Mobile project manager fosters collaboration and helps autistic kids

By managing her mobile development project, Marlena Smith helps clinicians treat autism in kids today and better understand the disorder tomorrow.

On her current mobile application project, project manager Marlena Smith fosters communication between clinicians, developers and even artists. The result is an iPad application called Camp Discovery that helps autistic children practice important skills.

Marlena Smith, mobile project manager, CARDMarlena Smith, mobile
project manager, CARD

Smith works for the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, or CARD. It's a clinical research institute dedicated to researching and treating autism, especially in children. "We're really focused on increasing the effectiveness of known therapies through technology," said Smith. In particular, they are actively exploring the use of mobile apps to extend the reach and effectiveness of both their therapy and their research.

As a mobile project manager for Camp Discovery, Smith faces numerous challenges. She combines Agile development and team collaboration techniques to create a mobile app that helps autistic kids. This is a non-trivial project that requires both a user interface that balances entertainment and education as well as data gathering features that help further CARD's ongoing autism research.

Mobile application development challenges

Smith said the toughest part of her job is "ensuring that everyone has what they need when they need it." Smith stressed that planning means constantly looking two weeks ahead, not just planning for future iterations on a weekly basis. For example, the developers need the artwork for a game done by the time they have to insert it and the artists need to know what images the developers will need before they start their next batch. Either side's timeline could change from day to day.

It takes a careful balance between clinical guidelines and making the app fun. … We're constantly walking the tightrope there.

Marlena Smith

"Another thing we have to look out for is distracting features," Smith said. feature creep is a constant temptation for the developers. They want to add features that make the app more engaging. Smith has to balance that with the need to make sure it's still serving its primary purpose.

"It takes a careful balance between clinical guidelines and making the app fun," according to Smith. "Developers often say, 'It would be really cool if we add this and make that sparkle,' but those things could be distracting for kids with autism. So we're constantly walking the tightrope there."

Keeping ahead of the game

Smith described her team's approach to meeting tight deadlines and balancing priorities as "mostly Agile with some extreme programming thrown in." Her mobile project management practices include frequent team meetings, iterative development and collaboration between business, development, subject matter experts, test and other project team members.

"Communication is key," said Smith. A mobile project manager's job centers on planning and staying on top of everything. For Smith, this means a lot of informal communication. She asks team members individually what they're working on now and what they'll be doing next. "We do have weekly meetings, but I'm constantly checking in with everyone and looking for impediments."

She also frequently asks team members to make small adjustments in their workload. For example, she might ask the artists for more trucks this week because the vehicles game is progressing faster than expected and to hold off on the frogs because the animals game has hit a snag.

Smith's approach works well because she's fortunate enough to have the whole team in one place. "It makes it easy to have the sort of informal chats I need to keep tabs on the project." Smith's team doesn't need a daily stand up meeting because the whole team can look around and see what the others are doing.

Process modeling beats design docs

In the early stages of the Camp Discovery project, Smith found that the clinicians' design documents weren't effectively demonstrating learning procedures to the developers. The problem with design documents is that product owners tend to submit what they think the mobile app should be. Unfortunately, they rarely have the experience with mobile development to know what will and won't work in a mobile app.

It's best to leave the entire design up to developers. They already know mobile application development. The hard part is helping them understand the real-world process their app is meant to cover.

We're really focused on increasing the effectiveness of known therapies through technology.

Marlena Smith

For Camp Discovery, that meant videotaping mock therapy sessions. With video of the actual therapeutic processes in place, developers at CARD are now in a better place to understand and emulate the real-world process. According to Smith, her team basically abandoned the old design documents once the videos proved more valuable.

Development for a good cause

The first release of Camp Discovery offered four levels of a single-object matching game. As users progress, they can unlock more games that build on other skills. To stay ahead of their users, Smith and her team plan to add a new game to the app every week.

In addition to providing the children with fun and interactive practice, the app also gives researchers valuable data. The Camp Discovery app tracks how users interact with it and how their skills progress. That information helps researchers better understand certain aspects of autism and helps them improve their treatments.

Smith enjoys her work with mobile apps and CARD. She finds it rewarding to manage a project that directly helps autistic kids. What she's most proud of is bringing a team with diverse professional backgrounds together to make this game and therapeutic tool a reality.

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