A Comprehensive Guide to Logistic App Development

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An estimated 5-35% of logistic trucks drive empty. Logistic businesses need a mobile app to streamline their operations and take better control of their resources.

But far too many logistic apps end up with feature-bloated and buggy user interfaces that don't solve real problems. This guide can help you develop the right logistic application and find product-market fit.

Start With Your Problem and Market Research

Understanding the problem holistically improves your chances of finding effective solutions. Some market research can also help differentiate your logistic app from other existing solutions.

Get some firsthand experience from users who face the problem you're trying to solve. For example, interviewing vehicle drivers can help you understand logistic downtime problems. Similarly, shadowing logistic hub managers can help you spot process inefficiencies that they may not be able to articulate.

After you've gotten a handle on your core problems, you'll also want to spend some time doing some market research.

During the primary research phase, you'll want to answer questions such as:

  • Who suffers from the same set of problems?
  • When or how often do these problems occur?
  • Why do these problems occur repeatedly?
  • How do these users currently solve these problems?

Validate your findings using a second round of surveys or interviews with potential clients and users. Listening to these problem-related discussions on online forums, social media channels, or internal chat tools can also help you validate your findings.

Augment this research with some secondary research to answer questions such as:

  • What solutions exist in the market today?
  • What industry trends and technological advances do you need to be aware of?
  • How do those solutions solve your problems?
  • Why are the current solutions limited?

Ideally, your market research should help you answer "why a new custom solution is needed" as opposed to using an existing solution. Aim to answer this question with a solid evidence-backed answer. Specific answers such as "built for a different target audience," "cluttered and complex UI," or "isn't updated with real-time data" can help you clearly articulate the need for a custom app.

Define the Type of Logistic App You Will Build

Mapping the key functions of your logistic app against the different stages of the logistic supply chain can help you define your app type and avoid scope creep.

Logistic supply chain management is complex, interconnected, and entrenched in regulatory paperwork. More often than not, the scope of a logistic app will cut across stages, such as:

  • Packaging
  • Procurement
  • Warehousing
  • Freight forwarding
  • Managing inventory
  • Cross-border or cross-continental shipping
  • Last-mile delivery and fulfillment
  • Replacements and returns

Get as much information as possible about the scope of your logistic app with respect to these stages. Doing so can help you define the type of logistic app you need to build. Here are a few popular types of logistic apps to consider:

Fleet Management App 

An app that may cut across procurement, freight forwarding, cross-border shipping, and last-mile delivery. It provides information about all delivery vehicles. It helps you plan logistics ahead of time with respect to each vehicle's availability and route. It can also provide additional information such as upcoming vehicle service, distance covered by a vehicle over a particular time period, and other cost reports.

On-demand Logistics App 

An app that is mostly centered around the freight forwarding, cross-border shipping, and last-mile delivery stages. This app will have a two-sided marketplace of delivery partners and potential customers. The app plays a match-making process to find the best-suited delivery vehicle for a delivery load. The app should be able to optimize delivery routes for maximum revenue and reduce downtime.

Real-time Tracking and Monitoring App 

An app that uses GPS along with other sensors to track the location and status of your assets in real time. This type of app is most useful in the cross-border shipping, last-mile delivery, and replacement return stages. The app provides greater visibility into your logistic operations and often may include chat features to help customers and delivery partners communicate with each other in real time.

Warehousing and Inventory Management App 

An app that works behind the scenes to streamline all the logistic processes needed to ensure timely deliveries. It exists primarily to reduce human errors and speed up activities in the warehousing and freight forwarding stages. The app will make use of image, QR code, or barcode scanning technologies and may use robotic arms or other semi-automated machines to lift, sort, and move heavy packages. Analytics and forecasting features may also be included.

Fulfillment and Replacement Tracking App

An app that is built exclusively for last-mile deliveries and replacement supply chains. It improves the end-user experience by reducing the amount of manual coordination required during delivery or replacement pick-ups. The app will use unique tracking links and codes to provide real-time delivery status notifications. This type of app may have a separate web platform or app for admins and logistic business owners to track all of their delivery and replacement shipments in one place.

