shutterstock_71497639.jpg Mobile computing is definitely at the forefront of the Consumerization of IT (CoIT) trend. The evidence? Look around you and employees are literally voting with their devices, showing a preference for designed-for-the-consumer tools like the iPhone and those that have been inspired by Apple’s leadership in this space. These often feature beautiful interfaces for accessing and sharing information like Flipboard, Path and Instagram.

While it's true that the quality of mobile apps available to consumers can vary, the fact that leading consumer app stores feature hundreds of thousands of apps allows for a survival of the fittest ecosystem to exist. People who use smartphones and tablets can filter out the good and the bad with a click of the install button.

Consumers are Also Your Employees

The relevance of this behavior towards mobile apps for the enterprise is that those same consumers are also your staff or the people who work for your business partners. They now have first hand experience of what makes a good app; they also know how easy it is to discard others that fail to make the grade.

This alone should convince you that consideration of the user experience for enterprise mobile solutions has never before been so important. If you are still questioning the value of a good user experience in this context, bear in mind that meeting the heightened expectations of employees is only part of the story.

The knock on effect of a good experience is that it also trains them how to expect a mobile interface should function. Giving them something different will result not just in complaints but could result in higher costs for training, change management and support.

Optimizing Mobile and Desktop Systems

One of the other important impacts that mobile apps have on raising the importance of user experience is the attitude of employees towards systems that are "voluntary" in nature (such as knowledge management and collaboration tools) and those which are "compulsory" (typically system of record, for example an expense system).

The user experience of compulsory systems has historically been bad because the emphasis was on achieving system and business goals -- e.g. accurate data entry, compliance with business rules. On the desktop where there is no alternative channel or process to follow, employees are effectively forced to accept a bad user experience.

When employees are given the option of a mobile interface for a compulsory system, they are actually given the opportunity to choose between the mobile or desktop options.

A mobile app may in theory offer greater productivity and effectiveness, but this only happens if people actually choose to use this option and use it well. For example, an online form that has been streamlined for a user sitting at desktop PC or laptop, will not work as effectively on a smartphone or a tablet.

Unlike compulsory systems, voluntary systems -- typically systems of engagement -- suffer a dual challenge with user experience. If the desktop experience is poor, then users will avoid using the system to the fullest potential (and therefore reduce the benefit to the business). Give people mobile access to a voluntary system that has not been optimized for mobile devices and the problem will only be compounded further.

From the perspective of treating internal users as technology consumers, this means that a poorly designed mobile solution represents massive opportunity costs to the organizations who are implementing them. This affects mobile solutions for systems of record and systems of engagement in different ways but the result is the same.

Factors Behind the Mobile Focus

There are other reasons for making enterprise mobile solutions the focal point for understanding the importance of the internal user experience. Along with the Consumerization of IT, technology drivers behind this focus on mobile include:

  • Mobility -- the impact of mobile connectivity on how and where work is happening.
  • User Interface -- the physical constraints of the mobile interface compared to desktop PCs and laptops requires system interfaces to be rethought.
  • Technographics -- for example, the expectations of younger users who have grown up with mobile and the popularity of accessing social media through mobile devices.

In terms of both mobility and the user interface, the physical attributes of mobile devices are clearly an important factor in redefining how and where work is happening (both within the workplace and when working away from it).

These factors combined with other hardware capabilities, which support features such as location-based services and multimedia, also provide the potential to create brand new work methods, enhanced processes and innovative services. Without considering the user experience (which may include the actual experience of staff delivering your services or products to customers), it is unlikely that you will uncover these new opportunities.

Creating the Ideal Mobile Experience

If you now accept that a poor mobile user experience for employees creates an opportunity cost, how do you go about avoiding that risk? Quite simply, you need to apply a user experience design process to the development or selection of the mobile tools and apps you plan to implement.

Through that design process you should be able to identify what an enterprise mobile tool should actually do, how it will work, where it will be used and who will be using it. This is achieved by understanding:

  • Expressed user and business needs (what people say they need).
  • Technographic and social experience design patterns related to that need (how and why staff will actually use it or not).
  • Knowledge of the physical constraints and capabilities of mobile devices.

This will add extra time and cost to the development of enterprise mobile tools, but getting the user experience right will pay dividends. The impact of a poorly design mobile app for an enterprise user is far greater than that of internal Web apps and intranets of the desktop-orientated era.

Remember that while internal users may be locked into your technology and process ecosystem, they still have the ability to use less productive channels or use the tools in such a way it creates rework.

Furthermore, you may miss the chance to create mobile solutions that have an impact beyond basic productivity use cases. Finally, with a trend toward designing for mobile first, in the long term this might also end up improving the overall quality of the user experience for employees on their desktop, too.

Title image courtesy of Pan Xunbin (Shutterstock).

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