The Wisdom Behind Making Workplace Apps Easy to Use
Why should company owners care about creating mobile apps for their workforce that are intuitive? Because their employees do. The standards of what's considered a well-designed mobile app have been raised and a clunky enterprise app can seriously hinder an organization's productivity.
Attitudes about enterprise mobile apps have changed, primarily because work and personal lives have become so intertwined. Today people answer business emails from the family room, review sales leads from the backyard deck and solve IT problems on their commute. Employees are constantly connected, managing their work lives around the clock.
With the line between professional and personal spheres blurring, expectations for app usability have changed as well. Workers are continually switching between consumer apps and business apps. The bar on ease of use has been raised because employees view all tablet and smartphone apps through the same lens. All they know is that some apps are seamless, intuitive and robust while others are not.
Workers expect intuitive, easy-to-use, "consumerized" enterprise mobile apps because that's what they are accustomed to. Anything less will result in a precipitous decrease in engagement -- and productivity.
Decision makers are beginning to take note of the discrepancies between consumer and business software. They are realizing that easy data entry, quick access to key functions and simple navigation are essential to smooth workflows and high productivity. Apps should be designed for business consumer, so that the user experience is seamless and even delightful within a professional context.
Unfortunately, easy to use isn't the same thing as simple to create. Many executives assume that since app stores are filled with 99-cent or even free apps, they must not be challenging to develop. But effective, intuitive and functional enterprise mobile apps are the result of sound planning and effort.
Unique environment. Good enterprise mobile apps are much more than a migration of desktop enterprise software. It's almost impossible to exactly match the features of a desktop application. The hardware environments are simply too distinct.
So what constitutes a good enterprise mobile app? Research suggests that for 80 percent of all business software applications, users engage with only four or five key functions. When creating an enterprise mobile app, the job is to identify those functions and design for them alone.
For example, a mobile app for time tracking should focus on that specific process alone and align app features accordingly or employees won't use it. It also should be easy to navigate. Users need quick access if they are going to routinely use the app to accomplish their tasks.
Real estate is another critical factor. Tablet screens (typically 10 inches diagonally) and smartphone screens (4 inches to 5 inches diagonally) are smaller than laptops or desktops, so designers must be honest about how much content can be displayed. Quality mobile apps eschew a small typeface for simple graphics and limited navigational choices.
While attractive graphics in a mobile app are great, it's even more critical to tailor the graphic interface to the user's needs.
Syncplicity, a file-sharing app of EMC, provides an example of how a user interface can simplify a device's operation. (My company Y Media Labs serves as a mobile-interactive app consultant to EMC.) Syncplicity was built with the idea that users want fast access to their files. The designers for Syncplicity knew that creating a "favorites" function wasn't the answer: "Favorites" can change almost daily at work. Constantly marking files as "favorites" would require multiple tedious steps on a mobile device. The designers also realized that people working on a project often return to the same files and folders repeatedly. So the designers implemented a "recently accessed" option to let users quickly go to the exact information desired.
Testing is essential. To create an exceptional enterprise mobile app, designers must combine beauty and brains. They must aspire to establish a visceral connection between the app and the user, one combining aesthetics with personalization. Displaying time of day upon launch (factoring in local time zones), changing backgrounds according to the time of day, noting key corporate events or news, and even greeting the individual by name ("Good morning, John Smith") are some of the ways to make an app more enjoyable.
Building a consumerized app is an evolutionary process. Testing is an immensely beneficial method for discovering users' preferences and ensuring that they find an app easy to navigate.
Functional testing using a paper prototype can weed out 80 percent to 85 percent of an app's potential problems before the first line of code is written. Digital prototyping makes quick, effective usability testing possible. Engineers can now run tests remotely via the Internet, without test subjects being present. A large cohort isn't necessary, since the main goal is to uncover gaps in flows or other issues. It's important to recruit target users, however, for relevant feedback.
As development progresses, additional testing will ensure no expensive mistakes are present. Unlike years ago when testing followed a huge engineering run, agile development now allows testing to occur incrementally, as often as every two weeks.
Even post-release, testing has value. The focus shifts to usage metrics to uncover the screens people are spending time with and the buttons they're clicking. Heat maps are used to determine where people are spending time and how they're navigating. By isolating the good and bad aspects of an app in the field, designers can better plan updates -- and learn what will work in other projects.
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