Leica Microsystems has approached Fast Fwd with a request to develop an iPad app that introduces researchers and students of the life sciences to confocal methods and technologies. The app should provide users with a library of important technical papers and practical product information and be accompanied by high-quality visuals. The initial version of the app used Wordpress as a mobile backend, but due to a number of limitations the app was later relaunched on the Contentful platform.
Each year, Leica Microsystems brings several new devices to the market and releases numerous updates to its current range of products. Constrained by deadlines and working with a busy pipeline, Leica’s staff needed a quick and uncomplicated way to add new content to its iPad app. The Wordpress CMS, with its familiar interface and a large plugin marketplace, sounded like a natural choice for managing in-app content. Because of this draw, the initial version of the app was built on a customized Wordpress platform.
“We used the Advanced Custom Fields plugin to extend Wordpress’ content modeling functionality and the WP API plugin to expose the content for use in mobile apps,” explains Shashi Saurav, the lead developer on the project. The team got to querying the WP API in minutes, but the structure of API responses left much to be desired. “The WP API plugin limits the API endpoints to default entities, requiring us to spend another couple of days writing plugins for custom content types,” notes Mr. Saurav.
In the prototyping phase, more problems came into view. Fetching content required multiple API calls and responses suffered from high latency. Workarounds that worked elsewhere now just led to numerous dead ends. “As a result, we were left with a beautifully designed app, but knew it could perform better,” explains Kishen Hawkins, the founder of Fast Fwd agency. “Even with a stable Wi-Fi connection, it would take 4-5 seconds to load an entry, leading to poor usability.”
Six months after the launch, concerns about the Wordpress API performance and security record led to a follow-up project aimed at relaunching the app on a more robust backend. Contentful initially caught the eye of the team with its clean user interface, and soon enough the developers were creating sample entries and testing the API capabilities of the platform. Happy with their initial tests, the developers proceeded to migrate the ongoing project to the new platform and five days later they had a fully-functional app.
The immediate benefits of using Contentful as a mobile backend became obvious during the initial development phase. “Contentful makes very few assumptions about the structure or purpose of the content it serves,” explains Matthew Jensen, the Executive Director at the agency, “making it extremely easy to consume and customize the API.” The developers share his sentiment: “The API latency is super low, responses are compact and well structured and thanks to official SDKs we can build apps without ever going back to PHP,” said Mr. Saurav.
The true advantage of migrating to Contentful, however, had to do with the performance gains of the Leica app. Swapping a Rackspace Cloud Sites hosted Wordpress instance for the Contentful cloud service, with its built-in CDN has cut down latency by a factor of two, but the team did not stop there. “The iOS SDK has allowed us to seed the app with the initial content and use the sync API to fetch any updates made since the app has shipped,” explains Mr. Hawkins. “Thanks to these networking features, in-app interactions now feel instant. The speed improvement we observed was staggering.”
The big question at this point was: how would the new CMS fare with the editorial team at Leica? While the clean user interface made for straightforward navigation, Contentful also introduced a number of novelties, including a flat content structure and the use of markdown for text fields. Mr. Jensen explains, “Some editors might feel that migrating to markdown robs them of essential controls like font sizes, text color or paragraph alignment. In reality, removing these styling options ensures a consistent presentation of the text across all devices and platforms.”
Transitioning to markdown was very simple for us… by eliminating the markup code that routinely gets smuggled from Microsoft Office documents it also reduced the time it takes to prepare an entry for publishing
Dr. Isabelle Köster, Scientific Writer
This last point was not lost on the Leica team, who are thinking about an Android version of the app. “Transitioning to markdown was very simple for us… by eliminating the markup code that routinely gets smuggled from Microsoft Office documents it also reduced the time it takes to prepare an entry for publishing,” says Dr. Isabelle Köster, a scientific writer at Leica Microsystems. According to her, the combination of markdown and streamlined content templates “resulted in a visibly shorter path to publishing, leaving us free to focus on the substance of the materials we put out there”.
By bringing cutting-edge content on confocal microscopy methods and technologies, Leica Microsystems enables life science practitioners and university students to build valuable technical skills. To succeed in this mission, it needed an app which was quick to update and easy to use. By relaunching the app on the Contentful platform, Fast Fwd has delivered on both promises: the editorial team can update the app any time using an intuitive tool, while users benefit from instant interactions and continuously updated content.