line of people scrolling through their phones
PHOTO: ROBIN WORRALL

A few years ago, Google was said to divide users into repetitive, bored and urgent. "Repetitive" users are monitoring: a stock price or weather, for example. "Bored" users are killing time, and "urgent" users need specific things like directions to an airport, fast.

When designing mobile sites and applications for digital workplaces, I’d say there are five user scenarios that need careful consideration:

  1. Away From Desk — Information needed quickly when moving around the office.
  2. Using Downtime — Making use of a few minutes time while waiting.
  3. Second Screen — As a complement a bigger screen, for example to monitor alerts.
  4. Mobile Work With Sensors — Dedicated apps designed for tasks on the move, such as surveying.
  5. The Only Option — BYOD users that have no other device.

Being clear about what users are doing helps us to define the purpose of an individual app or a section within a responsive intranet. When I do consulting work with clients, these categories are a good way to tease apart dilemmas like “should everything on the intranet be on mobile?” or “do we need a dedicated employee engagement app?” 

1. Away From Desk

Examples:

  • Check meeting details.
  • Meeting room maps.
  • Colleague’s contact details.
  • Shuttle bus timetables.
  • Fact-checks of reference information.

We tend to think of mobile work as being about work at airports or commuting, but often people in offices have "urgent now" needs because they are in the building but away from their desk. When heading to a meeting, for example, they may want to check a floor plan, especially when meeting rooms have funky names like “Inspiration” and “Sycophant Suite” that give no spatial cues.

Once in the meeting room, there’s inevitably somebody who should be there but isn’t, so now they need contact details to hunt them down. Some sophisticated companies with hot-desking policies combine the two by showing a live map of where that person has checked in for the day, so you can zero in on them like detectives in a crime thriller.

Related Article: Oh Pshaw! The Really Weird Office Is Already Here

2. Using Downtime

Examples:

  • Checking news articles.
  • Taking part in discussions.
  • Short workflow tasks, such as expense approvals.

This is the more productive equivalent of the Google "bored" user reading celeb gossip or checking Facebook.

At work when queueing for coffee, or when commuting on a train, people are more able to do monitoring and review tasks than knowledge-work. Historically, this has been about checking email, or more recently, chat tools. There’s a real opportunity though to engage employees in catching up with corporate news articles. However, they need to be shorter, visual and rigorously follow the inverse-pyramid style to work well.

Quick responses on enterprise social networks are also ripe for this scenario: people can be reluctant to divert from urgent work at their desk to help a colleague, but they may well give a few minutes during downtime.

Finally, anything that requires a short approval step is ideal for a mobile use case, especially if all the context needed for a review can be put on one screen. Expense and vacation approvals are great examples but make it easy to access the relevant policy on the same page too.

Related Article: Conquer Your Workplace Distractions

3. Second Screen

Examples:

  • Urgent announcements.
  • Messaging notifications.
  • Workflow status.

Advanced users may balk at this one, but it is common to see people filling their laptop screen with a single application. And despite many options for alerts within Windows, it tends to be our phone apps that are better set up for notifications from tools such as Slack, Teams, Trello and so on.

Therefore, there are good reasons why you might divert the role of alerts on business systems to mobile too. Many intranet tools offer an ability to put a red banner at the top of the screen saying something like “IT systems down,” but it would be much more effective on mobile devices.

4. Mobile Work With Sensors

Examples:

  • Photographs as part of an inspection.
  • GPS to secure sensitive information (geofencing).
  • Augmented reality for instructions on a manual activity.

This scenario seems under-exploited at present. Smartphones come festooned with sensors ideal for dedicated work applications that would be hard to achieve on laptops, and often fitting for field workers.

Fellow CMSWire columnist Steve Bynghall described some compelling examples last year. My favorite is from engineering firm COWI. They built a mobile app for structural engineers to take photos of buildings, geotag their observations and link them to site drawings. This then exports the notes into a ready-made Word template on SharePoint for report completion when back at the office.

Related Article: Bringing Mobile Content Management to the Field

5. The Only Option

Examples:

  • Employee handbook and policies.
  • Training.
  • Vacation, sick days and similar forms.
  • Staffing schedules / shift rotas.

Sometimes the only digital device people have is a smartphone, especially if their access to the corporate network is through a BYOD policy. In this case, the mobile use case is pretty simple in that it has to cover everything staff might need.

In practice, there is often the option of a shared PC at work or BYOD use, but there are still decisions to be made about the information architecture of the mobile interface. I see this as a strong case for adaptive rather than responsive web design. The key tasks for a warehouse worker may be very different to those of a field engineer, so the mobile interface should be optimized for that role.

Video content for training often works better than text — it is easier to take in than reading on a small screen.

Finally, think about times of use: the peak time for leave requests may not be during lunchbreaks but when an employee is at home discussing family vacation plans.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Wedge Black for suggesting the ‘second screen’ concept.