What can the Enterprise IT world learn from Mobile App development?

Jun 10, 2017

Design for mobile

Users of enterprise IT are human beings. And like many human beings, they have grown accustomed to a mobile-centric, and more specifically app-centric task management in their daily lives.

This paradigm has more relevance in some areas than others, and the mobile paradigm has worked well in advancing how certain tasks are done.

For example, email clients on mobile devices give a focused view of the inbox. For many busy people, this type of view – uncluttered and focused – is preferable to the unwieldly, over-specced desktop email client that they had been used to on their PC.

This is true of quite a few application experiences. Indeed, we often find that the constraining view of a mobile device can help us to focus on the tasks that a user wants to perform, minimising distractions.

It’s important to recognise the cases when this approach might not work.

But it is a useful design exercise to think “mobile first”, particularly when designing a specific user feature that requires clear focus and inputs.

Startup mentality

It’s a well-worn cliché – the “fake it till you make it” approach where a team on a shoestring budget cobbles together a barely-working app using a simplified UI with just one button (a la Twitter / Instagram). Everyone applauds the simplicity and looks past the rough edges because of the stunningly original concept. The team bags 20 million in VC funding and hires a team of hundreds of developers to do the “real” work.

These things happen rarely but they capture the imagination.

What can we learn from such a story?

Mobile app development is hard, so it is worth trying really hard to present your users with a “working” prototype.

That imaginary startup doesn’t have a team of back end developers to do all the heavy lifting, so they concentrate on delivering something that at least looks like it satisfies the user’s key desires.

I believe that it’s essential to keep the user’s immediate experience uppermost in mind throughout a software project. For example, during Sprint planning – rather than looking at “what work can we have our team members usefully complete in this Sprint”, try to think about “what essential features of the user experience can we complete in this Sprint”.

Or going back even further, to requirements gathering and product planning – we should examine each user story to ask what it conveys in terms of the value of the user experience.

Architecture

Again, the constraints of working in a mobile world help to guide us in good design principals.

Designing for patchy connectivity

Mobile data networks are still not as reliable as a WiFi or a wired network. This means that a well-designed mobile app can’t make assumptions about being able to maintain state through a network connection. The app must be robust and must maintain consistent state and utility even when a connection is not available. This is something that users expect, but many apps don’t live up to the expectation. It’s your job as a designer to keep the user’s expectations in mind in this respect.

Simplified UI design propagates similar designs throughout the app stack

The mobile app usually presents itself to the user in a series of simple interactions. Because of the device size, these interactions need to tell a story or guide a user’s experience in isolation from each other. Designing these separate operations leads us to design a well-organised API that supports them logically, where the data being carried is not too bulky, which in turn leads to better response times and efficiency. Again, it is a question of “small is beautiful” – designing concise user experience operations leads to a more efficient design.

Where next?

In future articles, I’ll talk in more detail about the choices and obstacles we face in beginning to developing mobile apps in the Enterprise IT world.

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