Research IT

The Three Tiers of MDS

Research software engineer Patricia Barnby describes the Mobile Development Service (MDS) 3-tier service model to help support the wide range of researcher needs around mobile apps.

Launched in 2019, the MDS from Research IT has delivered over a dozen cross-platform (IOS/Android/Windows/MacOS/Smart Watch) mobile applications for and with researchers across the University.

Almost every app has served as a mechanism for data collection from research participants and MDS has its own customisable secure data collection and storage facility. Anonymised data collected from an app such as demographic details and question responses is securely transmitted from mobile clients to a Research IT secure server. In situations with no internet connectivity, the service will buffer the data and send automatically once connectivity is available. MDS have also built apps with interactive questionnaires, barcode scanners and even touch screen games. We have also made use of cloud messaging and file storage systems from Google Firebase as required by researchers. All MDS apps are backed by Microsoft Visual Studio App Center for automated testing, crash reporting and analytics.

Over the last couple of years, we in MDS have realised that not every researcher wants or needs us to develop an app for them. Some researchers are already working with external companies or may want to write the code themselves but would like some support. To better support the community, MDS have this year introduced a new tiered system of engagement that allows us to provide the right kind of service for each researcher.

MDS offers three different levels of service which provide a flexible way to deliver mobile apps to researchers depending on their project funds, available skills, and individual needs. A question mark indicates that MDS involvement is at the discretion of the researcher:


Tier 1: Lifecycle

In Tier 1 MDS provide the full range of services, supporting the researcher fully throughout the project from start to finish.

During initial grant application, when researchers are preparing a proposal, MDS can provide free advice and support to help with planning the project and preparing technical aspects.

At project start, MDS will initiate a kick-off meeting to chat and establish top level requirements. Project management is done by MDS using an interpretation of the Agile methodology in a series of sprints. A sprint is a short, repeatable phase of time within which an agreed amount of work is completed. Requirements and progress are documented by the MDS team in conjunction with the researchers.

Once top-level requirements are clear, the app is designed by MDS, and development starts. During the development, MDS will continually communicate with the researcher by scheduling sprint review meetings. A meeting will consist of a review of actions and work done then a demonstration of the app either on a device or using emulators to show progress. These regular meetings and demonstrations help ensure that the app is fit for purpose at the end of the project and the requirements evolve as the development iterates.

Once all requirements are met, the researcher must conduct user acceptance testing and sign off this stage before the release phase can commence. Additional testing can be done once the app is available on the App/Play stores using Test Flight for iOS apps and test tracks on for Android. This is done prior to a production release to the public. If you want your app releasing privately then there are options for this as well.

With MDS at the helm, the app is guaranteed to adhere to our Release Standard. This standard defines how apps should be written and what information they need to contain to ensure they are compliant with relevant legislation and University policy. MDS will provide accessibility statements and look after GDPR compliance through completion of an Information Governance Risk Review (IGRR) screening assessment.

Software quality assurance is done by implementing good project management, following the MDS development guidelines and using good software engineering practices throughout the project lifecycle. For example, Git for version control, standard templates for artwork, peer review of code and all processes are well documented with various process diagrams. This helps to ensure quality throughout the project. MDS has carefully matured a software quality management process which in a timely manner, delivers researchers with quality mobile applications which can be published with confidence.

Tier 2: Support

When research teams have IT experts available within their team who want to develop their own app but perhaps need a little direction or mobile technical knowhow, MDS can provide light touch support and guidance throughout a project. An MDS developer will be allocated to the project and available as a consultant throughout the project lifecycle and may do very little of the actual development work or alternatively may need to step in if the project needs a greater level of input. The researcher is considered the main developer but will be encouraged to work to the standard used for MDS Lifecycle projects. Once user acceptance testing has taken place and the app is signed off, MDS will manage the release process as if it were a tier-1 app.

Tier 3: Deploy

Tier 3 provides researchers with a release only option. Apps which have been developed independently of MDS either internally or by external companies can still be published through the University of Manchester App Store and Google Play store pages. An MDS developer will engage with the app developer to step through the process.

Release management requires an MDS developer to help an app developer to assess their own app for compliance with the MDS release standard. This may involve some preparation to get an app and associated paperwork ready for submission and the process can take several weeks.

There is a substantial amount of risk for MDS to publish an app under the University of Manchester brand developed by other University researchers. The public circulation of an app which fails to comply with relevant legislation, for example laws around security, data, and export controls, would bring both the University, its staff and the MDS into significant disrepute. All apps submitted to the MDS in Tier 3 are assessed against the MDS release standard and developers advised if they may wish to consider changes prior to approval being sought, and store release being actioned. The standards are used to advise researchers on potential missing compliance or poor practice. However, ultimately any responsibility for non-compliance lies with the researcher.


Hopefully, we have tried to cover all avenues but MDS is always looking to improve our service and the processes so if you have any suggestions or questions, please feel free to make contact using the MDS email address and let us know.