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Authoring And App-Making Tools



I have always been captivated by authoring tools. Authoring tools help you make software, apps or websites without needing to learn low-level programming languages.

If you have always thought that making an app was something that only programmers could do, then this document will show you that you could start developing your first app later today. It will introduce you to some interesting tools and approaches.

I begin by sharing some of the history of authoring tools, which is steeped with the “You can too” ethos. I share some of the work I have been involved with which used authoring tools and then offer some tools for you to go away and try.




Activity - 20 mins 


For the purpose of the activities it really helps if you have a simple idea for an app that you would like to make, and/or some text and images to work with.


Go to some of these sites and assemble a folder of roughly half a dozen images that you would like to use in your app. Think about finding images that might make good backgrounds, or screens, or headers or icons for your project.


Here are some good sources of royalty free, or creative commons images.  Ensure you keep track of which images you use so that you can properly cite the usage later.




Also go find some icons in case your app needs some custom buttons:



Again. Keep a record of the icons used should they require attribution if you publish your app.

In the beginning… a short history of authoring.


In 1945 Vannevar Bush wrote an article titled “As We May Think” in which he invented the word, memex, a portmanteau of memory and index as the name of a hypothetical hypertext system. He’d conceived of the world wide web and personal computers fifty years before they existed. It looked like this.



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The History of Authoring and HyperText


Authoring was born out of HyperText and the Graphical User Interface (GUI) and fuelled largely in part with the creative efforts of educators. Listen how Alan Kay talks passionately about Etoys, and how programming for kids can be more advanced, creative and expressive than regular difficult programming.


A large part of my love of authoring/HyperCard is that it puts the creative potential of the computer into your hands, and prevents it from being interpreted by somebody else, like a computer programmer. Often, good ideas need to grow rather than arrive fully-formed, and the best person to do that is often the person who has spotted the need, or wants the problem solving, aka you. 


In my opinion it is worth immersing yourself in the history of all hypertext, not because I’m prone to nostalgia, but because I find it inspirational that the people below conceived of tools and systems decades before they were possible and clearly articulated what they would achieve and how they would work. Additionally, I still believe that these geniuses laid out their visions and still hidden in there a loads of fantastic concepts and ideas that have yet to be realised, laying there like un-mined gold nuggets.


A small example of this is how Steve Jobs saw the Smalltalk-based GUI and created the Macintosh but completely failed to spot the huge potential of the Ethernet networking part of the demo. He completely just didn’t get it, and if Steve could gloss over something as huge as that, there has to be more in there. Look at the impact the internet has had. Steve didn’t get it. 


If you watch Doug Englebart’s Mother Of All Demos, it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking and science fiction this was, but in there are examples they had working of things we still can’t do today, like have two mice on screen to allow two people to really work together. 



Authoring Timeline


1945 Vannevar Bush coins the Memex, a proto-hypertext system.

1960 Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu.

1974 Ted Nelson coins the term “Intertwingled”

1962 Doug Englebart - Tools to Augment the Human Intellect.

1968 Doug Englebart -  The Mother Of All Demos 

1973 Xerox create the first GUI

1979 Steve Jobs visits Xerox Parc and see the first GUI

1979 Dan Briclkin creates the first spreadsheet for personal computers

1979 Alan Kay - Smalltalk, Squeak and Dynabook. 

1984 Macintosh and Bill Atkinson talking about HyperCard 

1986 Randall B. Smith and the Alternate Reality Kit 



Programming For The Rest Of Us


The second authoring tool I first learned to use was HyperCard. HyperCard grabbed my heart in 1990 and despite it withering on the vine, I’m still hooked.


For those that don’t know Hypercard, my elevator history of it would be:


(Excuse me whilst I go all misty-eyed)


It was a tool to create software that came free with the Macintosh. It uses a card-based metaphor where collections of cards become stacks (a bit like database or rolodex) and visual objects like buttons and text fields can contain simple scripts that do things. The coding language you use, HyperTalk is so simple I used to teach it to primary school kids and adults but some of most impressive multimedia products that were available on Macintosh computers ( like Myst for example). People loved the flexibility of HyperCard and used it to make interactive stories, encyclopaedias, games, databases, business systems, art projects, music tools, teaching materials, and more. HyperCard was beloved by educators because, it met pretty much all of my criteria from above (except it only ran on Macintoshes).


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Bill Atkinson, Hypercard’s creator described it as “An erector set that lets non-programmers put together interactive information


Hypercard also introduces another difficult to explain criteria that I hold fond, which is, that once you’ve learned it, you can use it to do a million other things. Having learned how to create an interactive multimedia adventure game, you can use it organise your household budget, log your training regime, organise your files, or just paint pretty pictures. 


