The new rules for enterprise apps

To be successful today, enterprise software must be more user-friendly, get updated more often, and offer users outside your company more transparency than ever before

An insurance company decided to roll out an application for its sales reps. The new app would give them a wider selection of products to offer customers when out in the field. Information on those products was stored in a legacy mainframe system, so the company created a Web interface that let reps query the database to get details on offerings.

The new interface did give access to product information, but it was neither intuitive nor easy to use. "There were long drop-down lists, and it was very form-oriented," says Alex Adamopoulos, CEO of Emergn, a consulting firm that worked with the insurance company. "There were many, many fields and pages and pages of content on each product. The salespeople were struggling to find the right types of data and there was no way to do an advanced search. There was also no way to do a what-if scenario -- you'd have to do it offline with a spreadsheet-based application."

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Around the same time, a second insurance company serving the same market also decided to launch an app for its field reps. This time, there was no legacy system to query, so the company started from scratch, licensing off-the-shelf software. "It was a database that came 60% or 70% baked," says Adamopoulos. "The rest was customizable and could be changed in response to user feedback."

The first company should beware of the second company and its more user-friendly app, he says. "The difference is customer experience, and it's going to be huge," he notes. "The licensed software will give salespeople the ability to quickly create a portfolio of products that's suited to the client. They'll be looking at the same types of data, but they'll be able to control it and shape it any way they need to." That might provide a serious competitive advantage, since the actual products the two companies offer are quite similar.

"We've done work with both companies," Adamopoulos says. "We keep telling the legacy one that they should look at creating a more user-friendly experience. They don't think it's necessary. They will a year from now, when they're losing market share."

"It used to be that you'd set up a server with databases and put nodes on a network. Users would have limited capability," says Joe Fuller, CIO of Dominion Enterprises, which creates both print and online publications that match buyers and sellers of real estate, used cars and other items. "The applications would all be proprietary and we would print operations manuals that were updated once a year. People would go to trainings to learn how to use the software, and they'd sit there with their manuals next to them. Today, you'd be wasting your time printing ink on paper, and your applications had better be user-friendly enough that people can figure them out."

It's a simple lesson, and one that IT departments everywhere need to absorb: The old rules for enterprise applications, both those built in-house and those licensed from vendors, don't work in today's environment.

Some IT leaders lament the consumerization of IT, in which employees arrive in the workplace bearing the mobile devices of their choice, with the expectation that they'll be able to use them to do their jobs. This means that whatever applications IT deploys need to run smoothly on a wide range of operating systems and screens, but the challenge doesn't end there. In addition to being platform-agnostic, today's enterprise apps must be as user-friendly and inviting as those found in a mobile app store in order to entice users who, increasingly, can choose whether or not to bother with them.

Here's a look at the new rule book.

Rule No. 1: Make it appealing

It's a plug-and-play world, and no company wants to invest its money and employee time in lengthy or even brief software training. Even if your company does want to spend money on training, you may have a hard time getting people to show up. A recent survey by Swedish ERP vendor IFS revealed that many employees will simply bypass enterprise software they find user-unfriendly or not intuitive. Rather than take the time to learn how it works, they'll come up with elaborate workarounds involving Microsoft Excel or other consumer software.

And if your employees won't put up with an app that's not intuitive, just think how much harder it will be to get external users to adopt it. Because, like it or not, in today's world, your largest user base may well be outside your company. "Typically, in a business strategy for application development, you need to consider three user groups: B2B, B2E (employee) and B2C (consumer)," says Bill Clark, an analyst at Gartner.

He recalls going through the calculations with one insurer that was planning a mobile app. The company had 2,500 employees, and another 1,250 independent insurance agents using its network, he recalls. But then there were 3.5 million actual customers. Of those, about 5% had accessed the website from a mobile device. "That's 175,000 people!" Clark says. "In reality, more customers will touch a mobile website than every employee in the organization, and every employee in every business partner, combined."

With no way to force these outside users to accept your application, or even control what kind of device they use to access it, IT's only recourse is to create irresistible, user-friendly apps that work well on all commonly used browsers and mobile devices. "Everyone has the expectation that they'll have access to whatever application they need via whatever device they want to use," Fuller says. "Anywhere they can have a Web browser, they expect to get to the application and do what they need to, whether from a smartphone, tablet, netbook or notebook PC."

What does it take to create applications people love? Whether you're targeting internal or external users, design matters, experts agree. "There's a change in the skill sets we're using," notes Mike Croucher, head of IT architecture and delivery at British Airways. "We're using a lot more creative designers for the front end, people who think about color palette and user interface. There are more graphic designers and media people."

Indeed, when British Airways rolled out its new Enhanced Service app for the iPad, the company carefully selected an eye-catching design even though in-flight crew members would be the only ones to see it. "The front end has a very arty picture of the front of a cabin crew uniform and the tie," Croucher says. "Bringing that kind of visualization makes it look professional. Don't lose the opportunity to think about the artwork that goes into an app." (See "British Airways' iPad App Improves Customer Service.")

