Don’t you just love it when you discover a company that has been around for over a century but you’ve never heard of it because it’s so niche… yet is still going strong?
Leica Microsystems is one of those companies. Less niche and more micro, the German microscope manufacturing company can trace its origins back to 1869; today it operates 10 plants across 8 countries with distribution partners in more than 100 countries.
It has a bit of a reputation in its industry for innovation, and so when it started to develop a mobile app it had a few requirements that it needed to achieve in order for it to be a success. Chiefly among these included a secure mobile back-end; the ability to create low-latency content API; and a user-friendly editing interface.
The app in development is for students and researchers of the sciences, connecting them to methodologies and technologies. More specifically, the app should have a library packed with stacks of technical papers and other types of information as well as high-quality visuals.
Originally, the plan was to put the app’s back-end on WordPress, yet it soon became apparent that it would run into limitations. So it was decided that it would shift its content onto Contentful.
Why? Because Contentful is capable of securing cloud-based content; has the ability to cache and store offline content; and scalable APIs.
WordPress in the back
Leica brings to market a bunch of new devices every year as well as updates to its current range of products. Limited by clogged up work pipelines and backed up deadlines, Leica’s workforce needed a fast yet simple way to add content to its mobile app. WordPress felt like the default content management system: it’s family, an easy-to-use interface, and a universe of plugins.
“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,” said Shashi Saurav, the lead developer on the project. The team queried the WP API within minutes, yet the API infrastructure wasn’t exactly what they needed.
“The WP API plugin limits the API endpoints to default entities,” added Shashi, “requiring us to spend another couple of days writing plugins for custom content types.”
As the development phase rolled on, yet more problems came into view. For example, multiple APIs are needed to fetch content in which responses were hit with high latency. “As a result, we were left with a beautifully designed app, but knew it could perform better,” explained Kishen Hawkins, the founder of the agency that Leica worked with. “Even with a stable wi-fi connection, it would take 4-5 seconds to load an entry, leading to poor usability.”
The move to Contentful
Nevertheless, Leica rolled with WordPress and launched the app on the content management system. But after half a year the concerns kept growing. This ended up in a second, follow-up project that had the objective of relaunching the app but on a more robust back-end system.
Contentful quickly came into view as a more rounded back-end system. Its clean interface caught the eye of the Leica team and soon enough their devs were making sample entries as well as testing how far their APIs could stretch.
Even sooner, the devs were migrating their app project to the new platform. Within 5 days, they had a complete and workable mobile app.
“Contentful makes very few assumptions about the structure or purpose of the content it serves,” said Matthew Jensen, the executive director at the agency, “making it extremely easy to consume and customize the API.”
The developers mirrored this way of thinking. “The API latency is super low,” said Shashi. “Responses are compact and well structured and thanks to official SDKs we can build apps without ever going back to PHP.”
The performance gains were impressive when they migrated to Contentful. With the content management system’s cloud service as well as its built-in content delivery network cuts latency significantly.
“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,” added Kishen. “Thanks to these networking features, in-app interactions now feel instant. The speed improvement we observed was staggering.”
Somethin’ for the editors
“Some editors might feel that migrating to markdown robs them of essential controls like font sizes,” said Matthew. “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,” said Isabelle Köster, a scientific writer at Leica. “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… This resulted in a visibly shorter path to publishing, leaving us free to focus on the substance of the materials we put out there.”
Relaunching its mobile app with Contentful Leica can deliver valuable technical info to those who need it in a fast and robust way that can be easy to use and update.