Analyst Perspective: Optimizing Mobile Apps

By  Jeff Goldman — October 16, 2010

This is the latest in a series of interviews with industry analysts, discussing their perspectives on key issues related to BlackBerry devices in the enterprise.

Jack E. Gold, founder and principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, has more than 35 years of experience in the computer and electronics industries, including work in imaging, multimedia, technical computing, consumer electronics, software development and manufacturing systems. Prior to founding J. Gold Associates, he spent 12 years at META Group as a vice president in Technology Research Services.

While it's fair to say that mobile is the new desktop for many users, Gold says, that's not true for everyone. "If your primary function and role in life is to write 30-page documents and to do large Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoints, the chances of doing that on a three-by-five screen any time soon are pretty small," Gold says. "On the other hand, if you're a sales guy who's out all day and really all you need to get to is the name, contact and status of an order, and most of that's handled via e-mail -- then there are many people out there who are pretty much 100 percent focused on a BlackBerry or other smartphone device today."

And although more and more companies are finding ways to leverage smartphone applications, it's inevitably a slow process. "If you look at the majority of companies today who deploy smartphones to their users, it's still mostly about email, messaging, and web browsing," Gold says. "That's changing, but it's changing slowly... Just taking an application that you've got running on a PC and then porting it down to a smartphone is not as easy as people make it sound. Because if you are going to truly utilize the capabilities of that smartphone, then you want to tune that application for that device."

In doing so, Gold says, there really aren't any viable shortcuts. "A lot of people will say, 'We've already got an application running on your PC, so now that you've got this new smartphone and it's got a browser, just run it in the cloud, and it'll run on your browser on your phone the same as it runs on your PC," he says. "The difference, of course, is that you've got a three-inch screen on a smartphone and a 23-inch screen on your PC. They look different, they work different, they operate different."

The point is that the workflow has to undergo a fundamental change in shifting to a smartphone. "If you want to run, for instance, order entry, what you do is you segment out the screens," Gold says. "Rather than having 48 different fields inputtable on a PC screen that's 23 inches across, you divide those up -- you have three or four entries per screen, and then you go to the next screen, and then you go on to the next screen, because if you don't do that the user gets overwhelmed, they can't see what they're inputting anyway, and they'll inevitably make mistakes because they'll get into the wrong fields."

It's crucial to make those adjustments, Gold says, with a clear understanding of the needs of the mobile user. "If you're going to figure out the best way to get the most efficiency from users in the smartphone space, you've got to go ask them what they do all day and how they do it," he says. "Because at the end of the day, you want to send out applications that build efficiency, not that make it so hard to use that they figure out a way around it... If the complexity's too high, the user satisfaction goes down -- and if it gets too low, they just won't use it, which is why many mobile projects fail."

That can come down to something as simple as keeping the speed and latency of the network in mind. "You can design a really nice application, but if someone's got a really crappy network and it takes 12 or 15 or 30 seconds to go between screens and you've got 10 screens to go through... people aren't going to use it," he says. "A lot of people just assume they're all going to get a nice fast 3G network. Not always."

And in designing a mobile app, Gold says, don't just look at the technology that exists today. Keep future advances in mind -- everything from faster processors to new ways of leveraging the cloud. "Remember, mobile technology is emerging and changing... A lot of companies will design an application and they'll just assume that it's going to be around for five, seven, 10 years," he says. "You can do that on a phone but it's going to look really old really quick."

Finally, Gold says, it's important to realize that it's rarely cheap to deploy an effective mobile solution. "Don't try to do everything on the cheap -- don't try to get a bargain," he says. "Having said that, the ROI can be phenomenal if you do it right, because the amount of productivity you can gain will more than offset on a per-user basis the amount of money that you spend in developing that application -- if you do it right."

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