For the past five years, developers in the highly competitive consumer market have paved the way in design and innovation, offering users mobile applications which combine inventiveness with ease of use and practicality. The real proof of developers' accomplishments can be seen in the soaring number of application downloads within the consumer space; since 2008 Apple’s App Store has recorded 40 billion application downloads, with 20 billion of those downloads in 2012 alone.

The success and ubiquity of consumer applications has set certain expectations with users, therefore when employees access business applications they have now come to expect the same high level of functionality and ease of use. For business applications to really succeed, organisations need to follow this lead with user-friendly applications which can deliver real business benefits such as reduced training costs and improved productivity.

The Enterprise Learning Curve

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from consumer apps is that, ultimately, their success depends upon usability. Without this, employees will struggle to adapt to mobile tools, or may even circumvent processes to find the easiest way of completing a task. We need to learn from the ease of use of consumer-based applications with enterprise applications that not only look good but have a real business benefit and which can drive greater productivity. 

Developers in the consumer space have long pioneered the design of user friendly interfaces and incorporated smartphone features such as  GPS, compass, gyroscope, camera and voice capabilities as standard, to make applications content-rich, engaging and, critically, designed to suit the behaviour of the users. For example, the Footprints app for Android gives you the ability to document where you are with a photo and caption, while the GPS function gives you precise coordinates so that you don't forget the location. Further, the best consumer applications have been developed with ergonomics front and centre, to suit the way that we intuitively use the device with one or two fingers, allowing us to easily scroll through information.   

Taking the lead from the consumer space however, needs to go further than simply the look and feel of the interface of the applications. Using a mobile device to complete a business process should be done in as few steps as possible, for example, in just a few screens a user should be able to approve a purchase order or submit an expenses form.

On the mobile device we need all the information at our finger tips which typically means it must be digested into one or two screens. Here, it is essential to think about the process involved and provide ways of making the application as efficient as possible; mashing up the information into an easy to view window. Processes must be designed so that we don't have to click through ten or twenty pages to complete a task.

For example, in a business context, these principles could be applied to the processes involved in approving a purchase order from a mobile device. In this instance, the user would need to see information on their screen from both the CRM system, which relates to forecasts and closed business, as well as the ERP system which relates to the purchase order and budget information. In this case the application should be designed to allow the user to 'accept' or 'reject' with all the information they need, in as few clicks as possible.

Taking a look at the mobile application market today, the offerings from many of the major ERP and CRM vendors have focused on providing templates which can run on mobile devices either representing the whole application or offering small elements of the application in a template format. This can be effective but, in the vast majority of cases, the business process requires information from more than one data source. Rather than opening two mobile applications users need a solution which will allow them to complete the business process within a single application, giving them the option to investigate further should they need to.

Keeping up with Innovation  

The core lesson here is that any enterprise application must cater for the user’s needs.  On the mobile, we should think 'light and fast', for example, instead of creating one monolithic, application on a mobile device we should have multiple mobile applications which each allow users to complete an entire business process in a single application so there would be one PO approval application and a separate expense submission application.

Typically, we have a shorter attention span when working on a mobile so we need access to the right information quickly, irrespective of where data resides.  Successful applications will allow the back end systems to do all the hard work searching through every application to provide the results which the user can then easily view and select what’s relevant for them.  We should also work with the features of the phone to make tasks easier and more efficient, for example; insurance claims can be significantly improved with the ability to upload photographic evidence. 

Designing with the user in mind is about more than simply succumbing to the preferences of our consumer-driven workplace or the digital natives who will increasingly make up our workforce. I'd argue that it's fundamental to the success of any mobile strategy. We need to build on the best of the achievements in the consumer space to provide better tools, to improve the way we do business, streamline processes and create a happy and productive mobile workforce.  

David Akka is UK MD of Magic Software

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