TRULY Rapid (Mobile Apps) Prototyping with StackMob and Tiggr

The post originally appeared on StackMob blog: http://www.stackmob.com/2011/11/truly-rapid-prototyping-with-stackmob-and-tiggr/

The blog post is written by Crawford Comeaux an independent mobile app developer that recently participated in Startup Weekend down in Baton Rouge, LA and ended up winning. This post is about how he used StackMob and Tiggr to quickly build a web app prototype during the Startup Weekend event. His app is called AudienceAmp and he needs your help to win Global Startup Battle. Please vote here if you like his idea. Here is his story.

I love Startup Weekends! They provide me a chance to easily find like-minded people looking to make their ideas a reality and they’re nothing but fun. Grueling, exciting, stressful fun. On any given weekend, there’s likely at least one going on somewhere in the world. I’ve been to four of them, successfully pitched one of two ideas at each and my teams have placed three times. These things are like crack for wannabe entrepreneurs with ADHD…or at least for THIS wannabe entrepreneur with ADHD! If you are not familiar with the program, you can find out more here.

I participated in my fourth Startup Weekend from November 11-13 in Baton Rouge, LA. I went in determined to win, since winners of Startup Weekends going down on that weekend & the next were eligible to enter into the Global Startup Battle. The winner of the battle is chosen via online voting and there can only be one. The prize up for grabs has the potential to launch the winning startup. So yeah…I wanted that chance, but first I had to win locally.

Most people go into Startup Weekends with just an idea. There’s no preparation done ahead of time. Me, I’m not going into battle without a plan. I wanted to be able to focus primarily on the prototype for the weekend, since the rest of the work had been pretty much addressed at SW Dallas a few months earlier. We built a prototype in Dallas, but the concept for the app had expanded a bit since then and I wanted to start from scratch. I couldn’t count on developers being available, so that meant it’d likely just be myself and a buddy of mine who’s recently developed an interest in interface design. Since the product is a set of mobile apps and we wanted to present with a live demo that others could participate in, that meant it had to be a mobile web app. And we had 54 hours…so we needed development platforms that 1) a non-coder could use 2) produced mobile web apps 2) allowed for “rapid prototyping” (slamming out quick, successive versions of a product)

There are different platforms/libraries/toolkits/etc that are recommended for “rapid prototyping,” but almost all of them define “rapid” from a non-Startup-Weekender-with-short-a-attention-span perspective. Most of the options available have a bit of a learning curve before you can quickly do whatever you want to do, especially if you’re not a coder. And even with simple docs, coding introduces potential fat-finger syndrome. I’m sorry, but a platform that allows for typo-generated errors or bugs doesn’t fit my definition of “rapid.” There are tools for preventing issues or at least detecting their origins, but the tools aren’t perfect and I want to minimize the amount of time I have to spend fixing glitches.

Thus, I went on the hunt for robust, but ridiculously simple solutions. I knew about PhoneGap Build, but wanted to see if there was something beyond that for building the frontend. What I found was Tiggr, a web-based app builder that supports mobile web app development via jQuery Mobile and has a simple drag-and-drop interface builder that let me set properties/events. Not only can projects be exported to your choice of HTML5/CSS/javascript or native Android/iOS projects, but it’s also collaborative!

Front end platform? Check! Time to move on to the backend. I’d read about StackMob on TechCrunch recently & knew about Cocoafish after meeting some of their devs at SW San Francisco in May. After doing a little digging, I found a couple more services: Kinvey and Parse. I signed up for beta invites to each & managed to convince all but Kinvey to grant me one (I still haven’t received a confirmation email from them, but they seem VERY new).

When I evaluated the features of each service, I kept an eye out for features that would be useful beyond prototyping. After reviewing the features offered by each, I eventually settled on StackMob for a few reasons. With StackMob, I can set which fields are indexed, as well as which fields in an object are related to fields in other objects. Being able to get expanded object data through relationships will save us the hassle of making multiple calls for a single screen’s data. On top of that, being able to build custom objects was really important. Parse allows for custom objects, that’s it. Cocoafish didn’t support custom objects until a few days ago, so that wouldn’t work for us, either. StackMob was the simplest option.

Building the data model in StackMob took about 15 minutes! Even if you add to that the 5 minutes I spent begging them for a beta invite, that’s still a server-side setup personal best!

I skipped right over the process of setting up a database server and went right into setting up my database tables! Sure, you may have a way to streamline/ease that initial process, but I didn’t even have to bother with it!

There’s one more feature I’d like to mention that StackMob & Tiggr actually share: responsiveness. The day of the presentation, I started connecting the UI to the backend and ran into a snag: I couldn’t figure out how to properly call the StackMob APIs from within Tiggr! I tried several different naive approaches to no end and searched online for the answer. I tweeted at every Twitter account tied to both companies begging for help and got a response within 15-20 minutes…on a Sunday! Jordan, one of StackMob’s engineers, connected with me over Google Talk and logged into my Tiggr account after I gave him access. He’s a backend guy, so he wasn’t able to provide a solution at that point, but I’d already fought the problem for too long & had to move on to preparing the presentation. After I presented, I started getting tweeted at from both sides…apparently people from both companies got together & provided me with a solution!

Long story short: I’m sold on this pairing for prototyping. Their ease of use, extensibility and fantastic customer service make for a pretty powerful combo!

Oh…and in case you were wondering, the app I’m working on is called AudienceAmp & we did manage to win first place in Baton Rouge. I’ve been up for 24 hours tapping into my social connections, writing WAY MORE than I’d prefer and working with an editing team to produce a (hopefully) viral video! If you’d like to know more about AudienceAmp, check out the links below. If you’d like to vote for us in the Global Startup Battle, go here and click the big “Vote” button!

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