The mobile apps Sunwise UV Index, which predicts the UV intensities in a four-day weather forecast, and AirNow, which provides air pollution and ozone forecasting are two popular public mobile applications from the Environmental Protection Agency.
But the EPA also has a cache of mobile apps in-house – part of its "mobile first" policy of application development announced in March. They include mobile apps used by staff in its regional offices to collect field data on projects ranging from water quality to regulatory compliance.
Like their government counterparts, CIOs in the private sector are under pressure to produce mobile applications for their employees that are as elegant and easy to use as popular consumer mobile apps. Enterprises are spending 21 percent of their IT and communications budgets on mobility, and they expect that to increase to 37 percent in the next three years, according to an InfoTrends survey.
But taking applications from the desktop to smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices requires a well-thought-out strategy. "Without that, you’re just shooting in the dark," says Richard Edwards, principal analyst at Ovum.
Meet Mobile App Needs
A good starting point is a thorough examination of the enterprise application portfolio. "Every business has a portfolio of apps. They should be mapped out by business function and user base. You really need to understand what part each app plays in the business process, who would use it and in what context," Edwards says.
Then you can choose the most likely candidates for mobility and prioritize them. Functionality, user experience and security should be the key considerations, recommends Malcolm Jackson, CIO of the EPA.
"For a mobile app to be effective, it has to offer either dynamic content that is updated with real-time, or close to real-time information, or it has to offer tools that are useful in mobile scenarios," he says. "… The location of the user is less important than the any-time access to the information."
Jackson says email, calendar, Web conferencing, administrative form submission and approval, along with data-collection apps, are a good place to start. Edwards says sales and field support would top his list. Nick Brown, SAP’s senior VP for mobile strategies, says apps that enable collaboration are a good bet.
Not-so-good bets for mobile apps include content creation, graphic design and business apps that folks likely won’t want to use in a mobile environment. "You hear talk about ERP extension – like doing payables [on the go], but who would do that? That’s just silly," says Mary Brittain-White, CEO of Retriever Communications.
Create a Mobile App Business Case
Retriever, an Australian company focused on mobility for field service workers, is expanding in the United States, with a focus on the oil and gas industries, utilities and manufacturing. Brittain-White points to three primary considerations fo mobile apps:
- How critical is the information to your business?
- What is the return on investment (ROI)?
- How will it increase productivity?
She differentiates between nice-to-have features, such as the ability to submit expense reports while at a coffee shop, and situations in which work cannot proceed until a safety inspection is submitted and approved. A contract or service level agreement may require workers be outfitted with mobile access, making mobility essential to remaining competitive.
The best ROI, she says, will come through eliminating paper, performing a service that can be billed or enabling work to continue in a timely way.
Understand Mobile App Users
So who are the users? Will the mobile app be available only to top executives or to a whole ground crew? How will they use it? This is the time to begin really thinking about details. Anyone who wears gloves, for instance, may have trouble with a mobile app.
"You really have to sit down with people and understand how they work," says Brown.
An app that slows work down won’t be used, Edwards notes. And mobile apps aren’t just for the white-collar work force. For any audience, mobile apps should be easy to use.
"There are always people who are eager to get hold of any new technology, but they represent only a fraction of the work force. Most people are not especially IT literate, they’re not especially interested in technology and for them, you have to keep things simple," says Edwards. "If the technology fails or they don’t get it, it will take them longer to do their jobs."
He underscores the need to do mockups of planned mobile apps – not actually doing any coding, but explaining them to the target users before doing the build.
"If they’re not smiling when they see this – beaming – then there’s something wrong," he says.
Making the most important functions appear first, ensuring text and graphics are clear and that text can be read in sunlight were among 10 mobile development "musts" recently released by Gartner.
Which Devices for Mobile Apps?
Should mobile applications be for a smartphone, tablet or other device? Though companies such as SAP and Retriever offer platforms to produce mobile apps across a range of devices, it’s important to think carefully about whether that offers the best user experience, Edwards says.
A business intelligence app seems ill-suited for a smartphone’s small screen but might be better suited for a tablet, Brown says. Even then, the app might need to be simpler, such as a dashboard. He believes analytics are well-suited for tablets and sees a big potential for them in retail, where a salesperson might use them to make suggestions based on the customer’s past buying behavior or show a great accessory.
As devices become more powerful, clever mobile app developers will make use of all their features – voice, cameras, near-field communications and others – in innovative ways. Brown points to Korean supermarket Tesco, which allows customers to place orders from their phones based on photos of the store shelves.
Edwards urges creative thinking about what best suits your business’s needs. He recently came across a British company that removes snow from parking lots. After trying apps on smartphones, PDAs and even tablets, it decided the best solution was a modern take on pen and paper, but with an electronic pen.
Using the same form from a decade ago – papers that used to get lost or wet – the driver still fills out the form, has the site supervisor sign off on the work, gives the client a paper copy as a receipt, then uploads all the data from the electronic pen via a smartphone. There is no paper to process in the office, making billing faster.
Mind Your Mobile App Scope
The trick is to take mobile app development a step at a time. Brown cites over-ambitious scope as the biggest problem as companies take apps mobile. Don’t try to do too much in the initial build, he advises.
"They want to do 62 things. I’ll say, ‘Start with five. Deliver those and focus maniacally on what does the user want. How can you make it a great experience for them, so that first app delivers four out of those five things really well and the users are delighted, so they’ll come back and start collaborating with you on the next five,'" Brown says. "That’s the biggest challenge that faces IT in building mobile applications. They have to break out of the traditional way of delivering enterprise IT. Now line-of-business people want to come in, and they can help you deliver success and do it quickly."