Not too long ago, I volunteered to serve on the board of my homeowners association as a way to stay involved with my neighbors and serve the community. Each month, residents would attend our evening board meetings to make us aware of issues and grievances they were experiencing within the neighborhood. These issues ranged from the rather trivial such as a neighbor’s lilac bush encroaching upon another neighbor’s fence, to the more serious such as removing trees that had fallen over streets or towing vehicles that were blocking emergency fire lanes. As I observed the various issues that came up month after month, it began to occur to me that the majority of residents’ issues could have been solved simply be improved communication between the board and residents. At that time, we were using a series of letters and phone calls to keep residents updated and informed on community events and policies. We had a website, but it was like pulling teeth to keep it updated. While it was written into our bylaws and rules that we had to notify residents when changes occurred to policies, we were growing frustrated with the inefficiency in our communication efforts. We also weren’t seeing the levels of community engagement we wanted.
While mobile apps weren’t common when I served on the board, it would have been a great tool to solve many of our challenges. I trust not only would issues have been headed off before they became problems, but we would also have had a stronger sense of engagement and community within our neighborhood.
Today, it is much more common for an HOA to have a mobile app for its residents. They are much easier to launch and are much more affordable than in the past. If you are on an HOA board and are considering a mobile app for your community, here are 10 valuable items you should consider when launching your app.
- Build vs. Buy
The build vs. buy decision can be a pretty quick decision depending on the make up and management of your board. Most HOA boards are composed of a relatively small number of volunteers. It is often rare that any of those volunteers have mobile app development expertise. And even if they do, engaging them to build the app could prove an overwhelming burden given that most individuals have limited volunteer bandwidth.
For the majority of HOAs, outsourcing the mobile app development is the best decision. Outsourcing allows the board to maintain its focus on its mission of ensuring the proper management of the neighborhood. It also allows you to engage a team whose expertise is in mobile app development. Chances are they have worked with other HOAs or similar organizations and can leverage that knowledge and expertise for your specific project.
However, should you work for a larger HOA, one that say manages several thousands of homes, you may have a dedicated technical staff and budgets to develop and build a mobile app in house. The benefit of in-house development is that you have tighter control of the scope and deadlines of the work. The downside is that if your in-house staff doesn’t have the right technical know how, they can spend a significant amount of their time spinning their wheels and learning by trial and error which can stress budgets and schedules.
- Off-the-Shelf vs. Custom Design
For the majority of HOAs, they will choose to outsource the development of their mobile app. The board must then decide if it should go with an off-the-shelf solution or hire a mobile app software developer or company to build a custom app for it. There are also “hybrid” solutions that fall between custom and off-the-shelf apps. The decision should be made after considering the HOA’s needs and budget. If your HOA is fairly small (less than 50 homes under management), there are off-the-shelf solutions that provide the essentials for sharing community information with residents. There are a series of relatively low cost self-service solutions out there that may prove effective. Usually these options have low or no upfront startup fees and then charge a reasonable monthly fee thereafter. If you do select this option, make sure that the service has all the functionality that you need upfront. Here are some features you may wish to consider:
- A Calendar feature to update residents on upcoming neighborhood meetings and events
- An Announcements feature to post messages important to residents
- An HOA Documents section to post HOA policies, rules and disclosure documents
- A Photo section to share photos of the neighborhood and events
- A Videos section to share videos of the neighborhood, events or messages
If you are considering an off-the-shelf app, ask if you can sample the app service in advance and test it before you commit to a contract.
Building a custom app should only be considered if you cannot find an off-the-shelf solution that meets your needs. Custom apps built by a reputable mobile app development company will ensure that you get exactly the features that are necessary for your HOA. There is a downside…, custom apps can be extremely expensive as mobile app developers often command very high hourly rates. If you are not careful, before you know it, your app project can quickly turn into a multi-thousand dollar bridge to nowhere. If you select the custom route, make sure you are very clear on the scope of the project in advance. Good companies will walk you through various design features and also collaborate with you and your board to learn your unique ideas and needs. While the benefit of the custom approach allows you to design and implement what you want, it is often the more expensive road to travel. Make sure you have the budget for it. You should also have extra cushion in your budget should your scope widen to other features. You will also want to require that your contract with the mobile app company includes a payment schedule for the completion of agreed upon milestones. This will provide you with financial protection should the custom app developer not meet its commitments and obligations.
If neither the off-the-shelf or custom solution works for your HOA, consider a hybrid approach. Some of the off-the-shelf services also provide custom feature development for an added fee. This hybrid approach could be the best of both worlds in that you get a more cost effective solution for your basic features along with the added flexibility to include custom ideas and functionality important for your HOA. Before pursuing this hybrid approach, make sure you are very comfortable with the service’s ability to develop custom features. Ask to see custom features the company has developed for other customers and how long it took them to build. We suggest speaking with several other customers to see how it was to work with the company you are considering.
