Why should only iPad owners get usable apps?

Companies are delivering truly easy-to-use apps for iPads and iPhone, but not for the desktop

The pitch was gushing: The insurance company Aflac was bragging about how its new iPad app for salespeople boosted productivity because users just loved the app, whose UI was actually accessible -- so much so that the company claimed an 18 percent in sales increase due to the adoption of iPads. Isn't it amazing what a new piece of hardware can do for a salesperson?

But seriously, I wanted to know what was different about the iPad or the new Aflac sales tools that would account for such a jump in user joy and sales results. I had reason to suspect that, no matter how great the iPad is as a tablet (and it is great), the increase in user satisfaction and sales at Aflac had a more fundamental cause.

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What tipped me off was this statement from Aflac PR rep Natalie Godwin: "The innovation collapses the standard 46-page Aflac sales presentation into a few multimedia screen taps, putting case histories, testimonials, tax-savings calculators, competitive comparisons, and even Aflac's iconic TV commercials literally at the finger tips of sales associates." My question to her was why hadn't the laptop-equipped salespeople been given the same reworked presentation -- after all, nothing she described that had been done for the iPad version couldn't be done for Windows or Mac OS or a browser-based Web presentation.

Godwin's response was basically that the iPad is cool, so insurance agents want to use it. Plus, it's very convenient -- there's practically no startup time, it's easy to carry, it runs for a whole day on a charge, and users don't need to wait to load video players and the like. That's all very true. But those attributes have nothing to do with the app, which clearly is where the problem resides. After all, a 46-slide presentation is a sure way to bore both the salesperson and the prospective clent -- who wouldn't know that?

And why did it take the introduction of the iPad for someone at Aflac to get a clue that it was time to redo the presentation in a user-friendly way? Why didn't Aflac do a better app for its agents before the iPad? Godwin didn't want to go there. But Aflac's situation raises the question I believe every IT developer, IT manager, CIO, and businessperson should ask themselves: Why does it take the introduction of an iPad, an Android tablet, or some other new device for a company to worry about the basics of creating apps that are usable and effective? Why have most people decided that it's OK if PC apps are difficult to work with?

It's no surprise that the iPad and iPhone are the vectors for better apps. Apple has very well-thought-out human interface guidelines for iOS, and it enforces those principles in its app review -- developers are strongly discouraged from creating new approaches for what Apple has already figured out how to do well. There's some discipline that developers can't easily escape, as they can for in-house projects or when writing apps for "whatever you want to do is fine" OSes such as Windows, Linux, and Android.

Plus, there's a sort of peer pressure from users in the iOS (and Mac OS) world: You pay a premium to get a better experience, so everyone who joins in is held to the same standard.

None of that of course explains why it's OK to do a poor job of designing apps for other operating systems. Even if Apple provides a stricter framework that makes it easier to do the right thing, there are tomes and tomes on good UI design available, as well as human interface guidelines from the likes of Microsoft and Google that promote better quality than is often delivered.

A great computing device is only as good as its apps, and your users can only work as well as your apps let them. If the iPad is your inspiration to do the right thing, great. But don't limit the right actions to your iPad apps.

This article, "Why should only iPad owners get usable apps?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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