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Enterprise mobile apps: 4 pitfalls to avoid

Erik Sherman Journalist, Independent

Enterprise mobile apps should be easy. You have great developers, and your employees are a captive audience. What could go wrong?

A lot, it turns out. Mobile apps are remarkably different from other software. Even the best IT departments can fail spectacularly when they take on mobile.

Enterprise mobile apps are mission-critical

Mobile missteps are a big deal—they can mean the difference between excellence and mediocrity for the entire company. The Accenture report says 54 percent of top-performing companies are"committing to app stores." In contrast, only 22 percent of lesser organizations have done so.

To give your mobile effort the best chance of success, there are four major pitfalls to avoid:

  • Wrong apps
  • Bad user experience (UX)
  • Slow deployment
  • No marketing

Pitfall 1: Wrong apps

The most fundamental error companies make is to write the wrong apps. Often this comes down to deciding what software to write without talking to the people who will use it.

Will Scott, president and managing director of corporate app developer Lextech has seen this happen many times. Once, a distribution company thought it needed an app for the warehouse. Ultimately, what it really needed was apps for recruiting and training forklift drivers.

"With enterprise apps, we're looking for the return to the company," Scott says. "Before we even start building an app, we ask, 'What's the right app?' " Companies must avoid the assumption that they know what is needed.

"Avoid the assumption that you know what is needed."
--Will Scott, president, Lextech Global Services

The company's business and goals dictate the answer. "What are you trying to get done?" Scott asks. "Then design an awesome app that engages users and really delivers value." Develop metrics to show the amount of time saved for users or the improvements in business drivers.

Remember, the people doing the work know their own needs best. "Not involving the end users [in the design] of apps is a mistake," says Robert Lacis, senior director of customer success at mobile-app management platform vendor Apperian. In contrast, asking employees how you can solve pain points "lets users feel that they're [getting value]."

"Not involving end users in the design of apps is a mistake."
--Robert Lacis, senior director of customer success, Apperian, Inc.

Pitfall 2: Bad UX

User experience has to be first and foremost for a mobile app to succeed, says Adam Fingerman, cofounder of app development studio ArcTouch. Mobile apps face UX challenges including:

  • Small screens
  • Imprecise touch input
  • Limited processing power
  • Finite battery life

Trying to move a desktop app to mobile can be a disaster because the user interface, navigation, and flow of operations don't translate. More importantly, the underlying concept of a mobile app is different.

"What [enterprises] typically get wrong is they want to build a Swiss Army knife of features when in reality they need a single-purpose tool," says Fingerman. Keeping apps simple is key to success.

Clean interfaces are also necessary for usability. Touch screens don't have the precision of computer mice, so the interface must be simpler and more forgiving.

And it's not just about the interface—what happens behind the scenes matters, too. The differences between desktop and mobile environments can trip up developers.

Maximiliano Firtman, director of training firm ITMaster and author of books about app development points to multitasking as an example. On the desktop, the operating system uses time-sliced allotments so all apps run for short periods in rapid succession. Not so with mobile.

"When you press the home button on the phone, your previous app stops," he says. If an app needs to do something continuously, like monitor a GPS position, it has to create a background process. But background processes can burn through power. "You want your users to have a phone the whole day," Firtman says.

"Beware of background processes. You want your users to have a phone with battery life that lasts the whole day."
--Maximiliano Firtman, director, ITMaster

Balancing software or data downloads with normal operations is important. If an app has to wait too long for data, for example, users might give up on the app. Developers should also consider whether interrupted connections could pose a problem.

Pitfall 3: Slow deployment

There's a huge demand for mobile apps, and many IT departments can't keep up, says Max Katz, head of developer relations for custom enterprise app developer Appery.io. But not only are corporate technology groups understaffed, many IT departments lack expertise in Android and iOS development.

Enterprises also have to rethink their design cycles. "They're used to delivering apps that take 12, 18 months, maybe two years," Katz says. "With mobile you can't do that. You need to deliver apps very fast, I mean weeks. Some of them, maybe a couple of days." This is particularly challenging when a company needs native apps for multiple platforms, which can mean parallel development tracks and teams.

"With mobile, you need to deliver apps in weeks."
--Max Katz, head of developer relations, Appery.io

There are some solutions. One is for the company to hire or acquire additional talent through contractors or consults. Companies can create pure HTML5 apps that rely on web development skills and that can run cross-platform in a browser.

Another potential solution is working with a framework that supports cross-platform development, but "most of them will add between five and 20 megabytes to your final app," says Firtman. "If you're doing in-house development, you probably don't care about the size of the apps. But you'll care about performance." Although some frameworks will generate optimized native code, not all do.

There can also be an issue of daisy-chained incompatibilities when new versions of operating systems come out. Google, Apple, and Microsoft all regularly release updates to their mobile platforms. Development frameworks must support the new versions for apps to be compatible with the latest devices and software releases. "If you're using these tools, you need to wait for them to update their platforms, so you're always behind," Firtman says.

Still, platforms can speed development and reduce the need for expertise. "People can develop without full development skill," says Matthias Bartels, project manager and senior business analyst at personal care product company Kao Germany. "That is a complete change of how apps can be developed." Using a development platform cuts typical development time from six to two months.

"Mobile app development platforms let you code without a full skill set. That is a complete change in how apps can be developed."
--Matthias Bartels, SAP SD/CRM senior application manager, Kao Germany

Pitfall 4: No marketing

To get apps to employees, you need an enterprise app store. Internal app distribution might need to be coordinated with a mobile device management system, so the company can safeguard corporate data.

Sometimes enterprises might also have to use Google or Apple app stores. For example, external channel distributors or salespeople might need apps but not have access to the enterprise app store.

With all the technical considerations, it's easy to forget the human factors. "Even for internal apps, you should not forget about the marketing of your app—evangelizing it," Fingerman says. "Even if [internal users are] told they have to use the apps, they should love using the apps. It's a virtuous cycle. You want to delight users, whether they're internal or external."

"Even if employees are required to use the app, you want them to love it."
--Adam Fingerman, cofounder of app development studio ArcTouch

Fail to sell the app to the user population and you can count on many refusing to use the software, even if you think they must. People are uncanny in their ability to get around restrictions or demands they don't like.

Plan ahead

If this sounds like getting into a new type of software business, it is. Mobile apps offer some tremendous benefits, but only if your company is ready.

To prepare for your mobile efforts, ask yourself:

  • What business problem am I trying to solve? Who are the stakeholders (such as end users and business line owners) and what are their needs?
  • What is the minimum feature set that can meet these needs? How can I make the app easy to use? What can I do to minimize performance, power, and data use?
  • How will I get the app out the door quickly? How can I rapidly respond to user feedback and changing business needs?
  • What would get employees excited about using the app?

In the end, these questions are largely about empathy. If you can put yourself in your end users' shoes, you will have an easier time avoiding the worst pitfalls of enterprise mobile apps.

Image source: Flickr

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