When Dr David Sheppard approached Clearleft recently, the first thing he asked was “How much will it cost to build me an app?”. You probably know the answer to that question already. “It depends”.

Richard Rutter
Richard Rutter
18th July 2017

Like all good designers we immediately set about finding out what the app needed to do, and whether a native app was required at all. It turned out we were right to question Dr Sheppard’s initial assumption, but in doing we ended up exceeding his expectations.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is a public body which provides guidance and advice to the National Health Service (NHS) in England. Its guidelines make evidence-based recommendations for the prevention and management of specific conditions, improving health and using medicines, and are required to be used by NHS healthcare professionals. The NICE guidelines are comprehensive and wide-ranging, but the pertinent clinical information is not often presented in an easily accessible or readily available manner.

To help with his own practise, Dr Sheppard had carefully summarised the NICE guidance into single pages for quick and easy access. Seeing that these could be useful to other medical and clinical practitioners, Dr Sheppard wanted to make his summaries freely available for use in a quick and easy format. Having NICE guidance on hand, particularly in areas of a medical facility where use of wifi and mobile data is strictly limited, is what led Dr Sheppard to the reasonable assumption that building a native app was the way to go.

We immediately recognised that an easier, cheaper, more open solution could be available. That solution was a web app, by which I really mean a simple web site with some offline caching functionality. In these days of austerity and a consequently under-resourced NHS, there was no funding available for the project, and Dr Sheppard was prepared to pay for it himself. Rather than have a large IT consultancy charge a fortune for a native app, Clearleft decided to put its money where its mouth was and build a web app pro bono. Here’s how went about it.

Dr Sheppard had written his eighty NICE guidance one-pagers in Word. Rather than convert these straight to HTML, we reformatted the pages using Markdown so they could be more easily edited by non-technical authors in future. We linked the pages into a typographically elegant responsive website. As we did so, we made technical optimisations including ensuring text would appear immediately without waiting for web fonts to download.

The final part of the process was enabling the whole site would work as an offline app. For this we turned to an admittedly deprecated technology called AppCache. We used this to make your browser download the entire website (<2 Mb) the first time you visit it. If you’re a knowledgable developer you might well be rolling your eyes in dismay at the mention of AppCache, but for a static, infrequently changing site like NICE One-Pagers, AppCache is just fine, not least of all because it is supported by just about all devices including iOS (which at the time of writing is more than you can say about its grown up sibling Service Workers).

Ultimately, thanks to the efforts of Dr Sheppard, healthcare professionals now have summarised NICE guidance available at a glance as they do their rounds. The entire web app is open source and made available to the world, at no cost to the NHS, by using the power of web technologies, some design nous, a little critical thinking, and a good dose of enthusiasm from the Clearleft team.