Driving Customer Engagement with a Custom Mobile and Web App
First Line Technology
First Line Technologies designs and manufactures disaster preparedness and response equipment for the military, the government, and first responders. One of its primary product lines is Dahlgreen Decon™, a decontamination solution for chemical warfare agents, toxic materials, and other threats. As part of its service offering, First Line offers users access to the Decon Field Guide web and mobile app, which allows first responders to look up proper decontamination methods for hundreds of known and emerging threats in real-time.
First Line was unhappy with the quality of its existing React Native "Decon Field Guide" mobile app. It needed to refresh the app in order to drive higher engagement with its customer base.
Several signs pointed to problems within the existing app’s code. The First Line team found it difficult to upgrade or make any changes—including seemingly small changes—to the app. No testing infrastructure had been built into the app, so the team lived with the constant threat that making even a small change could break another feature.
Additionally, the mobile app’s registration didn’t connect to First Line’s CRM, which resulted in lost sales opportunities. Finally, the user experience with the legacy app was not ideal, but the team had no real way to improve that experience. First Line wanted to expand the mobile app’s content but doing so with the existing code was virtually impossible.
First Line partnered with Gnar to review and assess the state of its existing React Native app. We began with a full technical review, which uncovered these fundamental code and UX issues. Our assessment revealed that it would be faster and more cost-effective to build a new frontend for the mobile app that would connect to the existing app’s WordPress backend rather than refresh the existing frontend interface.
Completely replacing key components of an application is not a decision we take lightly, which is why we conduct detailed code audits before commencing work on any software project. We invest time upfront—at no cost to the client—to review a given codebase in detail, determine its status and whether it has been built following best practices, and identify opportunities to reuse aspects of it as we move forward.
We are in the business of reusing and repurposing as well as building greenfield software. When we start a new project from the ground up, it’s our goal to ensure that any future engineers can pick up where we left off. We also have extensive experience working on existing codebases, and that has given us the ability to ascertain the necessary levels of effort required to make changes vs. rebuild a problematic application.
When we applied our experience to First Line’s problem, starting fresh for the app’s frontend made the most sense. In consultation with the client, we determined that the cost of rebuilding the WordPress backend was too high relative to its benefit. While WordPress is a somewhat unusual backend choice for a mobile app, there were several benefits to its use at First Line: the team was already using that system for its web app, and it was important to them that they could seamlessly add and update content on both the web and the mobile apps. We knew switching to a different backend system could be prohibitively expensive, and we were confident in our ability to build a new frontend using the backend that was already in place. We were able to salvage the app’s existing backend while creating a fresh, easy-to-update frontend built with clean code.
We kicked off our design and discovery process, which allowed us to collaborate with First Line to redesign the UX, add desired new functionality, and enhance the overall look and feel of the app.
We began with scoping meetings to discuss the Decon Field Guide's use cases and to receive a crash course on responding to chemical warfare agents. From there, we discussed redesigning the app and incorporating feedback from existing customers. First Line's internal marketing team completed graphics work, and Gnar engineers built those graphics into the new application. We then developed wireframes and moved into development.
This process resulted in a cleaner, easier-to-navigate user interface and additional functionality, including pictorial decontamination instructions, an in-app timer, and improved threat index search functionality. We also added user support resources including videos, manuals, a term glossary, and FAQs.
In addition to the mobile app, we constructed a version of the Field Guide that’s available on a WordPress website. We built new WordPress post types for the videos, manuals, term glossary, and FAQs, and FirstLine now can easily update all of this app content in real-time.
"We weren’t just a project to them. Even now, they catch up and ask how the app is running, and not from a sales standpoint. They really care about our end-users. We’re not directly using the application—it’s our customers, and their feedback is that it’s a massive improvement. Our first responder community doesn’t get a lot of good apps, and they’re amazed that Gnar was able to deliver exactly what they needed without being first responders themselves."
By starting from scratch to create a well-documented and well-tested application built in accordance with software development best practices, we created a foundational app that First Line could build upon going forward. Now, any needed changes take just hours or days—rather than weeks—to implement. What’s more, the First Line team didn’t need to learn a new system to update content; content creators can now easily add new content to both the web and mobile apps using their preferred WordPress system.
Our work redesigning and building a new Decon Field Guide app helped First Line achieve its desired result: higher customer engagement and an improved experience for app users. Since launching the new mobile app, First Line has more than doubled its number of users to over 3,000. The previous app only saw one user over the course of 2-3 days. Now, 10-15 people use the app every day.
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