Business Apps on the iPhone: Dos and Don'ts

A retail manufacturer wanted to replace a 3-ring, 4-inch thick binder carried by field sales reps with an iPhone app, recalls Quinton Alsbury, co-founder of Mellmo, maker of mobile BI app Roambi. But the manufacturer fell into a common trap: creating a monster app that is virtually impossible for users to navigate on the iPhone's 3.5-inch touchscreen.

This is just one of many pitfalls facing CIOs who want to bring business analytics and field tools to their iPhone-toting workforce.

An iPhone app that delivers a terrible user experience can spell trouble for the CIO. "The user adoption threshold is very, very thin," Alsbury says. "If it takes too long for something to happen, you'll just put the phone back in your pocket."

Business apps on the iPhone offer a stark contrast in styles, pitting a techie's love of features and functions against a business user's expectations of simplicity and speed. Here are a few dos and don'ts to help CIOs navigate these tricky waters.

Don't replicate the laptop: Too many CIOs try to replicate data and features displayed on a laptop to the iPhone. This is a sure path to failure. Just look at the highly panned user experience of the Citrix Receiver app, which basically tries to deliver a virtual desktop on the iPhone. Constantly pinching and expanding text on a phone screen and inputting data using a tiny virtual keyboard sans a mouse will turn off even the most amorous gadget lover.

Do embrace mobility: The problem with replication is that it assumes users will use the iPhone in a similar way to the laptop. But the use cases are vastly different.

Consider these three scenarios: A salesperson might be at her desk with a business intelligence (BI) dashboard open on her computer, watching data change in real-time all day. On her way to a client, she might stop off at a coffee shop, fire up her laptop, open a big spreadsheet and analyze it. While in the elevator heading up to see her client, she might whip out her iPhone to find a quick answer to something.

iPhone apps
For CIOs, this means trying to predict where mobile users might be using the app and what kind of answers they'll be looking for. There might not be a lot of time for the user to navigate and drill down into the data. There might not be Internet connectivity. Either way, the app needs to deliver answers with the speed of lightning.

"You don't want users to stare at a screen with a spinning icon on it" as they wait for data to download, says Alsbury, adding, "You might want to store information locally, or at least caching inside of the app, rather than having a server-based solution, because of [limited or no] network connection."

Don't generalize: CIOs should take their cue from Apple and let user simplicity drive their mobile business app efforts. Too often they'll load up too much functionality into a single app. When Alsbury took one look at the retail manufacturer's monster app, he recommended breaking up the app into three specialized iPhone apps.

The manufacturer's sales reps would visit major retail stores and gather and report data, such as where products are positioned and how much inventory is on the shelves. Then they would discuss with the store manager ways to improve sales using analytics--that is, they could show how similar retail stores improved performance via product positioning. Lastly, sales reps would take product orders.

All three steps were contained in a single iPhone app making navigation extremely cumbersome. Mellmo separated these three very distinct tasks into specialized apps. Each app can be opened in mere seconds and allow sales reps to perform what they needed to do at that point in time.

The idea of specialization also applies to the user base. Since mobile business apps need to be as streamlined as possible, in both functions and data, CIOs should develop multiple apps aimed at specific user groups rather than a general app that ultimately becomes unwieldy and unusable for everyone.

Do spend time on requirements gathering: CIOs should be prepared to spend a lot of time learning what users want from a mobile business app before moving to app development. Speak often with users both before development and during beta testing. This is one of the most important steps in creating a solution that users will depend on.

"If done efficiently, you're talking anywhere from two weeks to a month-plus of pure data requirements definition," Alsbury says.

Remember, short-changing this step may result in a bad user experience out of the gate. First impressions are critical, especially in user adoption. A user base put off by a mobile app will be difficult to bring back into the fold.

Don't pile on features: Even CIOs who understand the special use case of mobile and target specific user groups can fall prey to scope creep. Cramming more functionality, more data, more buttons, more drop-down menus into a mobile app seems to be in a techie's DNA.

"It's such a hard-wired habit," Alsbury says.

Want proof? Look no further than Microsoft Excel. In order to use the spreadsheet business app, you'll likely have to thumb through a massive user manual and an ecosystem of third-party how-to books for every little function. It's an absurd disconnect, given that most people open Excel and click their way through the clutter just to view a simple piece of the data.

"You need to have the discipline to cut and cut and get down to the base function that the user needs in that mobile context," Alsbury says.

Don't worry about user pushback: A mobile business app can't possibly have everything that its laptop counterpart does. CIOs will make informed decisions regarding what to include and what to cut. As a result there tends to be a concern/expectation that users will become upset because certain data won't be available to them on the iPhone app.

So should CIOs worry? No, Alsbury says. "The majority of the time, the opposite is true," he says. "The users actually love less functionality, and IT is shocked."

Bottom line: More functionality means more complexity. Users don't want to read a how-to manual before using a mobile business iPhone app; they just want to tap around the touchscreen in a simple, intuitive way.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkanshige@cio.com.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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