Five things you need to know about creating and sourcing enterprise mobile apps

There’s a cornucopia of options out there today, but it helps to keep a few more guiding concepts in mind.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mobile apps lately, so I wanted to put all our thoughts and opinions in one place.

There are many options for creating and sourcing apps

Developing native mobile apps used to seem so out of reach. Companies had to find developers with new skills, they had to build their own infrastructure and integrations, and they had to figure out new signing and deployment processes. But now there are many types of tools to help. There’s mobile backend as a service (MBaaS), mobile app development platforms (MADP), rapid mobile app development platforms (RMAD), app refactoring, API abstraction layers, and more.

That’s a lot of acronyms, and trying to parse the whole field in a few sentences would be impossible, but the bottom line is that there many diverse products that are all trying to make it easier for companies to build their own apps. For example: there are codeless drag and drop editors to create client UIs; abstraction layers to connect new apps to existing data sources; and services to help with signing, syncing, and push notifications. (Brian Katz spoke about these options and more at BriForum, and you can read summaries of his session here, here, and here.)

There are also many options for off-the-shelf apps. We have plenty of enterprise email clients and other productivity tools, and most popular SaaS and cloud apps come with native mobile clients for iOS and Android. These days, even older software giants like SAP, IBM, and Oracle all have dozens or hundreds of apps.

Mobile apps aren’t just small and portable—what’s exciting are the sensors and data frameworks

Some of the defining characteristics of mobile apps are that they work on small, touch-enabled, portable devices. We should also think of mobile apps as more targeted, more numerous, and faster-evolving than desktop apps. But you know what’s even more exciting? All the sensors and data frameworks.

I covered this in more depth in my recent Modern Mobility post, but here’s why this is important: There’s a computer science concept that a program shouldn’t ask the user for any information that it could figure out on its own. Since mobile devices have a variety of built-in sensors and data frameworks, that means that mobile apps can figure out a lot on their own! Many of these sensors and frameworks aren’t used in older desktop and web applications—this translates into new opportunities for enterprise apps. (I’m not the first one to observe this.)

For an example of how all these data sources can work together, let’s look at Lyft: The app uses your phone’s image sensor to scan your credit card; it uses location data to know where you want to be picked up; it can use your phone to talk to the driver; it sends you a push notification or SMS to let you know a car is on the way; and you can use your contact list to split the bill with your friends.

Now comes the interesting (and potentially extremely lucrative) question: How can your company get a business advantage from all these sensors and frameworks?

The most important part is listening to users

All of the presentations and conversations I have about enterprise mobile apps have one main theme: You need to actually talk to users about what they need to do their job. Again, Brian Katz’s BriForum presentation comes to mind—he calls it the “FUN” (for Focus on User Needs) principal.

All this might seem obvious, but when we think about how legacy enterprise apps make us jump through hoops just for a simple task, it becomes clear that, yes, making enterprise mobile apps more user-centric actually is a concept we need to keep reinforcing. Think about why shadow IT, consumerization, and FUIT happened in the first place!

Who’s doing all these apps?

Today in 2016, many organizations are still doing mobility on an ad hoc basis—they use mobile email, messaging, and off the shelf apps like EFSS and whatever other pre-made mobile clients they can find. So where is all the app action taking place? A lot of it is in the so-called “extended enterprise,” i.e. apps for field workers, contractors, partners, dealer networks, and other non-employees.

All these concepts can apply to desktop and web apps, too.

When we think about mobilizing and modernizing apps, often we think about apps for phones and tablets. However, this can just as easily apply to apps consumed from laptops and desktops—users of these apps can benefit from improved user experiences and workflows, too. The good news is that a lot of the app creation tools covered at the beginning of this article can be used to create modern desktop and web apps, too.

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Part of the focus on FUN needs to take into account that you can’t just “appify” a legacy application. Do that, and you’ll wind up alienating your user base. Workflows need to be reworked and adapted to the smaller mobile devices so that users do not need to jump through those hoops.