Mobile users are only going to become more fickle, more demanding and savvier, continually raising the bar for software developers, writes Adrian Bridgwater
Business has gone mobile. The average handheld now comprises of more computing storage and processing power than the machines responsible for putting men on the moon in 1969. In an age where many people sleep with (or at least next to) their phones, commerce has to fit this new, smaller, portable computing – if it is to survive.
Firms hoping to create a mobile presence for themselves have in many cases retro-fitted their full-scale applications and websites to suit mobile usage. Sometimes this works, but other times it is a failed case of too much in too little space.
According to senior vice-president for middleware at IBM, Robert J. LeBlanc: “Any application that uses pinch and zoom is essentially not optimised for mobile.” His comment relates to an experience many users will recognise when trying to zoom in and work with a touchscreen app on a smartphone or tablet. Mr LeBlanc has a point. Consumers now expect a “mobile experience” that has been optimised for smaller screens.
If an app or a web service has not been optimised for a mobile experience, some experts are now starting to say that the software has been “negatively compromised”.
That experience is important. Technology strategists and evangelists like to talk about User eXperience (UX), as enterprise-level applications are being built or rebuilt to reflect the experience users know from consumer applications.
Often dubbed the “consumerisation of IT”, if a business executive plays with a tablet PC on the train home or at the weekend, then why not present business dashboards, customer relationship management (CRM) apps and enterprise resource planning functions (ERP) through the same mobile format?
This technique underpins much of the way enterprise software giant SAP has engineered its latest batch of products. Its SAP BusinessObjects business intelligence application is presented as a tablet-friendly piece of software with options to perform what could be critical business actions through finger-driven touchscreen input.
“Many users reach for their tablet first and are disappointed if they ultimately need to pull out a laptop to get a job done,” says Jason Rose, SAP’s vice-president of business intelligence. “For users to be effective, they must have a complete experience optimised for mobile.”
Clive Longbottom, founder of Quocirca, analysts focused on business implementation of technology, says a truly mobile app is one that takes into account the total mix of device attributes, such as size, processing speed, touch input and battery life, along with bandwidth constraints and overall “contextuality”, such as location, time and strength of internet connectivity, and more, to ensure that information security is maintained no matter where the user is.
“The majority of users in 2013 are not looking for a full mirror of everything that they can do on their PC. So identifying the 20 per cent of most-used functions provides a good starting point when designing a mobile app. Other functionality can be more ‘hidden’ so to speak,” says Mr Longbottom.
Experience is everything. It always has been, but it’s still undervalued and under-invested in. Obsess over it. Live and breathe it. Get your whole company on board
He advises that the next generation of more efficient mobile apps needs to work to embody desired outcomes. “Is this part of the corporate CRM system and so requires rich data input, or is it a travel app where the main thing is providing an e-ticket to speed you through the airport?
“The UX has to be one where the user is happy to use the app and does not feel they are having to make any allowances between what they would do at a PC and what they do on their mobile device. However, there should be enough commonality between the two environments so that the user feels it is seamless to move between machines,” he says.
The main problem with many mobile apps up to now is that they either attempt to “force the quart into the pint pot” and put all the desktop capabilities into the mobile environment, or they are “mobile-only” and are either not available on a PC or don’t behave in a user-friendly way on that platform.
User experience strategy consultant at ShiftFWD Naomi Niles says a person who uses a smartphone to access a site usually has different needs to someone who might access it on a desktop. “Trying to build a desktop-style website for a mobile environment may not be the best strategy when what is really needed is a separate application or service. We also need to remember that creating a good experience for everyone is not simply a matter of deploying in as many formats as possible,” she says.
At the leading edge, the industry is now seeing game mechanics come into play, where reward schemes and point-scoring scales are attached to mobile application usage. These already-proven strategies need a lot of careful security provisioning so that users’ details are not shared outside safe, approved networks. But used judiciously, customer engagement can leap forward as the UX itself becomes what the marketing team would call “more immersive” all round.
Michael Allen, director of application performance management solutions at IT software company Compuware, says there is an unmistakable demand for mobile apps that have been created specifically for smart devices, but expectations of them are sky high. Mr Allen also points to research which suggests that 80 per cent of people expect an app to launch in three seconds or less. They are quick to switch to a competitor’s offering if it is not up to scratch.
“The challenge is that apps will perform differently on various devices and networks, so businesses must prioritise based on customer preferences. By using data to determine which devices their customers use the most, businesses can optimise their mobile-app design for those devices. Localised network issues can also take their toll on even the most optimised of mobile apps, so businesses need to put themselves in their customers’ shoes and constantly monitor performance from an outside-in perspective to ensure a reliable user experience,” he says.
Putting useful, usable, user-friendly mobile technology experiences in people’s hands takes more than “porting” or even shrinking an app to the mobile space, it means re-architecting and re-engineering from first principles.
As Twitter’s chief executive Evan Williams concludes: “Experience is everything. It always has been, but it’s still undervalued and under-invested in. Obsess over it. Live and breathe it. Get your whole company on board.”
EXPERIENCE IS A SCIENCE
User eXperience (UX) has driven software development across industry, not just in consumer software – something Cressall Resistors, an electrical manufacturer based in Leicester, has exploited to drive customer awareness.
The company created an iPhone and Android mobile app to calculate Ohm’s Law and, since its launch in January 2013, the app has been downloaded more than 17,000 times in 131 countries, an impressive total for a niche application.
Ohm’s Law is the critical mathematical model for current conduction used by engineers when mentally mapping out electrical circuits.
“Years of experience teaches us how to deal with these calculations, but why spend time on them when, with a little help, you can get the answer in seconds? The app was born out of that rationale – make things easy for engineers so they have more time to go and invent useful things for the world,” says Chris Johnson, the Cressall engineer who wrote the app.
While the app has been downloaded in countries as far afield as Bhutan and the Republic of Congo, the place where it has been most popular is the United States, with more than 4,000 users.
“Apps also need to be designed with the user’s expectations in mind. For instance, Android users get annoyed if the app looks like a rehashed iPhone version. They would rather you write it in their design style,” says Mr Johnson. “User experience is the bottom line. If you want people to use your products, they have to feel comfortable in the environment you create.”
MOBILE PAYS OFF FOR SUSHI
Japanese restaurant chain YO! Sushi was keen to exploit the potential of mobile technology from an operational perspective. It wanted to raise service efficiency and improve its customer payment process, freeing-up staff to engage with customers.
The use of colour-coded plates of sushi delivered by conveyor belt has always been a signature aspect of the brand YO! Sushi experience.
But when a customer finished their meal, waiting staff would record the items consumed and prepare a docket for them at their table. The customer would then take this paperwork to the till booth to pay. This paper-based system was open to inaccuracies, thwarted customer engagement and made the payment process unduly involved.
The firm’s long-term EPOS (electronic point of sale) partner, Omnico, implemented its ClarityLive iPod-based mobile solution, run in a virtualised cloud-driven IT environment. This handheld-device software puts full EPOS capabilities at staff members’ fingertips for a tableside experience. Order accuracy and efficiency have been boosted, the payment process transformed and the YO! Sushi dining experience has gained a new service edge.
YO! Sushi says it has recorded new opportunities for customer engagement and upselling in a scenario where the payment process is reduced by as much as 30 seconds per customer. Drinks and special orders are automatically sent to the kitchen staff from handheld devices, and bills can be prepared and finalised live at the table before being instantly available electronically at the payment booth.