Prioritize Features and Cut Out the Distractions

Paring down app features to only what is needed at launch can help you avoid cost or time overruns. Separating the "essentials" from the "nice-to-haves" also gives your app a clear roadmap.

It is useful to think of app features, costs, and delivery timelines as three important and interrelated factors in your app development process. Changes to one factor will create a ripple effect on the other two. For example, increasing app features will result in cost and time overruns. Similarly, reducing timelines may warrant higher budgets and fewer features. 

As a general rule of thumb, it is better to cut back on app features or scope than it is to extend budgets or timelines. Such an approach ensures that resources don't get wasted on features that your users can do without. Also, because your users will highlight desirable features you didn't include, the app can always be enhanced and updated with them later on.

Categorizing all the proposed features into a graph as shown below, can help you prioritize features.

The vertical axis represents how valuable a feature will be to your users. And the horizontal axis represents the cost it will take in terms of time, engineering effort, and money to build that feature. Building only high-value features that have low cost is ideal, but this is not always feasible. So, you might also need to align all the important stakeholders on which features get built now, later, or canned.

Getting all important stakeholders to participate in a feature prioritization process can help you resolve differences of opinions and perspectives that may come back to haunt the development process later on. Strive to resolve all conflicts and differences of opinions with facts and evidence-based perspectives. 

However, you may not always have all the answers. In such cases, it is important to align the stakeholders with a "let's agree to deprioritize X and move forward with Y for now" type of decision. Never allow decisions to linger without a definite timeline.

This feature prioritization process also forces you to ask tough questions like "is accepting payments a core priority to our business," "can we use an external API instead of building our own," and "which warehouse management feature do our users need the most."

In case you are still left with too many feature requests, then take them all off the table and start with a clean slate. Add only the features that survive intense debate on why they truly deserve priority. But watch out for any biases or preferences creeping into decisions.

By the end of this process, you should have differentiated the essential features that are core to your product from the non-core features. More about leveraging external solutions for these non-core features will be covered later in the Augment Your Logistic App With External SDKs, APIs, and Plugins section.

Choose Your Mobile App Development Stack Wisely

Your stack can have front-end, middleware, and back-end database and admin components. Choose your tech stack after factoring in resource availability, release timelines, user needs, scale, and costs.

For example, let's look at a simple GPS-based fleet management application that has an end-user mobile app as well as a web-based admin panel. Through the admin panel, the business owner or logistic manager would be able to understand vehicle runtime, delays, idling, and productivity trends. And through the mobile app, all fleet vehicle drivers would get their daily routes, delivery details, and recommendations.

If all the fleet drivers use an Android phone, then building a native Android end-user mobile app would be the most feasible option. However, if the user base is split between Android, iOS, and Windows phones, then you may need to consider building a cross-platform mobile app. But if you have tight budgets and timelines, then you may want to consider a progressive web app (PWA) or even a low-code prototype.

Let's discuss all the available front-end, back-end, middleware, and admin interface options in more detail:

Front end

The most versatile, high-performance, and scalable option is to build a native iOS or Android mobile application. However, other cross-platform hybrid apps or progressive web app options can reduce development costs and time.

Native iOS and Android apps are written from scratch for a specific operating system. Native iOS apps are written using Swift or Objective-C. Native Android apps use Android Studio to write code in Java or Kotlin.

Beyond these native app development options, you can also consider cross-platform technologies like Flutter, React Native, or Cordova to create apps that can work on different OS and devices.

The trade-off is that these apps may have certain performance, design, integration, and scale limitations. However, in some cases, it might be possible to overcome these limitations by building common reusable cross-platform components and using them along with native iOS and Android apps.

The other option is to build a device- and operating-system-agnostic progressive web app (PWA). This might be an attractive option if your users are spread across different types of mobile, tablet, and computer devices. However, due to greater offline and device limitations, PWAs without a strong internet connection may not offer the best or most accurate real-time user experience.

