Brian Westendorf | 07/22/2014 | Digital Experience and Mobile | Thought Leadership
Recently, Apple and IBM announced a strategy to get iOS mobile enterprise apps into the workplace. This partnership illustrates a growing trend in business technology – the continued investment by companies searching for new users and revenue streams in the lucrative, green space of mobile. In fact, according to research firm IDC, the enterprise mobile application market will grow to $4.8B in 2017.
This presents a tantalizing opportunity for enterprises. The ease-of-use that mobile apps currently afford consumers can be leveraged for the workforce, and at reduced cost, to make numerous aspects of business, such as inventory/logistics, customer service, and payment systems, more connected and efficient. For example, with an enterprise mobile app, every employee on the manufacturing floor can get a holistic look at production and maintenance schedules right from their personal mobile device. Apps can also be built to help sales personnel in the field by providing them with real-time data about customers and functionality for inputting customer orders. The possibilities are limitless.
Unfortunately, the majority of today’s enterprises are not ready for the mobile revolution.
Unlike the retail sector, an early adopter of wireless technologies eager to engage shoppers with smartphones, the commercial enterprise lags behind in embracing mobile to improve employee productivity. While companies have noted the proliferation of employees using their own mobile devices for work, and in some cases have adopted tablets for use in point-of-sale, inventory checks and so on, most have not gone beyond the pathways blazed by retailers. One reason for this is that leadership often lacks a mobile champion, someone in the C-suite with the experience to understand how to leverage mobile technology to benefit the business.
However, according to a survey conducted by Appcelerator, half of today’s companies are planning to build mobile applications for business-to-business or private (by employee) use. Unfortunately, this may reflect little more than a “Me, too!” attitude currently in the marketplace. Businesses see competitors with mobile apps and want to rush into development or be left behind, but in opting to get an app into user hands as quickly as possible, enterprises skip the planning stage and overlook user experience.
This is a major mistake. Lack of planning leads to misunderstandings about development costs, the need for future investment and, ultimately, an app that fails to meet the company’s needs. The result is that the intended users don’t adopt the app and the enterprise becomes frustrated and disenchanted.
But this can be easily averted. The following are some considerations that should be discussed in the planning stage in order to build a mobile app that enterprise employees will actually use:
- Determine the business needs. A mobile app should not be approached as a novelty. It is essential to start with how the product makes people more productive. What do your customers/employees/users need that an app can provide? What problem will the app solve?
- Understand the hardware options. There is a lot of hardware out there. How you develop your app will depend on what devices you need to focus on. iPads, Kindles, Android tablets and smartphones, etc. all have different development requirements.
- Decide on native, responsive web, or hybrid. Native apps can be built with Objective-C (iOS) or Java (Android), requiring teams to create several versions of an app if use by both operating systems is desired. By choosing the native app route, developers can integrate useful access/response features using location, a camera, iBeacons, push notifications and more. However, you may have to develop an app for multiple platforms. If the goal is to develop an app that will work on any device, you can create a responsive web app using HTML5, but the current technology doesn’t deliver as great a user experience. Responsive web apps can be slow, fragile and jumpy.
- Design with user experience in mind. Enterprise apps should be approached with as much care as consumer apps. Poor design and bad UX will lead to low adoption in the workplace the same as anywhere else.
Considering these points early in the process can help the enterprise plan a mobile solution for its employees that will actively want to adopt.
Of course, there are a few other stumbling blocks.
At the enterprise level, infrastructure matters. In order for mobile apps to work as expected, the enterprise needs to have considered its network, how it is accessed, how data is stored, synchronized and provisioned, and how the mobile app will be distributed to users. Here’s an example: A regional school system developed an app to help children learn to read in the classroom, but the app could only be installed and configured on devices by IT personnel. The school system quickly realized its infrastructure had limitations, propelling the app development team to create a robust web-supported app that teachers could just download. Distribution is not easy outside of the Apple store.
Finally, many companies don’t understand or properly plan for the long-term costs of app development. They choose to create an app by using off-the-shelf template products such as those by Kony® or PhoneGap so they can get it done quickly. Eventually, they realize they have to redesign the app to meet their needs, but are locked into lengthy user contracts. Overall, it’s far more efficient to hire mobile expertise that can build the app the right way, for the unique needs of the enterprise’s users, resulting in a product that achieves high adoption by employees from the start. In addition, as a company grows and evolves, the company must understand that its app will require updates, bug fixes, new features, etc. This cost must be built into future budgets, which makes it even more imperative that the company is not locked into contracts that do not suit its needs down the road.
Despite the challenges, enterprises should prepare for the mobile revolution, because it is coming whether they embrace it or not. In the near future, we can look forward to:
- An increase in wearable devices that simplify tasks, such as people using Google Glass to conduct inventory checks.
- Location-based apps such as iBeacons being used to track employee whereabouts
- A trend toward contextually aware mobile apps based on human cognitive processes instead of work flow processes. For example, an app can help workers by “knowing” their locations, mapping that to work flows and providing next steps that will keep a project on track.
It’s a brave new world out there, with apps having the potential to replace many of our current work habits, such as reliance on email and spreadsheets. And the benefits are considerable. Mobile apps follow us everywhere. They are rich with data, simple to use, and are always at hand. With the right planning and investment, the enterprise can use mobile apps to boost sales, streamline production, improve customer satisfaction, and more.
We can no longer put off the “coming” mobile revolution; it’s here. The focus now is on how to build a mobile app that improves workflow. The key to a successful mobile enterprise app project is the realization that it must be custom designed and developed to meet the unique needs of your users. Apps that are well designed to deliver the functionality needed by the company will be valuable tools in the workplace.
Brian Westendorf has more than 15 years of experience in software engineering with an emphasis on people and teams, mobile applications, enterprise e-commerce, POS, agile development, and content distribution systems. Brian’s expertise extends to all aspects of the software lifecycle, including business and project planning, design and front-end development, web services, and complex database design.