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First look at the new Syracuse University mobile app

Pros: You can look up people’s email addresses and phone numbers in the SU Directory.
Cons: Poor design, sluggish performance and few features to speak of.
Conclusion: A weak first offering from SU in the mobile arena. Most students and alumni will find little of interest here.

Syracuse University released its new SU mobile app today, referring to it as “Syracuse in the palm of your hand.” Here is a first look at app and its features.

After downloading the app from the Apple App Store (the app is currently only available for the iPhone, though I’m told an Android version will soon follow), the user is presented with the option of selecting one of three themes: “SU Main App,” “iSchool” or “Newhouse.” This choice seems to alter the branding of the app’s home screen as well as reveal a few navigation choices specific to the chosen school theme. It is unclear why other Schools and Colleges are not represented in this option. Most of this review will focus on the Main SU theme.

The home screen features several buttons, including: Maps, Weather, SU Tweets, Directory, SU mobile, Feedback, Library and IT Help. Several of these are surprisingly sparse, such as the Weather section, which simply displays the current weather information as a widget delivered from an unidentified source (there is no detailed forecast information or other options).

It seems that much of the SU Mobile app relies on existing RSS feeds and mobile web sites. For example, the Library section displays an existing mobile web page offering access to some SU Library services, and the SU Mobile section appears to be content taken from the main Syracuse University web site and marketing materials. Formatting, although “mobile” in size, is poor and difficult to navigate.

The SU Tweets or “Social” section is a real disappointment. This section consists of a listing of University or School-level Twitter accounts. There are no options for connecting your own Twitter account, responding, interacting or retweeting. It is difficult to imagine the usefulness of this section, especially for Twitter users who would find many more features in their preferred Twitter apps. Non-Twitter users will surely be confused and should avoid this section.

Similarly lacking is the Maps section, which claims to feature foursquare integration but is sluggish and limited. Although the map does display venues taken from the University’s foursquare presence, the app offers no option for check-ins, or even basic directions via Google maps. Anyone with an iPhone (or Droid) will can find this information presented much more elegantly in their existing maps and location apps.

Perhaps the one useful feature of the SU Mobile app is the Directory section, which allows users to search for student, faculty and staff contact information. The search results offer active links to email and telephone numbers in the case of faculty and staff, making it easy to connect on the go.

School Themes
The two school themes — iSchool and Newhouse — are a confusing addition to the app. After selecting the iSchool theme, the app changes entirely, losing access to most of the SU Mobile app features. Instead, iSchool-specific buttons are shown which link to repurposed information from the school’s web site. Most confusing are the two buttons both labeled “iSchool Social.” One of the two links to iSchool press releases, which are in no way social. Overall, I would not recommend that iSchool students use this app for information about their school or program.

Design and Performance
The SU Mobile app does not feature a very attractive design. To be completely honest, it is one of the least attractive iPhone apps I have ever downloaded. The interface is confusing and poorly labeled, and most of the sections load slowly due to the bulky web content displayed. The performance of the app is acceptable, but not at all snappy.

Although it is nice to see Syracuse University join the ranks of colleges with mobile apps, I must wonder about the intended purpose of this offering. Current students will find very little value here, with no new services offered. Those that are, such as Library services, are difficult to use within this app. Obvious targets for a mobile solution — such as integration with ID Card Services, Registrar or Bookstore are absent.

Alumni and prospective students may be a bit more interested in the information offered within the app, but the apps claim of being a “wealth of information” about SU is a bit overstated. Prospectives may be turned off by the apps many shortcomings, while Alumni will find little information they do not receive elsewhere and in more attractive ways. At best, the app’s icon may serve as a Syracuse-themed ornament for the home screen of an alum’s iPhone — although even the icon itself lacks in design appeal.

What do you think of the SU Mobile app? Are you finding it useful? What would you change or add to the app?

Anthony Rotolo

Anthony Rotolo is a leading expert on emerging technologies and formerly a professor at Syracuse University. Anthony is also the former director of NEXIS, a student research lab at the Syracuse University iSchool.

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