A checklist for enterprise mobile apps
Enterprise technology is facing a major change, as increasing numbers of staff rely on mobility to do their jobs. This is a seismic shift which affects every part of the business, as we have moved from mobility being a strongly controlled and locked-down experience on a corporate-issued device to a world in which any given employee might be using one or more corporate-owned devices, a smartphone or tablet they have brought to work as part of a BYOD scheme, or even a privately-owned device that corporate IT has no control over or, in some cases, knowledge of.
These devices have also gone from being a highly predictable mix of Windows (probably XP) desktops and laptops and Nokia Symbian or Blackberry smartphones to a plethora of devices and operating systems, from various versions of Windows through the wide range of Android devices to iOS, Macs and even Chromebooks.
It might seem that the challenge of building enterprise applications that fit this new world is entirely separate from the challenge of managing devices, but in fact there are advantages to taking a process and workflow based approach to both challenges, because they are two sides of the same coin: how to give users the tools they need to work effectively.
The modern enterprise user doesn’t think in terms of what they can do on their desktop compared to their mobile; they expect that enterprise technology will work around their needs and workstyle, regardless of which piece of technology they are using at the time. The key point here is that the technology has to be multi-channel, not just cross-devices.
The difference between a channel and a device is that where a device could be two difference models of smartphone, multi-channel means differences between, for example, a smartphone and tablet from the same OS ecosystem.
When trying to build a multi-channel approach, the key is to identify how code can be used across channels. Which part of the code is used by various business units, and what needs to go where? Your users expect an experience which feels native to every device and channel they use, and a key part of creating this is by adapting the level of input and output depending on the context of their device.
Consider the differences in user expectation between their PC, tablet and smartphone, where they are trying to access the same application on each. Firstly, the choice of device informs us about their circumstances: they are far more likely to be sitting comfortably while using the PC, whereas the smartphone is most likely used while on the go or when in a hurry; and the tablet is probably somewhere in between.
This is purely based on the relative ease of using each, as the smartphone is easiest to use while walking around, but hardest to look at information on; whereas the PC is great for deep dives into data but less portable. Secondly, the inferred circumstances also tell us about what level of detail they want: they are not going to have the patience for a traditional desktop ERP application on a phone, but nor will they accept a cut-down experience on the PC; that’s just a waste of capability.
This is why users expect a multi-channel experience: their needs and expectations vary according to the device they are using, and which they have selected for their current task, and the challenge for enterprise IT is to meet these expectations so they can work where, how and and when they want.
Following on from the importance of multi-channel is the process-based application. The purpose of process (or workflow) is that rather than designing the screen to show what information is in a given system; we ask what process the user is trying to carry out and then give them the information they need to complete the process in an informed way.
It really is that simple: rather than having to use multiple screens and windows to extract information from various heavy, data-rich corporate systems (think ERP, finance and CRM) and manually input it into another, we provide a process launcher which walks them through what they need, with all the options and functionality they could ask for, picking up the important data along the way.
This is especially critical in ultra-mobile scenarios where the only tool is a touch-input smartphone; the absolute last device you want to enter multiple passwords on. Instead, the process-based application seeks to reduce input while preserving all the functionality.
This can actually promote corporate security by having the device authenticate the user; providing a single sign-in to the corporate systems required by the process, but only extract the required data and only if the device is in locations where the enterprise has accepted mobile access.
As users become more familiar with this concept of completing corporate tasks, they will demand this type of app on their desktops as well. Ultimately, this is a good thing for IT, as the learning required to follow a well laid-out workflow is far smaller than that needed to navigate a major ERP tool, leading to increased user satisfaction, greater productivity and IT being seen as a partner by the business, not a roadblock.
Functionality and social tools
The other key expectation among modern users is that their enterprise applications will include some form of social media connector.
This doesn’t mean that they should be able to tweet every updated record; nor does it mean that everything they do should splash onto every other user’s homescreen: what is important is the ability to follow elements and records. This enables multiple people who have an interest in an element to keep up to date with the changes to it, and boosts collaboration.
Of course, it’s not only social tools that users expect: they have also learned to expect a search capability within all enterprise applications. This search capability should be embedded in the application and be able to identify and locate all objects in the system.
Likewise, context menus are a very useful navigation tool, especially after a search is begun. The context menu provides options and drill-down capability around the current process.Policies and usage data
While setting policies and collecting real-world data aren’t obvious user expectations, think about it from a different perspective: users expect their applications to fit how they work; and they expect to be able to work from anywhere reasonable, and they certainly don’t want a heavy-handed corporate policy restricting access to their own device.
This last point is particularly significant, because one of the first forays into mobile by most enterprises is the Mobile Application Management (MAM) software. This is a very useful first step, as understanding when data is accessed, by whom and where is useful for corporate security and provides valuable data. However while MAM is a handy tool it really functions as a springboard into the true value of mobile management, which is unlocked by moving the focus from managing the application to the data on the device.
Collecting the user data, not just once the application is launched but also through thorough user testing during development, enables the IT department to build applications around actual user needs, rather than trying to second-guess them. This is also a candidate for a Big Data analysis, as all the points I have described above could be analysed to obtain a very accurate insight into how, where and when the applications are used; and how they are used differently according to context.