User Experience: The Secret to Making Your Enterprise’s Mobile Apps Succeed

With 987,863 mobile apps available in December 2011, according to HP, and more apps flooding the marketplace each day, the differences between good and bad apps are becoming easier to see.  But good just isn’t good enough when it comes to ensuring your app not only gets downloaded, but used and used often.  It must be great – so what makes a great app?

Sounds like a loaded question, but in reality the answer is simple – user experience. The best apps out there are those that can engage the user beyond a mere day or two, and become a go-to destination for information (or fun!) on their smartphones for a long time.

For developers, this extended use is the holy grail. Of course, mobile app discovery poses an enormous challenge – one that developers are still struggling to overcome – but it’s really only half the battle. If a developer can not only get the user to download their apps, but keep them on the phone, they’re cultivating a loyal audience that is more likely to pay attention to future apps they deliver.

Let’s take one of my favorite mobile apps, LinkedIn, which in June reported that the percentage of users coming from its mobile apps jumped from 10 to 23 percent in just one year, and this number is growing. What makes the LinkedIn app so special in the first place? User experience. A focus on the things that were essential to the user, including:

1)      A simple concept that meets a real desire for more seamless access to business-focused social networking

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2)      An easy-to-use interface that makes updates painless and intuitive

3)      A visually attractive design

By adhering to only the components that they knew would provide value to the user, LinkedIn ensured that their app was not just downloaded, but enjoyed a shelf life on users’ devices far beyond that of the typical app.

The LinkedIn example presents a perfect case study of how, by focusing on user experience above all else, developers can make their apps more essential to users.

Focusing on user experience when developing an app does not only apply for consumer-driven apps like LinkedIn, Kayak and Shazam.  A great user experience is also vital when creating applications for enterprise users.

To find the “customers” for an enterprise app, you don’t have to look too far outside your office door – your employees and colleagues are your primary targets.  Whether your enterprise wants to build an app that allows all employees to bill their hours remotely or one for each specific department to allow them to perform their jobs more effectively while on the road, user experience is just as important when catering to this internal audience as it is when you’re focused on driving app adoption by your external customers.

When developing an app for employees, a primary goal is typically to improve efficiency. An employee-focused app must share the traits of a consumer app: a simple concept, an easy-to-use interface and a visually attractive design. The employee needs to be able to easily understand how the app works and how it can benefit them so they can adapt and adopt quickly, ultimately improving productivity.

Enterprise apps also often have a secondary function of improving customer engagement and driving sales, so a killer user experience is vital. Let’s consider a sales rep for a large enterprise that has tens of thousands of products in its catalog. If this sales rep has a shiny new iPad with an app for that catalogue that checks for updates regularly, it’s ensured that the rep will not only have the latest information to show to current and potential clients, but also an interesting, interactive way to display products.

Here are a couple of ways that developers can keep the people who download their apps, both internal and external audiences, coming back for more.

Don’t Wait for Customers – Create a Feedback Loop Early

The mobile app development process for an enterprise can be a long one, and it can be made longer by waiting until late in the game – when the app has already been built – to incorporate customer feedback. This is why it’s essential for developers to incorporate user feedback as early in the development process as possible, even if the app isn’t yet available to employees.

The customer feedback loop can happen even before coding begins, at the ideation stage of the process. The development team should brainstorm not just amongst themselves, but should bring in as many outside perspectives as possible, including friends, relatives, colleagues, etc. In the absence of actual users this early in the process, this can function as the next best thing to determine what features are going to resonate with your core audience, the enterprise’s employees.

You can even create a “focus group” of app testers out of the same friends/relatives/colleagues and observe how they use your app to observe where employees will possibly find benefits or difficulties in their own experiences. It can be challenging, but getting all the users in the same room can be an invaluable way to secure the critical input you need before investing time and resources on developing features that could ultimately be ignored by employees.

Unify Creative and Development

In many app development projects, enterprises will engage an outside user experience (UX) designer to define the usability and design components of their apps. It’s always beneficial to bring in a proven resource that genuinely understands user interaction, and can effectively use this knowledge to bring the development team a well-developed concept of what should and should not ultimately be included in the app.

Typically, however, too much time is spent on the up-front design and creative work before any actual coding takes place. A UX designer can spend months building wireframes for the app, then creating visuals, mock-ups, taxonomies, flow diagrams and other components before any development is done. Using a standard waterfall approach that separates the creative designers and developers into silos ultimately creates waste in the value chain.

What large enterprises should consider is a system that makes UX design a unified, continuous process. Developers and the design team start working together from the beginning as a solution-finding team, with developers coding as early as possible so features can be tested as they’re built. By combining this approach with an agile development methodology, enterprises can ensure they’re delivering working software faster, and can then iterate based on feedback from the planned employee users, so any new features brought to the app can be proven to have value to the intended audience.

If you try to figure out the entire creative design end of app development before you test any actual software, make no mistake, you’re going about it all wrong. By allowing creative and development teams to interact in the same process by working toward the same goals and solving the same problems you can get a head-start on making sure that the app you produce will have real value for the user and the enterprise.

Think of the business apps on your own mobile device. You’ve likely kept the ones that provide value – and a great user experience, and scrapped the rest. The focus on experience seems simple enough, but developers are typically focused on firmly established processes, which cause design principles to be thought of as alien to the typical way of thinking.  By creating a system that incorporates user feedback early in the development process and breaking down the walls between designers and developers, large enterprises can help to reduce waste in the app delivery process and achieve the holy grail of development – a great user experience for your employees.

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