- Ease of Use Managing Content
While the upfront development of your mobile app for your HOA is important, managing and updating the information on your app on an ongoing basis is equally as important. You will want to research the Content Management System (CMS) associated with the app service. How easy is it to upload new content or change existing content? Chances are, an HOA volunteer or board member will be making the changes and uploading content for you. These volunteer and board positions change all the time as volunteers move or are replaced and new board members get elected. It is imperative that you don’t choose a mobile app service that requires a PhD in Computer Science to upload new app content. The content management system should be intuitive and easy for a layman to figure out. Before engaging a mobile app service, ask if you can demo the CMS and practice uploading and changing app content. The easier and more intuitive the CMS, the easier it will be to transfer the content updating responsibility between board members or volunteers as they change.
- Notifications Functionality
One very useful and popular feature among mobile apps is “push notification” functionality. Push notifications allow the HOA’s mobile app administrator to “push” out messages to those residents who have downloaded the app. This functionality is very useful in that it allows content to go out quickly to residents and reach them right on their mobile devices. HOA boards often need to send out reminders about board meetings, announce trash service cancellations, make snow plow announcements or pool related openings/closings. Push notifications are a great way to get the word out for these messages. Whether you engage a custom developer or an off-the-shelf service for your app, you will want to consider including this essential feature to your app.
For HOAs with larger numbers of residents (greater than 100), you may wish to include an app that has “notification tagging.” Notification tagging allows your residents to opt-in to the categories of notifications they wish to receive. For example, if your HOA has multiple pools, some residents may just want to receive notifications about the pool closest to them. Receiving notifications on all pools may get overwhelming and annoying. The larger and more complex your HOA is, the more categories or tags you may wish to include. Some common tags may be: pool info, swim lessons, trash service, community events, snow removal, nature information, emergency announcements, board meetings, summer camp info, updates to HOA documents, home sales info, fitness center info and covenant updates.
- Integrating with Your Existing Website
Another important item you should consider when selecting a mobile app service is how will the mobile app integrate, if at all, with your existing HOA website. Given that resources on HOA boards are often limited, and volunteers’ time is limited, you ideally would like to minimize the time it takes to post and generate online content. If your website content does not sync with your mobile app content, you could be creating double the work for your volunteers when they are posting updates. Over time, this can get frustrating and tiring for the volunteers or board members. It also can confuse residents if content gets posted to the website, but not the mobile app, or vice versa. Some of the leading HOA mobile app services are able to provide connections that will link the content of your website to that of your app. So anytime you make an update to one, it automatically updates the other. Most HOA mobile app services will charge development time to build this integration. The cost will depend on the type of website you use and the amount of categories and website sections that will map to your mobile app. Despite this additional cost, we suggest you still take a serious look at this website syncing option. This feature could save many hours of volunteers’ time in the long run, and help head off confusion among residents.
- Access Controls
Another important consideration in developing your HOA’s mobile app is to determine who will have access to the app and what content will be public vs. private. We recommend you discuss this access control with your board and get consensus on an access policy that will best serve your neighborhood.
Some HOAs take more of an open approach where they are comfortable with anyone in the public downloading their app. Residents of the neighborhood, prospective residents and anyone else can download the app from one of the online exchanges (the Apple App Store or Google Play Store are the two most prominent) and view its content. This open approach has its benefits in that prospective residents who are considering purchasing a home in your neighborhood can learn more about your community and its amenities. If you take this open approach, make sure you are comfortable with all the sections and content within your app being open and read by the general public.
However, there may be sections of your app which you wish to make available only to your residents, but not to the outside public. Some of these sections may include, financial details and reporting of the HOA, neighborhood disclosure documents, rules and guidelines, or a resident directory. In this case, it may be in your HOA’s best interest to include access controls within your mobile app. Access controls allow the HOA’s mobile app administrator to approve or deny access to content contained in the app. This can often be managed from a simple tab of the administrator’s content management system, similarly to how you would accept or decline friends on Facebook. Your HOA may also want to consider a hybrid approach where certain sections of the app are open to the public but other sections are restricted to only residents. It is our recommendation to have a healthy discussion with your board to decide which sections of your app should fall within the public or private categories.
In addition, regarding the administration of the app, you want to make sure that you have flexibility when it comes to posting content and notifications. You may want to allow certain positions on the board or volunteers to be able to edit all content on the app, while others are restricted to only editing certain sections. This need for flexibility goes the same for push notifications. You may want certain positions on the board or volunteers to be able to send notifications to all users of the app, while other positions only have the right to send out notifications to certain notification tags or categories. For example, you may only want pool managers to be able to send out a pool closing notification to residents who have subscribed to the pool notification tag, while restricting him/her from sending out notifications to the general community tags.