Most of your PWA functionalities can be written in the much tried-and-trusted HTML5 (HTML + CSS + JavaScript). However, you may also want to consider other modern frameworks such as React, AngularJS, Polymer, Knockout, Backbone.js, or Ionic to further quicken the development process.

Low-code tools such as Appian, Zoho Creator, OutSystems, GeneXus, and Kissflow can also be used to build quick front-end prototypes or MVPs. However, these may not scale well or cover all your use cases.

Back end

A robust back end complements your user-facing front-end design with dynamic data storage and fetching capabilities. It is also responsible for establishing mobile app server connections, hosting servers and databases, managing APIs, and utilizing all your third-party add-ons.

Some of the most popular back-end technologies include PHP, Python, Node.js, and Ruby on Rails. Your back end will need a database like Oracle, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Amazon RDS, or MongoDB for all your data transactions. And it will also need to host a server such as Google App Engine, Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, or a custom on-premise server. In addition to the code platforms, a database, and a server, you may also need a GitHub client, tools to manage microservices, and other third-party integrations.

Middleware

Middleware will tie all your front-end and back-end development efforts to each other and further improve the app's performance, reliability, as well as interoperability.

Most middleware components will be written using well-known programming languages such as Java, C++, PHP, or Python. In addition to this, they may also use frameworks such as JSON, REST APIs, XML, SOAP, or other web services to communicate with your front-end and back-end platforms.

Admin Interface

Lastly, some logistic apps, like our fleet management app example, may require a separate admin panel, web interface, or app in addition to an end-user mobile app. This admin interface can have more privileges to assign roles, override default instructions, and re-assign delivery routes to ensure smooth operations. More often than not, this admin panel will be built using HTML5.

Improve Your App by Iteratively Refining It Post-launch

Even if your app isn't perfect at release, you can iteratively improve it based on user feedback. 

Let's face it. All the user testing you do under near-perfect lab-like conditions can't prepare the app for how real users might use it. You need real data and feedback from users in live usage scenarios to improve the app's reliability and performance.

Releasing new beta features into your production deployment will let your users shine the spotlight on those elusive errors, bugs, and complicated user workflows better than what any user testing session can reveal. Using live user information to refine your app iteratively as quickly and responsively as possible can also improve user satisfaction.

Augment Your Logistic App With External SDKs, APIs, and Plugins

Building all your app features internally can place a big burden on your development team.

Leveraging external solutions for all your non-core features, such as chat, location tracking, and payment processing, can help you avoid development bottlenecks.

However, evaluating and selecting the right external solution also requires the same level of careful consideration that you put into building your core app features. And that is exactly what Alpega Group, one of Europe's leading freight exchange networks, did when it wanted an in-app multilingual chat feature.

The need for a chat feature with auto-translation capabilities was evident. Such a feature would help an Italian driver delivering a shipment in the Netherlands to chat in real time with local Dutch freight companies and find a suitable return delivery without any language barriers and prevent the driver's truck from being wastefully empty on the return journey.

When it came to developing such a feature, Giacomo Fedele, the head of product management at Alpega Freight Exchange, decided to evaluate external chat solutions. "We usually develop everything in-house. Our technical team is very experienced, and a project like this (building chat) excites them, but I needed them to continue focusing on our core transport business," said Giacomo.

The product team evaluated several chat solutions before building a prototype with Stream's React Chat SDK. And only when convinced that Stream improved user experience, delivered reliable performance, and lowered costs did Alpega integrate Stream Chat into its Freight Exchange product. "It is amazing. We have received feedback from our clients about how it has made their lives easier," shares Giacomo.

The Alpega example offers four valuable app development takeaways:

  1. Reduce internal engineering dependencies for non-core features
  2. Evaluate several external solutions using a clear internal framework
  3. Only select solutions that have well-documented SDKs, APIs, or plugins
  4. Test user experience, performance, and costs before rolling out the solution

Supercharge Your Logistic App With Real-time Chat 

Stream Chat offers well-documented SDKs to help you build a fully customizable, feature-rich, cross-platform, real-time chat messaging experience into your app. Test it out with our free 30-day trial.