In the previous part of this series we started out by trying to understand the need for, and potential of, a mobile strategy. We also looked at some possible general, high level approaches to adopting such a strategy. In this post, I’d like to move on to look at what it takes to get the most out of your mobile strategy once you’ve worked out which route to take.
Let’s say you’ve decided to build a mobile app to support your business. For the sake of this post it doesn’t really matter too much what the app is. Much of what I want to talk about is fairly general and applies to most mobile apps, regardless of their exact intent. You’ve got an app in mind that is going to do something for you and/or your customers. Now what?
Where were we and where are we going?
The first point I’d like to make, and I apologize in advance because I probably will make this point more than once, is that mobile development is very different from your traditional enterprise software development. Partly that’s because of the technical differences inherent in working in the resource constrained confines of a mobile device, partly it’s because of the different priorities involved in mobile development and partly it’s just that traditional enterprise development hasn’t yet caught up with “modern” software development principles in many cases. I’ll be touching on all of those areas between this post and the next part. Before we start that though, I think we need to understand how mobile is different.
I mentioned that there are technical differences and that’s part of the story but if we’re going to make our mobile strategy work for us, we need to understand what is making mobile technology itself so successful because we’re going to want some of that action, whatever it is.
Not just any old mobile device
Clearly, a large part of the attraction of mobile devices is that they are mobile. That is to say, you can carry your computer with you and have it in your pocket, to hand, wherever you go. However, that was true over a decade ago with PDAs and early smart phones too, and they certainly didn’t take off in the same way.
The real explosion came in 2007/2008. There could be lots of causes for that but my strong suspicion is that it had something to do with the arrival of a whole new way of thinking about mobile devices embodied by the breakthrough that was the iPhone.
Why though? What did the iPhone have that didn’t exist before it in the form of the PDA or early smartphone? They both were mobile computing devices, they both had internet connectivity, they both ran apps, so what was it?
I don’t know if you remember that first key note where Steve Jobs presented the iPhone. When he made that first swipe with his finger there was an audible gasp in the audience. There was a slickness and smoothness to the interface and its operation that, literally, changed the world. All of a sudden the user experience was front and center in a way it hadn’t been before. Surely that wow-factor and the delight experienced when using it had a huge part to play in the iPhone’s, and ultimately the mobile market’s, success. It is therefore also something to keep a very close watch on and really dedicate time and energy to when adopting mobile strategies. To succeed on mobile, means to deliver a user experience that meets the very high bar of expectation that users now have of mobile devices. If you don’t, your app will stand out like a sore thumb, and it really doesn’t take much.
Even my granny…
The second factor, which is often forgotten, is just how easy it was to use that first iPhone. I don’t know about you, but as a reasonably tech savvy youth I was shipped around friends and family to fix computers, reinstall printer drivers, recover lost files and a whole host of other “computery” problems when I was younger. I got to experience first-hand the difficulty with which people were faced trying to understand and use any sort of computing device. These things were hard! Fast forward to the iPhone and all of a sudden YouTube started filling up with videos of babies, cats and grandparents using iPhones and iPads. So low is the barrier of understanding on these devices that even a 2 year old can use them with confidence. Technophobes of the world rejoice! Obviously, they’re not error free or without difficulty but a lot of care and attention went into making sure that the user didn’t have to think too hard or know too much to be able to use one of these devices. Again, that’s something to remember. In order for your app to be successful, whether in the consumer market or for internal customers, it has to be easy to use and understand or people will lose patience. Not only that, but it is this ease of use that unlocks users’ willingness to explore. Remove the fear of doing something that will break the device and people start to really dig in and explore the potential open to them. That is where the real power of mobile starts to become evident. Whether it’s functional exploration, data exploration or exploration of interactive possibilities, once your users start pushing the boundaries of what you can offer, you’ve unlocked a massive potential to improve the way things are done simply by offering more functionality, deeper data mines and a richer interactive model. Your users are already on board and waiting for it.
Image courtesy of Steve Paine
The power of touch
The final piece of the puzzle for me, and maybe the most impactful of all, is the touch-centric nature of these devices. When the iPhone was first announced, the online world was alight with tittering at the ludicrous notion of not including a stylus with the device. How could we possibly operate them with just our finger. Little did those dissenting voices know that only 5 years later, there’s hardly a stylus to be found anywhere, and in fact the use of touch itself proved to be such a critical factor in the success of mobile.
The use of touch creates a personal and immediate experience for people. Where the use of a mouse, keyboard or stylus creates a sense of disconnect between the human’s action and the machine’s response, with a touch device the two are physically connected, leading to a more immediate and intuitive experience for the user. That’s a massive thing. Partly because of how that immediacy and touch interaction will drive our apps, but also because it has transformed the whole mobile experience into a very personal one. That has all sorts of usability and even psychological implications for how we design our apps, what we get them to do and how we get them to do it.
Business, meet User
There are many technical and design implications resulting from the above aspects of mobile technology, whether it’s the minimum size of buttons for use with finger tips, consideration of how to use (and discover) touch gestures or which settings to offer the user to configure the app’s behavior. Increasingly, there is an excellent knowledge base around these subjects developing in the mobile and wider computing community. However, the one ingredient that seems much more difficult for people to engage with is user involvement.
