Mobile app design: it's the process, stupid

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 9, 2013
Forget printed paper analogies. Mobile app design is all about workflow - finding the most direct digital route from action to transaction

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In the enterprise market for application software, people are buying outcomes. Mobile is no different. Apps that look pretty may win awards, but the real winners in the enterprise are apps that deliver results.

In that spirit, I enjoyed the presentation delivered at last week's EuroCloud UK meeting on mobile design by Ilicco Elia, head of mobile at DigitasLBi, the world's largest digital agency.

He started off by citing a couple of examples of companies that had not fully thought through their use of mobile. One company's responsive design, for example, thoughtlessly reordered the page content in a way that pushed the buy button from top right all the way down to the bottom of the page. He slated another for sending out an HTML email bulletin at 6am in the morning containing an optional link to the mobile version:

"They mock me by asking, 'Are you reading this on a mobile device?' Of course I am, it's 6 o'clock in the morning!"

But I found the most interesting part of his presentation was his account of the Lufthansa mobile boarding card app. When flying from Heathrow, this wasn't able to show the boarding gate, but it did at Frankfurt. The only problem was, the gate then changed but the app didn't update the gate number on the mobile boarding card. This exposed a flaw in the design thinking of the mobile app team, he explained:

"Lufthansa are looking at that boarding pass as though it's a piece of paper. It's a conversation."

The flight was subsequently canceled, and the mobile app showed Elia a UK premium rate number to rebook his flight that his mobile phone wasn't able to call from Germany. Clearly the designers had not thought through how the app was actually going to be used.

But what sticks in my mind was that comment about looking st the boarding pass as a piece of paper. I was astonished a few months ago to discover that the favored design pattern for mobile apps is based on printed cards.

Surely in the 21st century we should have got beyond analogies from the era of printing for application design? Real-time information is dynamic and the analogies we should be using are instrument dials and machine dashboards, not static sheets of card or paper.

B2B scenarioes

I put it to Elia that his examples had been drawn from the consumer space and what advice did he have for B2B app developers. He replied with a scenario where someone is in the stationery cupboard at work and sees that an item is running low. They don't want to go back to their desk to place the order, they want to have the app to hand on their smartphone:

"Remember the workflow that's happening ... Putting that mobile app into the workflow will absolutely work."

Actually I would go further and say to the app designer, remember that the smartphone can read barcodes so why not just have the user snap the barcode and add it to their shopping cart there and then? Realizing the potential of mobile means completely rethinking processes in ways that find the shortest path to digitizing information using the incredibly smart devices we all carry around with us today.

It is all about workflow and finding the most direct digital route from action to transaction.

Designing for mobile to seize the full potential of these devices is going to be a long journey and once we've finally learnt how to do it, it'll be time to learn some new paradigm. Give it a few years and I'll be castigating diginomica readers for their failure to design enterprise apps that realize the potential of robots or 3D printing. The adventure is just beginning ...

Disclosure: The author is chair of EuroCloud UK.

Photo credit: © Warakorn -

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