Activity - 7 mins

Watch the video of Bill demoing Hypercard. Apart from its dated charm, the concepts of HyperCard (cards, buttons, fields etc) are used by a tool I want you to try later called Livecode. Knowledge of HyperCard might also make you seem very erudite indeed when talking with an old educator or hacker. 

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You can now not only browse the immense collection of just some of the stacks created, but you can run them too. Just look at the range of content created, games, education, music, guides, novels, hypertexts, tools. This all resembled and pre-dated mobile apps by thirty years, but most were not made by “programmers” but were made by people who had bought a computer that happened to have a free tool on it. Thousands of people were creatively participating in a genre (hypertext? Multimedia? app?) that previously hadn’t existed. 

Activity - 5+ mins


Spend a little time browsing the historical archive of HyperCard stacks. Yes, the graphics will look old fashioned, but I’d like you to get a feel for the bewildering range of stacks created. It is this that excites me personally, that if you give people a tool with which you can do something really creative, people reliably are really creative. And at times either genius or a little mad perhaps.


I lament the fact now that mobile app creation seems such a difficult and expensive thing. I’m not the only one, David Gerwitz, computing journalist said:


If Apple back then had the restrictive, draconian policies that Apple today has, we wouldn't have had HyperCard. Without HyperCard, we might not have the World Wide Web, wikis, JavaScript, rich-media Web sites, or even the iPhone and iPad.


Hypercard really was, for me, a life-changing product. It taught me how to program, or probably more accurately, script. It taught me that I could teach myself (although I got a lot of help from Richard, Sam, Kris and Stephen) to code. It taught me that there is more than one way to do everything, and that there probably is a “best” way. And because HyperCard was sort of open source, it taught me that other people have probably solved my problem before me, and made code available, but that there is also lots of value and fun in re-making wheels for yourself too. 


This again, raises another interesting criteria lurking in the crevices, that is, what is the upper limit of what can be done with this tool?


My criteria for choosing an authoring tool




Example Case Studies


When working with Sara Perry, I am often involved in two or three week student projects where the students learn a new tool, a tool with which they can make something digital and cool. In the past we have used blogging tools (Blogger and Wordpress), site creation tools, the authoring tool Livecode (to create an iPad app) and Twine (a visual wiki multi narrative creation tool).


The archaeology students are given the challenge of creating something that communicates something of an archaeological site and engages the public. At the Breary Banks site in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, the students made an audio guide. For the Roman dig in Malton the students made a “How Long Would You Last As A Roman” game after having met with the museum’s staff and explored the artefacts.


The challenge to choose which tools to use with the students is a moving target because each year things have moved on, changed or even ceased to be. 


Case Study: Breary Banks

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The Breary Banks iPad app was an audio guide to an archaeological dig in the Yorkshire Dales. The app was created by archaeology students,and is essentially a map of the key points in the site with images and narrated audio explaining the different areas.


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Whilst the process of making an app is very, very easy, we found the most stretching part was when we needed to submit the app to the Apple App Store which requires various technical certificates and accounts to be in place in order to be able to distribute your app. I believe that creating an Android app may require less technical bureaucracy but soon Livecode will be able to export its apps as HTML5 meaning they will run on any device as is. 



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Why This Might Be Of Relevance To The Wider University

Anyone who creates content, particularly for digital delivery, would enjoy working with Livecode. Creating iPad apps isn't something only a hardened ObjectiveC programmer can do, Livecode makes it easy (enough) for everyone. 


Whether it's producing educational materials, training apps, interactive dashboards or games, you will find Livecode fills the gap between Powerpoint and hardcore programming.


Case Study: The Archaeology of Train Stations in Norway


Sara Perry worked with ten phd students over two days in Norway. The students learned how to use the authoring tool called Livecode. They collected media from their chosen site of interest, then built their interactive exhibits.


During the teaching sessions I “taught remotely” with the students via a laptop and with Google Hangouts, hearing their ideas, making suggestions, and being on hand to help with any coding. The students went from never having coded before to being able to create an app in a few days.


The students' Livecode projects are shown below. 


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Case Study: Roman Malton

In 2017 the University of York’s Archaeology and Heritage first year undergraduate students worked in collaboration with the Malton Museum on a project designed to help the museum reach its visitors in a more interactive way. To that end, the students made a videogame that focuses mainly on the Roman age of the city of Malton.


This game seeks to introduce audiences of all ages to this historical period full of things to discover, but in a different way. The aim is for visitors to experience being Roman in Derventio Brigantum (the ancient Roman fortress of Malton), exploring in an interactive and dynamic way the life of the city while learning part of its history through objects that are currently in the Malton Museum.


Play the Roman Malton game here.


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Case Study: Borthwick Visitors Book


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The Borthwick Visitors is an app that is sited at the entry of the Borthwick Archives in the Library at the University of York. It is intended to work like a Doctor’s sign in app, so that the Borthwick can track who is using the archives.

