Last summer, I began a journey that would lead me across six countries and 23 cities. I always enjoy finding ways to better understand the challenges that enterprises face when they’re building and deploying their mobile apps—and this trip did not disappoint. I had the opportunity to talk to more than 1,000 customers, and I learned a great deal from them along the way.
One lesson, unfortunately, is that despite all the talk about the rise of mobility and the adoption of smartphones and apps for practically every human endeavor, things are not moving at quite the same speed inside the enterprise. I soon realized, however, that there were common patterns among all the customers I was talking to. And it didn’t matter if it was a small or midsize company, or even a large enterprise with a sizable IT budget: companies that don’t build the right habits find that building mobile apps is very difficult.
The good news is that despite building great mobile apps too often is considered a steep challenge, if enterprises work to improve their approach to six habits of highly successful mobile-first enterprises, they will find that rather than having the mobile opportunity slip out of hand, they will turn it into a strong advantage.
The biggest challenge most organizations face is that their data are locked on premises where they can’t be accessed from mobile devices. It’s hard for your enterprise to take full advantage of mobile if one’s knowledge is locked away in mainframes and databases that employees can’t access when they need it.
It makes sense when you think about it. The typical use of an enterprise mobile app is to access, update, or manipulate data in some way. That could be to make a trip, update an expense report, access customer histories, place an order, review inventory, or whatever. None of these things can be done well if the data aren’t accurate and up-to-date.
Everything an organization does with mobile emanates from data—and having the right data relating to the context of the situation employees face at any moment. Data need to be easily accessible to the devices and people that need it. And today, that means cloud.
If you are going to win at mobile, you need to choose the right cloud platform for your data as well as make it easy to access on-premise data via the cloud. Having data access via the cloud is the key first step toward making it easier to develope and deploy mobile applications.
Only in rare circumstances did I find enterprises that had someone who was actually responsible for mobile across the company. The vast majority of enterprises didn’t have any one person or group driving mobile forward, or aware of mobile efforts across the company. When I was in Chicago, I asked a group of 40 IT executives if they had one person or organization in charge of mobile strategy, and only two of them raised their hands.
Those organizations that tried to tackle mobile often would have an innovation group that spanned the organization. But that’s not the same as a driving focus on mobile. Interestingly, mobile management and development is not well-articulated in most IT organizations, either. But the IT aspects aren’t really the core deficiency here. It’s who owns the enterprise’s mobile strategy and is driving the vision of mobile throughout the company.
The complexity of the mobile development market is mind-numbing. And the number of choices of potential mobile development platforms and potential approaches to development is staggering. It's still very much the Wild West when it comes to the various mobile development tools, languages, and platforms.
Aside from needing to know how to develop for iOS, Android, and Windows, there are hundreds of development platforms and toolsets to select from. That’s after enterprises decide whether their apps should be developed native to the device or instead as a web app.
All of this complexity really isn’t necessary. The trick is to choose a cloud platform that simplifies development so you can create mobile apps swiftly and effectively. That includes the design, development, testing, and deployment, and maximizes time to value.
Successful mobile enterprises build the habit of stripping away complexity where they can and embrace simplicity.
Those who can build great mobile experiences are among the most expensive development talent out there right. They’re difficult to attract into traditional enterprises and small businesses. They want to always be working on the latest, most “cool” projects. That typically means development and design agencies. One IT executive in the financial services industry I met in New York City told me they use a few agencies for iOS and Android development but cultivate their existing internal web development teams for hybrid and mobile web app development.
The old “big bang” approaches toward app development are dead. There’s just no way that the old methodologies—where the business provides developers with app requirements and then the developers return in 12-18 months with a completed app—will help a company compete today. Their costs of development will be too high. They won’t be able to keep up with changing market conditions. And their apps will more often than not miss their intended mark.
The problem with these models is that the first version of an app hardly ever is perfect. Why? Because no one fully understands what the users need or how they will use the app ahead of time.
This is why great enterprise mobile apps ship a minimal viable product (MVP), meaning the app meets whatever challenge or problem the user has in the simplest, yet most effective, way possible. Once users can get their hands on the app, they offer immediate feedback to the development team to iterate improvements. This feedback should be reviewed and, if appropriate, included into the next build of the product. Shipping the MVP is also a great way to provide end users with continuous and constructive input into the app’s design.
Unlike many consumer apps in which the mobile app is often the primary interface that customers use, enterprise users typically use mobile apps as an extension to existing systems or practices. The result is that data and workflow are created, edited, and deleted by potentially dozens of other systems and people. This notion of enterprise user experience can fundamentally influence how a mobile app is adopted within the organization.
This gets us back to data habit. Great enterprise mobile apps enable users to digest data in a way that’s conducive to mobile screens and user experience. And they focus on making it possible to easily do whatever one thing the user wants to do at that moment. That’s why people love apps like Evernote so much. These “consumer” apps started out doing one thing very well—and they still do these things very well but with new enhancements added. They don’t overwhelm the mobile user with distracting graphics or many features. They make it possible for users to do what they wanted to do so they could do their job quickly and move on.
The thing is that the expectation around a mobile experience from enterprise-built apps is no different than it is when the consumer downloads an app from the app store. There's no manual that comes with it. And it had better be intuitive, easy to use, and conform with standards for the operating system the user is leveraging, whether that's iOS, Android, Surface, or whatever mobile platform rises next.
This article originally appeared on Wired's "Innovation Insights."
Robert Duffner is responsible for Salesforce1 Platform mobile strategy at salesforce.com. He is a self-described "software product guy" and has been working in the industry for 17 years for both big companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, as well as start-ups, like Apigee and Apiphany. Follow him on Twitter: @rduffner
Visit salesforce.com for more on our mobile-first tools and download the free guide to building mobile experiences, 10 Essential Elements of Great Enterprise Mobile Apps.