- Unique User Content
Another feature you may wish to consider is the ability to generate unique user content within your app. Unique user content consists of materials, documents or information that is to be accessed solely by an individual user of the app. For example, if at some point your HOA wishes to replace its hard copy pool passes with electronic ones, you will need to be able to create unique pool passes for each resident. You will only want the specific owner of each pool pass to be able to access it on the app. You may also want to be able to provide event tickets or other documents that only a specific user can access.
Leading mobile app services for HOAs will allow you to manage this unique user content easily and efficiently. Loading unique content and assigning it to individual users should be intuitive and simple. If exploring a mobile app service with unique user content management, ask to demo this feature in advance. You want to be comfortable with how the interface works and make sure it is easy to figure out should you have to train other volunteers or board members to administer it.
Even if unique user content is not something on your radar currently, you may still wish to consider it. Try to think several years out and anticipate the future content and information needs of your residents. What current communication processes require you to generate and mail hard copy documents? What are the costs associated with this process? Streamlining and digitizing these processes may save your HOA considerable money and be more convenient for your residents.
When developing a mobile app, it is important to consider how many residents and users you expect to download the app and how many users you expect to use the app at the same time. If there are a relatively small number of residents who will be accessing the app, this may not be as important. However, if there are hundreds or thousands of residents who may be accessing your app at the same time, you want to make sure that the app is built in such a way to scale and meet these data load needs.
When selecting a vendor to develop and host your app, here are several questions to ask it to help you on this scalability front:
- What type of infrastructure do you use to host your app?
- How many users can use your app at once without latency issues?
- What is your plan if we see a spike in simultaneous users during a specific event?
- What is your plan if more residents continue to get added to our HOA and download the app?
- What is your contingency plan should the app crash for some unforeseen reason?
Learning the answers to these questions upfront will help you select a vendor that can handle your app hosting and scalability needs. The last thing you want is for the app to come across as slow, sluggish or prone to recurring outages.
- Privacy and Data Ownership
Should you elect for a third party development service to build and host an app for you, it is imperative to understand who will own the data that is posted to the app, and how it will be handled. We recommend spending time upfront determining how you want to treat your residents’ data and privacy. There are some HOA portal services that behave more like a social media site in that all the data that is generated from the app or service belongs to them. While often these services are extremely inexpensive, sometimes even free, your “payment” is giving up of your rights to own and control the data generated from the service. This data can become very valuable from a marketing perspective and is often used to target ads and collect user information to push marketing and product solicitations. This type of marketing can often be obtrusive and annoying to residents.
- Digital Pool Pass
An option that is now available to forward thinking HOAs is digital pool passes. This feature applies to those HOAs that are responsible for managing the pools within their community and need a way to monitor which residents can attend and which cannot. It is not uncommon for residents to pack up their children and their mountains of pool toys, swim diapers, sunscreen and other pool necessities, head to the pool, only to reach into their wallet or purse and realize that they have forgotten their pool pass. Digital pool passes relieve residents of this stress. They also relieve both residents and the HOA of the time consuming and costly replacement ordeal should a resident lose his/her pool pass.
With today’s mobile technology, certain mobile apps can incorporate a digital, mobile pool pass feature so that residents can store and access their pool pass on their phones. This same application can work for tennis, clubhouse and other passes that may be relevant to the HOA. Some HOA mobile apps allow the resident to scan their hard copy pool pass. The application records the bar code on the pool pass and then stores it on the phone. The mobile app also allows the resident to take a picture of the front and back of the pass and store this on the phone as well. (Note of Caution: HOAs that wish to use this feature must be aware of a resident’s PII. For example, if your pool pass displays your residents’ birthdays on it, you may wish to remove this information from your pool pass design to help protect residents’ digital privacy rights.) So when a resident goes to the pool and wishes to enter the pool, she pulls up the HOA app and goes to the pool pass section of it. Up comes her pool pass barcode which can be scanned by the lifeguard/pool manager working at the front desk. She can also show the digital picture of the front and back of the pool pass as well.
Mobile apps are popping up everywhere and have changed the way we communicate and share information. They are quickly becoming an essential tool for HOAs to keep residents informed and aware of events and updates in the neighborhood. If you are considering moving forward with a mobile app for your neighborhood, it is wise and important to spend the time to research your various mobile app service options upfront. By doing so, you can not only come away with a powerful, effective tool to improve your neighborhood and its engagement, but you can avoid pitfalls and headaches in the process.
MokoApp builds customized mobile apps. Our platform is designed for member oriented organizations such as: Dance, Martial Arts, Sports Teams, Gymnastics, HOAs, Churches, and many more. You can have your very own branded mobile application that provides everything you need to keep your customers and members engaged. For more information about our services, please visit us at mokoapp.com.