Authoring Tools


Some of the tools are aimed at creating HTML5 online content, whilst others are designed to create mobile apps and some do both.


It’s not that I am opposed to proprietary software, it’s just often that departments don’t have a budget to buy software to use experimentally with students, and there are also often issues with installation of tools that require licensing on university computers. This means that I lean towards tools that have a workable free licence so that students can use it to create solutions, and if I or a student wants to develop an app I want to sell, I can buy the developer version. 


Commercial Authoring Tools


There is a huge list of mainly commercial authoring systems, including well used tools such as Adobe Captivate, or Articulate Storyline. These tools might be said to be closer in functionality to a Powerpoint presentation with interactivity than to a programming or scripting environment, and are great at producing interactive education resources.


As such, many of these tools are geared toward creating learning materials and have features, such as assessment tools that other authoring tools don’t have.


Free Authoring Tools


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Some of the authoring tools that have compelling free versions include:






The Authoring Tools We Have Used And Recommend


The authoring tools we’ve used in part because they are free ( or have a free version ). As I said in my earlier criteria, I’m a fan of tools that don’t constrain your creativity. Some tools, although they let you easily create simple learning objects, there isn’t much scope for deviation or further development of what the tools can do.

Twine

https://twinery.org/wiki/ 


Twine is a tool for creating interactive fiction, or branching narratives. It is also a fantastic tool for simply organising a number of ideas or notes, in order to craft your narrative. 


Whilst primarily a textual tool, you will see later that many people hack and extend Twine to be a media rich game-like experience.


The Roman Malton project is an adventure game used Twine. The Twine tool is a visual wiki. Twine is a lovely visual wiki that you can use as a desktop app or online. With this tool you create your pages like post-it notes and then connect them together with WikiWord links in your text.


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Twine isn’t the only wiki, you may like the concept and want to try other wiki systems with slightly different features.

Activity - 10 mins


Firstly. Go and experience a few games made with Twine to give you an idea of the sorts of projects people have made, some are purely textual, some are more immersive and multimedia driven.


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Again, I am delighted by the sheer creativity of the projects that have been created with Twine.


Activity - 10 mins 

Note: There are a number of versions of Twinery. Version 1 is a desktop app that handles pictures more intuitively. Version 2 can be run on a server or you can use the online version. I prefer version 1, but for the purposes of speed we will just use version 2/


We are going to go to the online version of Twinery to quickly create a HyperTextual narrative at  https://twinery.org/wiki/ and create a new Story.


Start adding text to your story, and when you want a link to a new page to appear simply create a WikiWord by wrapping it in two square brackets, like this


This is my story and it is all about [[The History Of Punk Rock]]. 


You will notice as you add wiki words that the pages get made and linked automatically. 


Make a network of pages that are either linked sequentially or at decision points, for example, “Do you want to leave via the [[Revolving Door]] or the [[Fireman’s Pole]]?



Activity - 15 mins


Could your app idea be an interactive fiction? 


Sometimes even something like a straightforward presentation, say about Health & Safety Fire Training, might benefit from becoming a “game” in which you attempt to survive a toaster fire and make your way to the meeting point safely by making a number of choices in a branching narrative.


There are acclaimed and widely known creations such as DepressionQuest, which explores the experience of depression in a way that many say is very different from say watching a documentary about depression. 


Just for fun, imagine what your app might be like if re-conceived as a Twine game. Maybe you could even quickly create the screens or rooms or pages of part of this game in Twine.  




Livecode

http://livecode.com


Livecode is a tool for creating apps and authoring multimedia learning materials. Livecode is a direct descendant of Hypercard borrowing most of the concepts and the scripting language used in HyperCard.  


With HyperCard/Livecode is very easy to add text, images and movies to what are called “stacks” and then adding interactivity to them. The diagram below shows how your buttons sit in a layer on your card, which in turn is on a background within a stack. With this simple metaphor, people could make and organise a million ideas.


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Stacks can be saved as iPhone, Android, Mac or Windows apps. A recent developments mean you will be soon be able to save your work as HTML5, and so can be embedded into any web page. 


Livecode scripting is easy to learn. For example, the scripting you need to put into the buttons you create doesn’t have to get more complicated than…


on mouseup

 go to card “Home”

end mouseup


That’s it. For a basic application, that’s almost all the code you will need.


There is a free Community version of Livecode, meaning you can download and start creating your app now. 


I'm very excited that the model that Livecode uses, of cards and buttons and text fields is making a comeback because it empowers so many people to start getting their hands dirty making something real on a computer. Read my article on the Rebirth of Authoring here.


It's always easier to see a tool being used, than having it explained to you, so I've made a quick video of me making a very rudimentary two page app or stack in a few minutes. I hope it gives you the courage to have a go and make something for yourself, even if you've never coded before.

