Enterprise mobile apps: best practice tips and common mistakes to avoid

Analysts are predicting strong growth in enterprise mobile apps as businesses focus on “mobilizing” their workforces to improve productivity, business efficiency and customer service.

The pundits have been forecasting growth in enterprise mobile app market for some time. But surveys (CSS Insight) over the last year suggest real interest in business mobility driven by employees and business lines, rather than IT departments.

And this demand is growing five times faster than internal IT organizations’ capacity to deliver them (Gartner).

This column will examine what developing enterprise mobile apps involves, what types of businesses can benefit and what has been holding businesses back.

We also share some best practice tips from practitioners and the top 10 common mistakes made by enterprise apps developers.

What are enterprise mobile apps?

Enterprise mobile apps are developed by companies to be used by employees, particularly employees in the field, including sales, delivery or maintenance personnel.

Such apps are also developed for business partners, such as suppliers, distributors, retailers, advisors and maintenance providers. These apps are not intended for customer use, but may impact customer service, directly or indirectly.

The purpose is to allow people to perform all the tasks they need to, digitally, while away from the office, via a mobile device. The goal is to improve productivity, communication, access to information and automation. The user may be in the car, at home, or at a customer, supplier or retailer site.

At the front-end apps may be native (a download app developed for each type of smartphone), web or browser-based or hybrid (a web app with added native functionality).

There are three types of enterprise app:

  1. Consumer apps that are used (sometimes without corporate sanction) for business purposes e.g. Dropbox, Skype.
  2. The extension of corporate systems e.g. messaging, sales, logistics, marketing, finance, HR, to allow access from mobile devices.
  3. Corporate apps developed to meet a specific requirement (or business opportunity) of the mobile workforce. This is an emerging category of apps that interface with corporate systems, but aren’t simply replicating desktop service.

At present 50% of apps fall into the first category, according to Nicholas McQuire,VP, enterprise research, CCS Insight.

The remaining 50% are bespoke corporate apps, falling largely into the second category. CCS research finds that mobile access to back end systems grew 40% in 2015.

Clearly, in the latter two cases, there is a lot more to this than building a few mobile apps. This process – often referred to as “mobilization” of business or “enterprise mobility” – can require considerable changes to IT systems and business operations.

Does enterprise mean big business?

Enterprise mobile apps are being adopted by large businesses, such as Ottawa Hospital, which allows doctors to access and update patient records from the bedside (see: case study), but are equally applicable to small businesses.

London beauty stylist Blow LTD has a mobile-based booking system that takes orders from clients for a hair, nail or make-up appointment, via the client app, then automatically allocates the job to the appropriate stylist, according to their skills, availability and location.

Ned Hasovic, Interim CTO (via interim.team), Blow LTD explains:

Our approved and vetted stylists use our Stylist App to set their availability date & time and set their skills and qualifications (which we approve). All significant stylist activity is managed in the app, such as reporting to us that they are ‘Out to Serve’ when they are on their way to customer.

We use the notification services of iOS and Android devices to alert the relevantly skilled stylists, leading to the job approval screen where they see all the details they need. Most of the time the customer services do not need to interact at all with any stylist or customer, as everything is automated and pre-empted regarding matching stylist to a customer and getting the job done.

blow_consumer_stylist_cz14 

Best practice tips

Before you start:

  • Consult with stakeholders – ensure you develop apps that employees need, want and will use. Conduct stakeholder interviews and initiate feedback mechanisms.
  • IT Infrastructure – establish a foundation (or platform) and process that facilitates the development and deployment of numerous enterprise mobile apps – not just the ones demanded today.
  • Consider development alternatives – enterprise mobile apps do not need to be native. If you do not have the skills, time or money to develop native apps for all the devices used by your employees, consider web or browser-based or hybrid  (a web app with added native functionality). Nor does all development need to be bespoke. Vendors, such as IBM, are developing a library of apps specifically for industry verticals. 

On design, Blow’s Hasovic offers six best practice tips:

  • Clear-focused content – the purpose needs to remain simple and obvious to first time user of the app.
  • Simple menu navigation – the menus must be as simple as humanly possible. All services must justify their existence to reduce information overload.
  • Fluid layouts – develop UX with visually scalable components which can scale up to iPad/Desktop and down to our app.
  • Keep forms to minimum – use app sensors such as phone location services to reduce form filling as much as possible and to make the experience as natural and intuitive as possible.
  • Use phone sensor advances – such as Compass, Gyro and GPS to generate smart notifications to maximize benefit to customer and business.
  • Optimize app size – megabytes matter. Ensure your app is not taking up too much space on the user’s phone. Optimize images and clean up the app to remove unused resources before release.

And on deployment, Steven A Watt, chief information officer at University of St Andrews, Scotland, based on his experience of deploying a mobile app to allow field workers access to job management system:

  • Staff training – don’t underestimate the amount of training required for staff who have lower levels of digital literacy.

What is driving growth in enterprise mobile apps?

The number of enterprise mobile apps will double over the next two years predicts McQuire at CCS Insight. This growth is being driven by employees and business lines, rather than IT.

80% of employees surveyed by CCS in February 2015 said mobile technology was critical to getting their job done and 41% of employees said mobile apps had changed how they work.

