerized verification system, which led to omissions in the results.

9. Poorly Written Instructions

The instructions that were provided to users to help them troubleshoot problems were poorly written and hard to follow.

10. Shoestring Budget

Shadow built the app over two months for around $63,000. Especially when you’re making iOS and Android apps with a whole database, you’d feel underfunded.

With so many glitches, it’s no wonder that the Iowa 2020 app has become a case study where we can all learn.

Project Cost Calculator

The Iowa App 2016 vs. 2020—an Interesting Comparison

The 2020 Iowa app is a disastrous tech story. However, mobile apps have been used before for caucuses, and in 2016 the Iowa caucus mobile app worked just fine. Let’s look at a quick comparison.

Table 1. A Quick Comparison of the Iowa 2016 and 2020 Mobile Apps for Caucuses

Facet2016 Mobile App2020 Mobile App
The contracted company namePartnered with Microsoft, and contracted with InterKnowlogyShadow, Inc.
Developer company’s app development experienceTwo decades with a track record of success with primetime apps, and worked with MicrosoftRelatively new
Developer company’s resources at handMore resourcesLesser resources
Time to develop the appAbout a year of lead timeThree months
App development approachThe first three months were spent on product design, meeting with parties, and usability studies to anticipate the users’ needsDevelopers had no longer than two months to build its app
Testing the appInterKnowlogy’s engineers had time to build and test the app properly. The team took into account that chairs had little experience with apps.Lack of apt training
Availability in app storesAvailable in Apple’s and Google’s app storesNot available in Apple’s or Google’s app stores. Users had to download through a different channel.
Phone systemAn automated phone system that precinct chairs could use to call in the results if they didn’t want to use the appPhone system relied on human operators, who weren’t enough to handle the call load
BudgetEstimated that engineers’ salaries alone would have been between $1 million and $1.5 million$63,000

Source

In short, the Iowa 2016 caucus app worked successfully, and the Iowa 2020 app created chaos and has been a nightmare experience.

The 2020 app development company lacked on all counts—such as time, funding, and expertise. Unfortunately, the app failed, but the lessons as take-backs are necessary.

The Iowa App 2020—Lessons Learnt

Let’s quickly look at the lessons from the app failure.

1. Keep the App Idea Simple and Avoid Unnecessary Complexities

The caucus app was quite complicated right from downloading through a different channel, two-factor authentication, and a precinct PIN. The app would’ve worked wonders with features, such as zero sign-on, frictionless secure authentication, and eliminating passwords.

Developers can be innovative so that the user can have a seamless experience. Many experts believe that the Iowa 2020 app developers should have thoroughly tested the app.

A shortcut can cost in the long run. So remember to keep sufficient time to run automated tests and manual tests to ensure that your mobile app is of the highest possible quality.

2. QA and User Testing

With the new app, many users had used it the first time on the day of casting their votes. Developers could have avoided the problem at the testing and QA phase of the app development life cycle.

If there were apt user training scheduled, then users would have been better aware of how to download the app, how to install, and how to use the app.

The added advantage would have been that if there were any glitches, then it could have been fixed early on, and not during real-time high-traffic hours.

Testing, QA, and user training can save you embarrassment and also reduce pain points early on. So remember to incorporate testing at all levels: Unit testing, functional testing, integration testing, security testing, end-to-end testing, performance, and scalability testing.

It is also logical that even after running tests at all levels, you may not be able to make your app bullet-proof, but it can save you from a lot of damage.

3. Time Budgeting

It’s quite loud and clear that Shadow bought in less time to develop the app. It should’ve ideally taken anything between six to nine months to build, and not two months.

It’s significant to budget time for the development, including a reasonable time for each phase of the app development life cycle. Operating at high risks isn’t necessary, and that extra time always helps in blending an excellent user experience.

4. Hiring Apt Developers

The new app had coding issues. Experts reported that the app code looked like the coders had followed a tutorial, with someone googling things like how to add authentication to React Native App.

The app was quite hackable. It is best to understand the complexity of the project on hand and hire developers as resources to work on the app. Lack of app development experience can make things worse.

Apps indeed fail all the time, and bad launches aren’t exclusive to government software. Let’s just quickly run through some of the biggest flops in the mobile app industry.

Project Cost Calculator

Failed Apps in the History—A Sneak Peek

Typically the app market competition is quite high, and apps fail, and failure can get lost in the noise.

However, some of the most significant losses serve as examples of what not to do. Let’s quickly have a sneak peek at some app failures.

1. Snapchat’s redesign failure in 2017 is an excellent example. While the goal was to make the app more comfortable to use, it worked quite the opposite.

2. Amazon’s app crashed on Black Friday in 2018.

3. Everpix had a pretty unique idea and had over 55,000 active users in 2012. However, Everpix spent too much on the product and little on growth and distribution.

4. Auctionata tried to broadcast live events but failed on counts of slow broadband speeds, terrible customer service, online payment problems, and more.

5. Yik Yak, an anonymous messaging app for college students, allowed safe communication. However, schools and universities began to ban as the app was easily abused with unknown treats using the app.

With proper planning and preparation, you can overcome most obstacles in making a successful app. The key is to follow some industry best practices. What are some of the best practices? Let’s find out.

Best Practices for Mobile App Development

Successful apps have some robust winnable elements in place. Here are some simple value propositions and industry best practices that can help you succeed:

mobile app development best practices

1. Right people

It starts with having the right visionaries, who can decide which projects to take up, and which to defer or even reject.

As Kevin Rose, who co-founded Digg, says, “Don’t let others convince you that the idea is good when your gut tells you it’s bad.”

In short, it’s the visionaries in your firm who can see through the project realities and take a wise call on taking it up and then shaping up the project towards success.

With the right visionary, managerial, technical, and creative resources on board, you will find creating app an enjoyable experience, leading to happier users.

2. Proper funding

Did we talk of $63,000 for the Iowa 2020 app as too little?

The right financing can help you get your right resources, and the investments can help take care of each phase of the app development life cycle. The best part—you’d not be operating on a shoestring budget, at least for complex and riskier projects.

3. Right planning

A good plan, no doubt, is like half a battle won.

So, developing a mobile app is examining and analyzing every angle of the project on hand, studying the user portfolio, and the competitors and coming up with a unique and straightforward app idea that works.

4. Right execution

A good plan—is half the job; the other is excellent execution. Placing the right efforts to produce a working app with a good UX can spell success.

5. Proper App Store Optimization (ASO)

It’s also necessary that you advertise for your app.

All the right moves come with practical wisdom and the will to challenge and spend time and money in reinventing the processes and find ways to make an app workable.

The Co-founder of Appster, Josiah Humphrey, says aptly, “I can name dozens of failures that we had over the years. Yet, with all these failures, we still managed to build Appster into one of the largest, and best companies in our industry. So, remember every time you fail, remind yourself these words: ‘Life won’t always go my way, but I will always find a way.'”

Creating a successful app is hard work! However, success is sweet, and that’s what you would wish for as an appreneur.

Build a Secure, Robust Mobile App with Imaginovation

Are you wondering how to build a robust mobile app featured with the industry’s best practices? Get in touch with us.

We are an award-winning web and mobile app development agency with a vast experience of developing secure mobile applications for startups to Fortune 500 companies.

We have helped many businesses and individual entrepreneurs turn their app ideas into a digital reality. Let’s talk.

 

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