Why a bad data sync can tank your app — and how to overcome it

Presented by MongoDB

We’ve all been there — and seen it happen plenty. Someone’s happily working on their mobile phone when suddenly the app stops working. Maybe their Wi-Fi cuts out, or they’re in a car, flipping from 5G to 4G to LTE then back to 5G. Whatever the reason, the app is unresponsive, leaving the user frustrated and unable to keep working

The reality is, most current mobile apps were not built for modern workflows or designed to seamlessly handle an irregular network connection. Whether using an app to collaborate, process inventory, deliver orders, or simply use a map on a mobile device, users today expect apps to run fast, work offline, and show a consistent and real-time view of data whenever devices are connected. When apps fail to meet these expectations, users have a poor experience, which may be reflected in bad app reviews, or lower adoption and retention rates.

If you’re building a mobile app, then you already know all this. Many of today’s mobile apps are only as good as their ability to sync data efficiently, in real-time.

So if it’s so important, why don’t more apps have real-time data sync? Because in an  environment where connectivity may not be guaranteed, it’s incredibly hard to build.

Let’s examine what exactly real-time data sync is, the challenges of getting it right, and why nailing it during the development process is key for your potential users and ultimately your app’s success.

The TL;DR

Data sync means your app — in near real-time — keeps its data consistent across all users and devices, even in the face of intermittent connectivity. Any conflicts are resolved quickly and usually behind the scenes. Of course, any good app’s mobile data sync also handles data changes made when devices are offline. But why is this so important?

First, it’s obvious that having the latest data is important to users getting work done. Outdated or unsynced data means the user must simply stop working, because the app has stopped working. And when a user stops working, a user stops being productive.

Let’s look at an example. When 7-Eleven rolled out an inventory app using MongoDB Realm to store managers across the U.S., real-time data sync was critical to improving data accuracy in stores and the overall productivity of their retail workers, by providing a real-time and exact view of when sales and deliveries arrive. Currently, 8,500 stores use this app with data staying synced across 20,000 devices in real-time.

It’s all about the user experience

But beyond this direct increase in productivity lies another important reason for real-time data sync: on mobile, a mediocre user experience leads to mediocre adoption.

Consider an employee on the job for 20 years. He already has a process in place that works — even if that process is pen and paper on a clipboard. Giving him a new device with an app installed to use in the field is one thing, but getting that app adopted across your workforce isn’t a given. If your employee tries to use your app, and it shows him outdated data; doesn’t work when the connection drops; or worst of all, loses critical data when a device goes offline — how long until he gives up on the app and returns to that reliable pen-and-paper process?

But an app with a consistent view of data — that works offline and syncs reliably — has a greater chance of delivering a great user experience. It can build user confidence, encourage usage, make it easier for your workers to do their jobs, and unlock productivity.

And a consumer app that runs fast, with features made possible through a great real-time data sync, can help drive more five-star reviews. That has benefits for a business as users are twice as likely to download an app with five stars as opposed to three.

Above: Minimum star rating needed for a user to download an app. Source: Apptentive

Why is it so hard to build a great data sync?

So you know you need an offline-first data sync, to show users the most up-to-date data. But how do you implement it? Trying to build your own solution is complicated, and you have limited developer resources.

DIY solutions can be expensive, error-prone, and time-consuming, resulting in oversimplified and buggy solutions. Not only do you have to worry about all the normal issues of IT projects — security, performance, in-house stack expertise, cross-platform concerns — but you have to worry about mobile data persistence, data sync, and conflict resolution.

And since this is all being built on mobile, you have to do all this while simultaneously building an app that uses minimal space on the device, minimal memory, and doesn’t drain battery or hog data.

The challenge of building Data Sync yourself ultimately keeps your development teams from working on more unique features, and risks delivering a poor user experience.

Above: The realities of building sync into mobile

That’s because few solutions actually work. They may require your teams to write extra code and work with ORMs. They may slow app performance, or don’t work cross-platform. They generally cause more concerns than they alleviate. And, speaking as a software engineer with way-too-many years of experience, synchronization code has so many edge cases that it takes months or years to get perfectly right.

So if DIY is too difficult, what’s a better way?

MongoDB Realm and Realm Sync

Realm’s Mobile Database and MongoDB Realm Sync handle real-time data sync for you — and allow apps to work even when your users are offline. They save you time and code by handling the plumbing for you, freeing developers to focus on the features that make an app unique.

Building a data sync solution without MongoDB Realm Sync results in a complicated architecture. MongoDB Realm Sync simplifies it by taking care of error handling for you.

If you’re a mobile dev team that aspires to build best-in-class apps, Realm’s intuitive mobile database and MongoDB Realm Sync let you get your app in users’ hands faster. And, as a CTO, father, and husband, I’m positive that I’ll be so much happier using the applications you build with world-class sync.

As always, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter at @MarkLovesTech if you’d like.

We’re excited to see what you build today!

Mark Porter is CTO at MongoDB.

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