Rule No. 2: Make it transparent

As the insurance company with the legacy interface may soon learn, in today's business world, information is king, and the more information your employees can obtain quickly, the more competitive advantage you can gain. And that data has to be up-to-the-minute.

"People want more real-time data than ever before," says Jim Dusoe, owner of Net Data Design Innovations and a software developer with 30 years' experience. "They want to see where things are and what the process is. A lot of that has become doable over the last three years, where our processing is powerful enough to supply it. In the past, we might not have had a full batch process, but we could limit updates to once a day. Whereas now we're getting closer and closer to a state where when I touch something here, everyone else using the application sees it immediately."

Given the quantity of data that people need to absorb quickly these days, users especially like information presented in a graphic form, he adds. "Data visualization is a huge piece of this. Being able to create charts and graphs, and use some sort of database analytic tools to delve into the data, and discover trends that weren't visible before -- there's a huge call for all of that in enterprise applications. That's probably the single biggest push I've seen recently," says Dusoe.

The need for more detailed and fresher information isn't limited to internal users. Customers and business partners increasingly expect deep insight into nearly everything your company does. "We build applications for customers, and those customers, the vice presidents in charge of software, want to know exactly where that supply chain is," notes Jonathan Rende, vice president and general manager at HP Application Transformation Products. "They want to know when things will be delivered, and if they're not going to be delivered, why not. They're looking for greater granularity in their view of the process."

Fulfilling those expectations isn't easy, he adds. "The complexity of providing that information is huge. We literally have to integrate our external user applications into many more data sources than we did before," says Rende.

Lest you think this trend is confined to the high-tech world, Adamopoulos reports seeing a shift across all industries. "Customers want control of the process. They don't want to be limited in what they're able to do, and some companies are opening up the kimono and saying, 'We'll make our apps as useful to you as they are internally to us.' " The reason, he says, is that companies that give customers maximum access gain advantage over more reticent competitors.

Admittedly, the thought of letting nonemployees delve deep into networks and databases will likely give the average IT executive a bad case of heartburn. Won't that create unacceptable security risks? And even regulatory violations in some cases?

Obviously, it makes no sense to give outsiders access that puts data and network security at unacceptable risk, Adamopoulos says. But at the same time, security and regulatory concerns should not become the reason for a blanket "no" to all outsider data access. "If you don't have what I call 'legacy thinking,' you start asking what it does make sense to make available to outsiders," he says. "Maybe HIPAA doesn't allow access to this part of the data, but what parts can you share?"

Besides, as Dusoe notes, even restricting all data to employees only is no guarantee of safety. "You could still have a disgruntled employee sitting at home taking screenshots."

For Dominion Enterprises, which collects vast amount of data on behalf of customers, the Apple model suggests a useful solution, Fuller says. That is, supply an API in a controlled environment, allowing customers to build the functionality they need. "Our customers are becoming more and more demanding about having visibility into their data," he says. "We're looking at creating APIs so that not only can we build against them, but our customers can build against them too. If they want to do something with their data other than our prepackaged application, we'll give them that API. In the past, our customers didn't know what an API was -- our industries are not particularly cutting-edge. But now customers are beginning to request and expect them."

Rule No. 3: Update it often

There was a time when updates, upgrades or any sort of changes to the software used at work were met with a general groan. But that time is well behind us. These days, employees expect, and even want, frequent updates to the applications they use.

"That's been a really dramatic change in the industry," Fuller says. "Google's probably leading the way, with their incremental changes released nearly every week. You don't know when they're coming -- you go to the interface and it's different. And more than 90% of the time, it's better."

He adds, "We used to use the waterfall method. We would create a specifications document, argue about it until it was etched in stone, and then the developers would work on it and release it." Now, he says, that way of working is "turned on its head." Instead, he and other experts favor an agile development approach, in which new application versions are routinely released every other week, with user input sought between releases. "We make incremental changes," he says. "And because the software is cloud-based, there's not the hassle of sending out disks. You've tested each version thoroughly, so you just push it out to users. And their expectation is that it's OK to have changes. The response is 'What does this do? Let's try that!' instead of 'Oh no, you changed my interface!' "

In fact, Croucher says, it's a good idea to experiment with different user interfaces, changing them frequently. British Airways even conducts an in-app form of A/B testing, in which some users are given one interface version, and other users are given another, to see which works better. "You need to get that segregation of back-end functionality and business services, which need to be correct, and front end, where you can be more experimental," he says.

That doesn't mean, however, that you should expect the back end to remain static. While you may not want to make changes on an every-two-weeks schedule, it's likely impossible to create truly user-friendly and appealing apps without overhauling the underlying functions and databases.

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