Half of all Americans own smartphones. The figure is even larger for scientists (two out of three), and larger still for life scientists at the bench: nearly seventy-five percent use mobile devices to support their lab research. The figure is staggering, particularly considering that Apple launched its app store less than five years ago. “There’s an app for that” has become a joke, a catchphrase, and a mantra, adorning T-shirts and popping up in coffee shop conversations.
The paradox—at least, so far—is that despite the overwhelming interest in smartphone use, when it comes to life science, there is not always an “app for that.” No one knows quite why. Uncertainty about platform choice? Maybe. Dearth of qualified developers? Sure. But these hurdles haven’t stopped anyone before (have you seen some of the apps out there?).
Meanwhile, users’ expectations continue to rise. Googling “is there an app for” results in more than two million hits. “I want an app for” garners more than five million. Users rely on smart phone and tablet applications for everything from music to fashion to ordering a pizza. As apps become integrated into virtually every aspect of people’s lives, people rely on them. And once they do, they don’t look back—once they purchase an app, they are loathe to delete it.
Most users are “satisficers,” meaning that when they download an app that fills a particular need, they spend little or no additional time looking for better apps. This is related to the “sticky eyeball” phenomenon—a paradoxical behavior whereby consumers adopt a digital solution for an information need, then remain with that solution despite the existence of superior alternatives. Ever know someone who drives a Toyota because they’ve always driven a Toyota? Or banks with Wells Fargo because they’ve always banked with Wells Fargo? Or won’t surrender their Hotmail account? Same idea.
This confluence of circumstance and psychology means that whoever is first to market with life science apps is likely to keep a corner on that market for a long, long time. And the market is enormous. Instead of thumb-typing detailed notes on tiny keyboards, scientists could use an app to check off steps of a predefined protocol. Instead of writing down output, emailing it out to a group, and having everyone type it into their respective notes, an app could share and consolidate output automatically among workgroups or lab teams. Instead of looking up common calculations and conversions online, scientists could—you guessed it—use an app to do it more quickly, efficiently, and accurately.
The time is picture perfect for life science app development. Scientists own smartphones, bring them to work, and are already accustomed to using apps in countless other areas of their life. It won’t be long before app use becomes de rigueur at the bench. The only question is which companies will step up to the plate first, and which apps they’ll start with.
A good app anticipates a need. A great app anticipates future needs, too. It won’t just tell you when an experiment’s finished; it will send you the results, graph them against past results, send them to everyone in your workgroup, and give you the option to reset the equipment. Why shouldn’t you be able to see snapshots of your experiment’s progress as easily as you can check the score of a baseball game?
One mistake developers make is spending too much time on things that don’t matter, and not enough time on things that do. In developing apps tailored to the life science crowd, a few factors will be especially crucial:
- Utility. This is the crux. An app can’t just be icing on the cake; it has to serve a useful core purpose in the lab, and serve it more efficiently than existing methods.
- Usability. The feel and design need to be simple, functional, and good-looking. Apple products are popular in part because of their elegant design. Deceptive simplicity is the ideal: beauty plus functionality.
- Scope. Specificity is essential; typically, it’s better to create several small apps than one big one. An app that tries to do too much is destined to flop. Instead, one that facilitates one or two sets of discrete tasks is the most useful.
- Accountability. Sure, developers need to understand an audience up front—but they also need to keep listening. Easy-to-use feedback mechanisms not only make users feel heard, but provide valuable feedback about how the app is actually being used in the wild.
There’s a plethora of other factors that seem important but are actually secondary. Many would-be developers, for example, dwell for inordinate amounts of time on which platform to target first (Apple or Android), or which device to optimize the app for (tablet, smartphone, mini-tablet, etc.). Considering this ahead of time may seem prudent, but it’s a red herring. Eventually, any great app will be available on all platforms and devices. (Angry Birds, after all, didn’t stay confined to the iPhone for long.) The question is where to start. And in the current, wide-open market for life science apps, any starting point is a smart starting point.
At this point, the question isn’t whether apps will “catch on” or “become relevant” at the bench. Life science apps will be every bit as ubiquitous in lab work as Pandora is in listening to music and Yelp is in finding a restaurant.
The natural merger of life science research with mobile apps has never been more evident, nor more imminent. Right now, lab scientists Google basic conversions, open a calculator app to do the math, then use a separate notebook app to record results. They spend time driving to and from the lab on weekends to ensure that their multi-day experiments are still running. Given the state of technology, these inefficiencies are absurd—and they’re ripe to be erased. It’s an exciting time to be in the life sciences, and the impending impact of mobile apps is only going to make it more so.