Case Study: Unitu Android App

  //  Mark Ormesher

When I joined Unitu in 2014, my role was Lead Android Developer, and my task was to design a brand new app for the business, build and test it, and get it to market. The app was developed from scratch to provide the main features of the Unitu platform, and it is currently (as of March 2016) being expanded to offer even more.

Intro to Unitu

Development

What's Next?

Reception

Intro to Unitu

The Unitu platform is a collaborative feedback system for colleges and universities, built to improve the broken feedback loop that can be found in many universities. At the time of writing (February 2016) it is being used by thousands of students in the UK and evolving daily.

There are two main features of the Unitu platform to be replicated on mobile: the course hub and the feedback board. The course hub is a student-private area for discussion, collaboration and socialising; the feedback board is the powerhouse of the platform, providing a feedback resolution and tracking system, somewhat inspired by the Kanban layout.

More information on Unitu and the Unitu platform can be found on the Unitu YouTube channel.

Development

Built as a native app to maximise performance and quality, Unitu's Android app was built over the summer of 2014, refined and iterated throughout the following academic year, and then rebuilt from scratch into its second major version during the summer and autumn of 2015. This has left us with a very stable, very popular product.

The project is closed source, so I cannot fully showcase the development that went into my first large-scale app, but I can explain a few of the more interesting aspects below. These aspects and more are current being rolled into an open source library that I intend to release in the future (endorsed by Unitu, of course), so watch this space!

Data Access and Caching Layer

Like many tools, the Unitu app lives and dies by the data it provides to its users. Without the right data, available at the right time, the app is useless. That's why I put considerable effort into planning and building the data access and caching layer of the app.

This layer of the app is entirely self-contained, which means that day-to-day work on the app doesn't involve touching any code for caching, databases, APIs, etc. A collection of well-defined request/callback managers handle all data interaction, seamlessly providing data from the cache, the API or both, depending on the request. With support for lambda functions, the callback code is clean and very readable.

The cache is split into two parts: an in-memory cache that is relatively small but extremely quick, and an on-disk cache implemented through SQLite, which is much larger but somewhat slower. Both of these complement the Unitu API, making sure the right data is available at the right time. There is even support for data to be returned immediately from the cache, followed by a more up-to-date copy of the data from the API a few seconds later, all in one request. Expired data is automagically cleaned out or updated in the background, depending on its purpose.

Analytics

While students are using the app, it silently collects data about their interactions and feeds it back to our aggregation system that combines it with data from the website and our iOS app. This data includes everything from how they move between views and how efficiently they navigate from A to B, to how quickly the app responds to their requests and details of any errors (which are thankfully few and far between!).

We use this data to improve the app and continually develop it by identifying the most used areas, any confusing navigation patterns, bottlenecks in data flow, etc. Updates and improvements are regularly piloted by a small community of students and reps before being released en masse.

What's Next?

Right now (as of March 2016) I am working on bringing the feedback board system into the Android app. It is doubtlessly the most technically complex area of the site, so I expect this to be a challenge I will relish. From the very beginning of this new feature, I have had a small community of Unitu's most active students and student representative receiving regular builds of the app; their feedback is a big part of my development process, helping me to make sure I am building exactly what they need.

As mentioned earlier, I am also working on building an open source library to release generic versions of some of the app's more exciting or useful technical features. Unfortunately this is a very low-priority project for me right now, so it may be some time before it sees the light of day!

Reception

Mark has been an exceptional addition to the Unitu team. He possesses both technical and character skills that not only get tasks done extremely efficiently but also help push the company forward. He embodies the company philosophy - Impossible is nothing - and brings traits that inspire and motivate other team members.

He managed to build the Unitu Android App within less than 3 months and go FAR beyond the given specification. He took complete ownership over his work and dedicated himself fully with absolute care and precision.

In addition to this, he is also loyal, committed and ambitious. As a co-founder of Unitu, I am both proud and thrilled to be working along side him, knowing that with Mark on our team we can achieve anything.

Read Anish's full reference