Much of what I’ve talked about so far has been the power of the personal experience, ease of use and level of expectation of the users. It is they that will determine the success or failure of your mobile strategy, as much as anyone. Yet all too often they are omitted from the development of the strategy and its implementation entirely or at the very best the bookend the process, being involved in requirements analysis early on and training at the end. It is my contention that not only should the user be involved, they should be right at the core of our efforts throughout the planning and implementation of a mobile strategy.
Users need our time
In businesses it is very common for process and value to dominate discussions around new ventures. Is it going to improve the way we do business? Is it going to make us money? Are we going to save money by doing this? And so on. That’s only natural given that the parties involved, from Business Analysts, Project Managers, Developers, QA personnel to the Stakeholders themselves, are all trained and expected to preserve and optimize business value. However, if what we’re saying is we need to include the user to a vastly greater degree, how are we going to do that and who is responsible for it?
Clearly a big part of this is the new and emerging field of User Experience Design. These pioneers are the guardians of the user need and play a key role in marrying the user needs with those of the business. It is always a much better idea to get everyone on the same page though and so increasingly Project and Product Managers, Developers, Testers, and everyone else involved in a mobile project must start thinking clearly about the needs of the user. Who better to tell them about that than the users themselves?
We’ll talk a little bit more about how (in practical terms) to be more inclusive of the user in the next post, but for now let me just put it out there that I think users should be continually involved with a project from day one right through to the end. Not only will the product better match their expectations and way of working but they will feel a greater sense of ownership and a larger stake in its success as well.
To accomplish that, though, requires both organizational and procedural changes that can be pretty tough going at first. We’ll take a closer look at those in the final part of this series in more detail.
Don’t forget the other stuff
One other point I’d like to raise is about the seemingly peripheral “stuff” which often gets forgotten or under played when rolling out a new mobile strategy. It’s pretty easy to get sidelined into thinking that all that’s required to make mobile work is a good mobile app. It’s not.
If you’re going to go after a comprehensive strategy, especially if you’re following an Integrated mobile strategy, you’re going to need to consider a whole raft of additional topics. I won’t go into great detail here but I thought it might be useful to just point out a few to get an idea of the types of things I mean.
Infrastructure and Hardware
This mobile app of yours is, in all likelihood, going to have to interact with the rest of your organization’s IT systems in some way. Whether it’s as simple as connecting to your email infrastructure or as heavy-weight as dragging data out of and stuffing data back into your various operational systems and databases. To do that you’re going to have to think about connectivity (wifi or mobile data access) and other networking, server hardware and bandwidth to handle extra load, devices to run the apps on and all manner of other infrastructure you’ll need. There will obviously be financial implications but equally you’ll need to consider the expenditure in time and manpower to plan, install and maintain this extra equipment. It’s worth also considering the skills and resources necessary to adequately support a mobile strategy through its lifetime. For example, does your IT help desk need new expertise? Do your equipment suppliers stock replacements parts for mobile devices? You get the picture.
It’s all well and good having the hardware and networking in place to support your new mobile world, but do your existing systems even offer the functionality required to be interacted with from a mobile app? Do they provide some form of API or access to perform the operations you want? If not, you’re going to have to look at revising or extending these systems to add such functionality, or worst case, replacing them wholesale. The capabilities of existing systems and the appetite to address any deficiencies will significantly influence both the cost and scale of your roll out as well as what is actually going to be possible to achieve. Be under no illusions that this may well end up being the biggest part or your outlay in terms of time and cost for any mobile project.
In an ideal world, your mobile applications will be pretty intuitive to users and they should be able to find their way around the apps you’ve built on their own. After all, they were involved in the development, weren’t they? However, it’s still worth considering if you need to roll out some form of training program to get your users up to speed with the new functionality and even the devices themselves. Equally, your new mobile strategy may encourage or enable some changes to existing processes to make things more efficient, and that will certainly require some careful communication and training.
Obviously sending people out on the road with a device laden with sensitive corporate data is a potential can of worms in terms of security. There are plenty of ways of managing security on devices and an ever-increasing set of supporting technologies, so it need not be a show stopper. However, it most definitely warrants some careful consideration and reflection in terms of risk assessment and mitigation.
Legals and Policies
It’s probably worth a review of any EULAs and legals you have in place. Do you need to consider changes to your privacy policies, data protection or end user agreements in light of mobile data use? Quite possibly the answer is no, but it’s definitely worth a little attention.
I’d like to summarize today’s post with two points. Firstly, in order to make the most of a mobile strategy, you’re going to need to involve your users in the process of defining and implementing that strategy. The more you do, the better it will turn out. Secondly, there are a lot of aspects to a mobile strategy that aren’t to do with the mobile device itself – take the time to think these through because they’re important and will have just as much impact, if not more, on the success of your plan as the app itself.
Particularly the first point is something I’d like to come back and talk about in the final part of our series. I’ve highlighted that it’s important and why I think it’s important but I’ve not really talked a lot about how to actually do it, so in part 3 we’ll put some meat on those particular bones and give some practical advice both in terms of how to involve users and make them central to your strategy, but also in terms of generally structuring a mobile development project and what differences you need to consider from your traditional enterprise software development efforts. The differences are substantial and very significant.
I hope to see you for part 3!