However the lack of suitable apps available from employers means employees commonly use packaged consumer or SAAS (software as a service) apps, including the file-sharing app Dropbox.

Employees using Dropbox for work has contributed to it becoming home to 35 billion Office documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, according to company.

Despite their keenness to use of mobile apps at work, 80% of employees have never requested their IT department for an app, according to the CCS survey. The majority expect the IT department to ignore or refuse the request if they did submit one.

The danger with business driving mobility

Investment in bespoke enterprise apps is often driven by business departments, on a case-by-case basis, rather than as a corporate wide mobility initiative, led by IT, or a focused digital transformation or mobile team.

69% of company spending on mobility is funded from outside IT departments, coming from the marketing/customer service, sales and operations budget, according to another CCS survey.

This business focus can sometimes cause a problem for app performance and thus adoption, explains Martin Wrigley, executive director, App Quality Alliance (AQuA), an industry body that organization offers free testing criteria for mobile apps.

Often when people are developing a solution for a mobile device, the people doing it are experts in that particularly expertise, e.g. salesforce management, or coding core functions, such as getting the weather or stock prices; but not necessarily in the mobility or the behavior of mobile devices.

They’re very good at testing the functionality – i.e. that it gets the weather updates or the stock prices in a nanosecond, or gets the mileage calculation right, but they can forget that it is running on a mobile device in a shared environment with a restricted resources. The typical failings that people forget is what happens when you have an incoming phone call or text or what happens when you lose connectivity.

Top ten failures in enterprise mobile apps

According to AQuA, the same quality assurance problems come up time and again for enterprise apps – regardless of app type, of development method (native, hybrid or browser-based):

  1. User interface inconsistency – failure to keep menu options, button labels, soft keys, menus etc. consistent, clear and conform to company standards.
  2. Lack of clarity of graphics and text – text is unreadable, unclear, runs off screen or overlaps other items.
  3. App browsing confusion – navigation is not intuitive.
  4. Language inconsistency and spelling errors – evident lack of proof-reader or spell checker. Multi-language apps often make translation errors or miss labels in original language.
  5. Omission of privacy and/or data security policy – no excuses.
  6. Hidden features – failure to alert user to what is happening behind the scenes, whatever the motive, will be unpopular.
  7. App crashing – often simple, common occurrence on the device, memory card, keyboard or attachments will cause an app to crash.app crash
  8. No help – lack of clear, written, step-by-step help.
  9. Network connection – app freezes, or fails to notify user, when the network connection drops or the device switches network, e.g. from carrier to WIFI.
  10. Screen orientation distortion – images distort when changing from portrait to landscape and vice-versa.

What is the difference between enterprise mobile apps and a) enterprise applications and b) consumer apps?

The enterprise mobile app is a misleading amalgamation of two terms: enterprise applications – the monolithic software systems that run the finance, planning, sales, human resources etc. of large companies – and mobile apps – the small (usually) consumer-orientated software tools for smartphones. But there are important differences from both.

Enterprise applications are used for multiple tasks, by multiple types of user; while enterprise mobile apps are usually designed for one or a few specific purposes (like a consumer app).

Enterprise applications are usually server-based accessed via a fixed network from a desktop, while enterprise mobile apps need to be able to operate semi-independently, so they continue to work if the mobile connection become unavailable.

Consumer mobile apps are often standalone (with the notable exception, such as commerce apps) with little integration into backend systems; while enterprise mobile apps often require more extensive integration, involving adaptation of middleware and opening up of APIs (application programming interfaces) into corporate systems.

As employees and partners have diverse requirements, companies may need to develop considerably more enterprise mobile apps than they have consumer apps or enterprise applications.

 

Phil Buckellew, vice president of enterprise mobile at IBM explains:

The key difference between consumer and enterprise apps is that most businesses typically only have a single mobile app for consumers. Think about a mobile app for an airline. The consumer sees a single app that allows them to check in, change seats and book a flight.

That same airline would have many more internal enterprise mobile apps each with a specific function to streamline productivity such as airplane maintenance, supply chain, baggage tracking and selling items to passengers on board.

What’s holding companies back from developing enterprise mobile apps?

CCS’ McQuire identifies four challenges holding development of enterprise apps:

  1. Proving ROI – it is difficult to quantify return on investment for mobilizing many parts of the business. This is why enterprise apps tend to focus on customer experience and sales enablement e.g. allowing customer to sign for deliveries digitally, as it is easier to prove ROI.
  2. Skills gap – the lack of availability and expense of native development skills – even banks complain struggle retain developers.
  3. Building out the infrastructure – it’s not just about front-end app development, modernizing the middleware and creating the APIs to allow apps to interact with back end systems can be much more of a challenge.
  4. Changing the way the business operates – it is essential to examine how employees will and want to work in the future. Companies such as the UK’s National Rail have methodology in place to capture the requirements of their workers.

Todd Anglin, chief evangelist, VP technology & developer relations, Telerik:

One of the most costly mistakes is building the wrong app. Studies suggest that most enterprise apps fail because users never open them. The apps don’t solve the real problems users have in the context of their device, will end-up in the growing app “dust bin” we all have on our phones and tablets.

Resources:

This is Part 14 of the ClickZ ‘DNA of mobile-friendly web’ series.

Here are the recent ones:

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