Lessons in Application Development from a Law School Competition

Dominique SimsionProduct Marketing Director
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Lessons in Application Development from a Law School Competition

5 Questions to Answer for Any New App


In an underground startup space, a somewhat unlikely convergence took place: a law firm, a software platform, four not-for-profit organizations, a university, and twenty of its students. It was the grand finale of the 2023 Allens Neota Law Tech Challenge for Social Justice – a showcase of student-built web applications created for four impactful non-profit organizations. 

The students get to learn real-world skills and develop real-world solutions. And in doing so, they run into the same real-world challenges that occur in the app development process, whether you are a student building a not-for-profit application, or you’re building out use cases for a corporate organization.

As a judge at the event, I had the good fortune of coming in at the eleventh hour, enjoying the culmination of all the hard-work, and then putting students on the spot with tough questions to answer in front of a live-streamed audience. We didn’t go easy on them either – posing to them the same questions that I ask of myself or our customers when we’re building solutions at Neota. They are the sorts of questions that you’re often aware of in the periphery, but can get sidelined when you’re focusing on building the solution. Being able to answer these questions effectively means you are heading in the right direction to deliver lasting, impactful solutions – and of course in the students’ case, help edge you towards victory, as it did for the Marrickville Legal Centre (MLC) team.  

So what did we ask? 


Question 1: Have You Spoken to Your Users?


And how often? Seemingly straightforward question, but often difficult to put into practice, and regularly commit to. The Sydney Story Factory team faced the formidable task of summarising intellectual property law rights and obligations to 7 – 17 year olds. You could easily spend a significant amount of time trying to work out the best way to pitch content in a way that resonates with that user base, and still be completely off the mark. By reaching out and involving their target audience, they were able to refine their content, and make it more effective and engaging. There’s no substitute for end user involvement – and although it’s tempting to defer until the testing phase, your solution is built for your users, so they should be engaged from the very start. 


Question 2: What’s the Scope? How Did You Handle Scope Creep?


Delivering a scaled-down yet functional product is always better than not delivering a product at all. It’s not just that though – as many of the students reflected, the solutions that they delivered bore little resemblance to the initial requirements. By keeping the scope down and delivering a minimum viable product, it means you can solicit input from users early on to ensure that subsequent development steps are guided by actual user needs rather than assumed needs. It’s also a more efficient use of resources by not spending too long building features and functionality that may not even make it to the final product.


Question 3: What’s the Vision for the Future?


Keeping the scope of your app in check doesn’t mean you should ignore the broader vision. The International Committee of the Red Cross team created an application designed to educate the general public about international humanitarian law. The vision however was that this application was not only to be available on the web, but also something that would feature in an exhibit showcasing the reality of War in Cities. By understanding the bigger picture of your application you can help ensure that even early iterations can take into account these plans – rather than having to rebuild when new information comes to light. It means that as you plan your application, you can make informed decisions and consider factors that may influence the apps longer term trajectory. So, as many student teams did – start big first. Then narrow down your scope and deliver.


Question 4: How Can You Quantify Impact?


Whether in the realm of non-profits or the corporate world, quantifying impact is essential. The Public Interest Advocacy Centre team created an air travel survey, collecting data from passengers with disabilities. Their presentation touched on an important insight – rather than open-ended text fields they opted for fixed response options to produce quantifiable data. In this case its purpose was to provide data to authorities and airlines to improve travel for passengers with disabilities. But in any solution, the importance of gathering quantifiable data on the usage and key measures of your solution itself cannot be understated. It can make or break the support and resources that go behind your tool, and future ones.  It can be as simple as capturing the data, presenting it in a dashboard, and communicating it.


Question 5: What Did You Learn?


It’s very easy to become focused on executing, but taking stock along the journey is critical to improve for the future. Stop cutting the tree and sharpen the blade. Or a more climate friendly example. Taking a step back to reflect can help break the cycle where you may be developing down a road that’s just not delivering what you want it to. The students were building in teams, and challenges are inevitable in group work at university (and in the office!) and taking time out can give the opportunity to resolve issues in a diplomatic way, rather than in the heat of the moment. At Neota we run ‘retrospectives’ – a quick round-the-room team meeting to do a stocktake of ‘what worked, what didn’t and what was confusing’. Find themes amongst the feedback, action them, and review them next retrospective to help create a team that’s always improving. 


Okay – so then, what did I learn?


That I shouldn’t get complacent. I’ve attended a few of these, but these programs continue to be a source of infectious innovation and passion. The winner was a legal intake solution, directing users to the appropriate service at MLC. It’s a use case that has been around for decades, but problems don’t need to be innovative. And solving a common problem can still make a real impact. The students demonstrated an end-to-end solution, integrated with Google Translate to meet their users’ language needs, which in its elegance and simplicity is something that will impact lives in Sydney’s west. 

The students clearly took something from it too, with the student app developer for MLC, Annie Zhang, commenting it was ‘the most rewarding experience I’ve had throughout university’.


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