Engineering a new approach to app design: Grad students set to learn hands-on development and marketing skills

When Natalie Baddour and her University of Ottawa colleague Edward Lemaire first began researching wearable devices nearly a decade ago, watches that tracked a user’s every step and smartphones that counted each calorie their owner consumed were practically the stuff of science fiction.

That was 2008, way before wearables were “cool and sexy,” Ms. Baddour joked in a recent interview with OBJ.

Today, thanks to a wave of wireless technology such as Fitbit activity trackers and apps like the calorie-counting MyFitnessPal, the mobile health industry is in a full sprint. Revenues in the sector – which encompasses everything from wristbands that monitor sleep patterns to programs that connect midwives to obstetricians via cellphone – are expected to skyrocket to $23 billion worldwide in 2017 from $4.5 billion three years ago.

An early trailblazer in the field, Ms. Baddour is now looking to help engineering students in Ottawa and Montreal capitalize on that market potential.

The mechanical engineering professor is heading a joint effort among students and faculty from Carleton University, McGill University and uOttawa called the Biomedical Engineering Smartphone Training Program. Backed by $1.65 million in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s CREATE program, the six-year project aims to teach master’s and PhD students practical skills to build smartphone apps for the mobile health market.

“Traditionally, students come in, they do some courses, they write a thesis, they do a lot of research, but their full set of skills isn’t always well-rounded,” Ms. Baddour explained. “We’re very good at training (students) in the hard science. It’s the other stuff that is missing.”

She and the program’s team of 10 researchers hope to change that by giving students real-world experience in programming, designing and marketing apps that address clear market needs – and, just as importantly, that customers actually want to use.

In addition to taking advanced graduate courses related to mobile health issues, participants will attend entrepreneurship workshops to help them identify market opportunities and will be trained in how to program apps and design attractive user interfaces.

They’ll also shadow interns in the health profession such as doctors and dentists to get a sense of the kind of problems they face in a typical work day and whether an app might be able to help solve them. Then they’ll pitch their proposals to a panel of academics and industry experts.

“From those ideas, hopefully we’ll pick out the best ones and then follow up on those,” Ms. Baddour said.

The most promising concepts will undergo a trial by fire in a “design sprint” – an intensive five-day process in which a prototype app is put through a battery of tests at each stage of development and constantly refined.  

“You don’t want to invest too much time, effort and energy into developing a product that isn’t desirable,” Ms. Baddour said. “You want to answer those questions as early as possible in the design cycle.”

About 20 students will take part in the program each year. Several corporate partners have already signed on to offer internship and research opportunities, including IBM, Kanata sleep sensor manufacturer Braebon Medical and Ottawa-based Clearwater Clinical, which makes mobile video and photography apps for the health-care sector.

Other companies have also expressed an interest in working with the program, Ms. Baddour said, including BlackBerry, Microsoft and local health monitoring firm MobileWellbeing.

The program also features an “entrepreneurial internship” in which a participant will spend the four-month work term building his or her own business while getting paid a regular salary.

“If a student comes and says, ‘I have this great idea, I want to work on it,’ then we will support that,” she said.

It’s all about teaching young engineers skills that will serve them well in the business world no matter what career path they ultimately pursue, Ms. Baddour added.

“At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is graduate students that have a certain skillset that is considered attractive by industry beyond the walls of academia.”