Main content

Judging enterprise mobile apps

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 8, 2013
You can frame the enterprise mobility debate in a multitude of ways. I'm partial to this one:  Where are the apps? And - how do you build a great one?

Judge's gavel standing on a dollars
You can frame the enterprise mobility debate in a multitude of ways. I'm partial to this one:

Where are the apps?

Apps aside, there are ample reasons to be bullish on enterprise mobility. Most analyst firms have issued their own excitable takes on enterprise mobile spending; ABI Research recently predicted that the value of the mobility market for apps alone would be worth $27 billion by the end of 2013.

I haven't seen a million dollar's worth of mobile apps myself, much less a billion. Perhaps my accelerated fall travel schedule will get my personal number higher. For now, I am more conflicted on enterprise mobility than the mobile evangelist types, and have shared data and field views to explain why.

Stats from a new report on the State of Enterprise Mobile Readiness from AnyPresence seem more realistic. According to AnyPresence's poll of a small sample of 100 mobile enterprises, 75% expect to deploy three or more applications in 2013; 38% percent will deploy six or more this year.

The average cost of developing apps cited by AnyPresence was eye-opening: 25% of respondents averaged more than $100,000 per app, which AnyPresence attributed to the complexities of security, testing, data integration and performance optimization. It's no wonder given app development costs like those that 63% of those surveyed planned to deploy more partner/channel apps this year.

In terms of getting past the 'Where are the apps?' question, there are some positive trends. HTML5 is offering not only device-agnostic options but the potential of hybrid apps that combine HTML5 with device-specific design. Device-flexible apps would jive well with BYOD trends, not to mention stretch development investments.

One issue that has bedeviled enterprise apps in the early going is combining the industry know-how of grizzled enterprise veterans with the  'consumer grade' design chops iOS and Android developers bring. The numbers seem to be trending well on that issue, with a recent Appcelerator survey of more than 6,000 respondents reporting the number of mobile developers focusing on enterprise apps has risen from 38% to 51% and moving upwards.

How do you build a great mobile enterprise app?

With that mind, how do you build a great mobile app for the enterprise? It's a question I have pondered while serving as a voluntary jury member on mobile apps challenges for SAP, as well as filming a motherload of mobile apps as part of our JD-OD SAP startup video series.

As I listed the keys to building great mobile enterprise apps, I realized that some are obvious and some are surprising, even counter-intuitive. So I've divided my recommendations accordingly.

The obvious tips

1. Keep it simple. The first enterprise mobile apps mimicked the screen flow of desktop systems. Huge mistake. A handful of screens per app.

2. Involve users in the development process.

3. Frequent iterations of releases. Don't wait for perfect; roll out good enough and enhance from there.

4 (If you're a partner) - Co-innovate with a customer. Customer running your live apps are a huge credibility boost and a crucial feedback loop.

5. Security, security, security.

6. Don't be sexy, be invaluable. Solve a pain point, extend a business process, make a field scenario interactive. Example: build an app that allows salespeople to configure a product in real-time with a customer to replace archaic order-taking.

7. Draw on your industry expertise to build an app with the industry specifics the big players going for broad mobile adoption either haven't focused on, or don't understand.

8. Integrate with core apps. Could be ERP, could be cloud-based HCM or CRM. Doesn't matter what the core app is, enterprise mobile apps without seamless integration are missing a leg from the stool. I've seen more than one mobile app that captured a process via notes or pictures, but then that documentation had to be manually added to the system of record via cut and paste and so on. Fail.

9. Test, test, test.

10. Don't copy existing processes, re-imagine them.

The surprising ones

11. User experience matters, but that doesn't mean 'beautiful'. We've heard too much about 'beautiful' apps. Enterprise mobile apps don't have to be beautiful. They have to be fast, time saving and intuitive. Good looking? Out of the gate, that's a bonus.

12. Success must be measured, but define your own metrics. I've seen mobile apps success defined in per user dollar impact. But sometimes user adoption levels are the best initial measurement. I had a manager tell me his goal was simply mobile adoption by his salespeople, who hated their prior mobile apps. For him, initial success could be measured in terms of adoption and data input.

13. 'Always on' may be less important than offline data sync. The idea we are 'connected everywhere,' much less 'broadband everywhere,' is a farce. In some industries there are known mobile dead zones. Offline work and sync capabilities may be far more important than designing an 'always on' app.

14. Build for one device first. For all the BYOD rage, enterprise still often leans iOS. Building an app that fits an industry - while getting the most out of one form factor - is the way to get traction.

15. Go for singles, not home runs. Too many developers try to hit it out of the park with a mass appeal app. Fixing one industry problem or filling a narrow gap no one else has thought of may work better. Many of the most exciting apps are coming out of niche consultancies using mobile apps to extend their intellectual property and (cough) best practice know-how.

16. Event-based notifications for the win. With all the fuss over 'consumerization' trends and whizz-bang UIs, the good old fashioned ping alert gets overlooked. Mobile devices are fertile ground for apps/alerts that allow the user to handle exceptions without having to slog back to the office off-hours. Save someone a trip to cubicle city, and they won't care what your app looks like.

Final thoughts

Most of the best enterprise apps haven't been built yet. At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the best designed apps I saw had nothing to do with the enterprise, and it wasn't close. But apps that solve real world problems don't have to be beautiful out of the gate to inspire. For my part, the most exciting discussions in Barcelona for were about extending banking to developing countries, often via non-smart phones where texting information was the modus operandi. Didn't matter. But those use cases sure did.

Maybe that's the odd bottom line of the enterprise mobile app: you're not always sure what makes it great, but you know it when you see it.

Photo credit: Judge's gavel standing on a dollars © Gor Grigoryan -

Disclosure: SAP is a diginomica premier partner as of this writing. SAP also funded the SAP startup video series noted in this article.

A grey colored placeholder image