Activity - 45 minutes


This is an ambitious activity in which you will begin scripting to add interactivity to an app. Don’t worry, you’ve seen how simple the HyperTalk language is, the only slightly interesting part is navigating the interface and learning the tools. So, take a deep breath and...


Go to http://downloads.livecode.com/livecode/ and download the Community version of Livecode. 


Have a look at the tutorials such as http://lessons.livecode.com/m/4603 although I often prefer to watch YouTube video tutorials such as these https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Livecode+tutorial 


Now, have an idea for say a 4 page app that has a “Home” screen with buttons that go to the other pages. On the other pages you can add images and text in fields. Once you have done that, you can either start experimenting with the other features, or reflect on the fact that given a little bit of technical set up, you could now be publishing the app you have made to the Android and iOS platforms.




Mobile App Making Tools


Many authoring tools are aimed at creating content designed to be delivered on a mobile device. This either means what you create will end up as an app, or that it will be web pages that use responsive designs, that can resize or re-orient themselves to fit the device they are being used on, be it a phone, tablet or computer.


Some of the tools create native apps, whilst others create responsive websites that work on mobile, tablets and desktop browsers.



AppGyver

https://www.appgyver.com/


AppGyver is a web-based, low-code tool for creating mobile apps. With easy to use tools and dozens of application templates you can quickly create enterprise grade apps for all platforms. 


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Racontr

https://racontr.com/ 


Racontr is a nice simple web-based tool with website templates to create  media rich, interactive web sites.


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Pandasuite

https://pandasuite.com/showcase/ 


PandaSuite is lovely, web-based tool to create interactive content without coding. I could imagine creating some fairly complex projects with this tool.


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For single user creations, PandaSuite is free but to publish on mobile, tablet and desktop it is $99 per month.


Other Low-code App Making Apps 

There exist a number of routes to “easily” make your own, often native, mobile app.



Activity - 5 mins (optional)


It’s worth reading Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Mobile App Development Platforms but these apps are often focussed at corporates, not education and so can be quite costly. 


Go to https://www.mendix.com/resources/gartner-2017-magic-quadrant-for-mobile-app-development-platforms-mx/ and get a copy of the report. 


In the document low-level, manual coding tools such as Apache Cordova and rapid mobile development tools are all reviewed in depth. One of these may be just the tool you are looking for.


Cheaper Low Code Apps

The tools below are more aimed at the lone non-technical developer with a simple idea who wants a low code environment to create their app or game.


I have trialed all of these below and each has their plus points worth exploring. 




A list of more Low Code Development tools is available here: https://blog.commontime.com/low-code-dev-platforms with more technically oriented ones listed in a slideshow here: https://www.infoworld.com/article/3214637/mobile-development/25-simple-tools-for-building-mobile-apps-fast.html

Activities - 30 mins

The purpose of this activity is to get a feel for what “out of the box” development can do for you. Sometimes what you want to make has been invented before, so why reinvent the wheel? Most development, even authoring can be quite labour intensive, but tools designed to make development easier can limit your creativity. 


Go an play with one or all of these apps below and see if you can create an app that uses some of the media and text you created earlier that you can view on your phone. Don’t worry if you can’t, part of the exercise is about deciding on whether this might be a way you would consider working.




App Press

http://www.app-press.com/ 


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Appy Pie


Go to the AppyPie site http://www.appypie.com  and create an educational site, just for experimentation purposes.


It is going to be a site about your project idea and simply have information about your project. It might share some Google Documents, PDFs and have profiles of the people working on it.


Spend a while figuring out how to use the interface, there are interesting functional templates such as Quiz, Poll, Google Drive listings, Calendars etc.


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Technical caveat. Once you have finished, AppyPie generates native apps for iOS and Android, and so unfortunately if you want to sell your app and publish it on Apple’s AppStore or Google’s Play Store, you need Apple Developer tools (and a £100 account to push your app to the AppStore) and/or the Android SDK Development tools . Don’t be overwhelmed though. This is a great way to quickly prototype simple apps.


You can alternatively (and more simply): 


It’s encouraging to be able to add information to an app then see it running natively on your device in under half an hour.


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And although this may seem far too technical, it is definitely doable and once installed, because we are creating apps that don’t need to be hosted on a Store, we just push them straight onto an Android tablet ( or an iPad ).

Appery.io


https://appery.io 


I enjoyed creating an app with Appery, which can compile to iOS, Android or HTML5 (saving the files to your computer). With this you could quickly create an app that would run on your phone. Well worth a play.


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Animation-oriented Tools

Often, what you want to create can be conceived of, in its simplest form as an animation, similar to a Powerpoint presentation but with interactivity and/or branching.


Activity - 10 mins


Whilst you may not want to use these tools, why not just spend a few minutes researching them, watching demo videos and getting a feel for whether or not they might be something you could use.