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Yesterday I commented on the fact that the first thing I have realized in recent months discussions with customers and colleagues about what apps we should build for our enterprise applications suite, is what apps we should NOT build.

In all fairness I guess I should also explain what I have realized that customers DO want and what I think we should build.

The Super Obvious

OK, there are some mobile Apps for the enterprise that virtually everyone is asking for.

As I explained in my post yesterday the valid use case for mobile apps is for those tasks that can be performed in a few seconds, or perhaps a couple of minutes, when away from anything that resembles an office.

Here is the top 5 list, based on what the customers I have been talking to have said.

  1. Approvals and authorizations. Having an app that tells you when there is a new purchase, invoice, expense sheet etc. to authorize, and that lets you authorize it there and then, is a godsend for any manager with personnel or cost center responsibility.
  2. CRM, or rather “personal SFA”. With the risk of being somewhat prejudiced, sales reps aren’t exactly the most disciplined when it comes to updating data in the CRM system. But give them an iPhone app to manage their opportunities, contacts and activities and data quality of the pipeline will jump to a higher level.
  3. Time and Expense reporting – the personal administration that we all have to do. Sure we’ve had this in the browser, accessible from home etc. for years. But my browser is still further away than my phone which 99% of the time lives in my pocket.
  4. BI and KPIs. The always asked for management app. Most managers that ask for it are thinking about easy access to the KPIs they track on a daily/weekly basis, but some also see a use for viewing larger reports as well.
  5. Work order status updates – for anyone that offers solutions for service management, an app used by field technicians to feed back status updates (have arrived, job done, customer not home etc.) is the top request. Knowing the status in real time is key to meeting service level agreements, and to invoice the work as soon as possible.

The Generic-Specific

As a company doing product development, most of the time it makes sense to add the capabilities that customers ask for to your products. But sometimes you need to step back and think about how you could offer a different, better, solution to the underlying needs your customers have. I think apps for the enterprise is an area where we have a good opportunity to do this, simply because there aren’t enough enterprise apps out there yet for people in general to have a good understanding of what is possible.

In particular I think there is an opportunity to be innovative with what I can best describe as generic-specific apps. Let me give you an example.

A lot of customers I have talked to have asked for small apps to basically look something up. One sports clothes retailer wanted a “product look-up” app. Today they have a portlet in their IFS Applications portal where they can do a product look-up to see whether the item is in stock, or if it comes in a different color. Problem is that the shop assistant needs to walk the customer over to a terminal to do the look up. An app for the phone in the assistants pocket would save those 30 seconds it takes to walk to the terminal and also provide a better experience for the customer. Makes perfect sense. An asset service management company wanted a “SLA contract look up” app to quickly look up the service level agreement for a particular asset or customer. Several have suggested “customer look-up”, “order look-up” and “employee look-up” apps to quickly find the phone number to a customer, the delivery date and status of an order, the department of an employee etc.

What is common for all these proposed apps is that they are very specific. They are focused on specifically performing a well-defined task, just like apps should be. However; instead of building all of these look up apps (a dozen or so in total) would it be possible to build a generic “look up” app? An app that excels at the specific task of looking something up, but is generic in what it looks up?

Imagine an app where you start by just typing in a key word – a part number, customer name, product name, employee name, contract number or whatever. This presents you with a list of matching search results grouped into customers, products etc. Click on the one you are looking for to see those quick facts, links to associated documents, attached images, a map showing where it is etc. If there is no image (for example of that sports jacket), use your phone to take a photo and it gets saved back. If there is no map, use your phone to log the gps co-ordinates (for example when you’re standing outside the entrance to that customer’s office).

Question is – would a generic specific “look up” app be a better solution than a dozen similar look-up apps? I think it might be. What do you think?

9 Responses to “Apps for the Enterprise – The Super Obvious and the Generic-Specific”

  1. Greg Romanello

    Sounds like EAS as a phone app. My phone is always on, my laptop isn’t. That would quite quite a handy app.

    Reply
    • Dan Matthews

      Dan Matthews

      You are gessing right – using the Enterprise Application Search (EAS) feature of IFS Applications to realize such app would be a likely scenario.

      Reply
  2. Mathias Dahl

    The engineer in me loves solutions like this! :) When I can see a
    pattern in two different requests and I am able to generalize that to
    support both with one code-base and some options, then I am really
    satisfied.

    Now, I have made a few of those kind of solutions, and they work nice
    and all, but often I have noticed it is hard to get as good user
    experience as will an application really tailored for a specific
    purpose. To get it general sometimes you have to sacrifice something.

    So, to answer your question: it depends. If a person only use one very
    specific scenario there will be “more clicks”, for example, since he
    in some way has to select from some list of options in the generic
    application. However, if he has a few similar scenarios then it might
    start to be a benefit only having to open one application, or to avoid
    cluttering his application launcher or home screen.

    For the person needing support for only one scenario I guess there is
    always the option to let him select a default “domain” or scenario the
    first time he use the application, so that it basically looks like it
    is a specific one the next time he starts it. And that might even be
    possible to control from the server side by some administrator that
    has to setup profiles for different users.

    So, when will we see this? :)

    /Mathias

    Reply
    • Dan Matthews

      Dan Matthews

      I agree it is certainly a challenge, and often not possible, to build a generic app that beats something very specific. However I have come across a few good examples in the space of mobile apps where the specific task you want to do might actually be a generic task, like looking something up regardless of what it is.

      I will say though that apps like these must rely on existing meta-data (of if none exist, some less desirable manual configuration) to know how to best represent/display the information.

      Reply
  3. Ian Mapp

    The opportunity is surely to re-imagine the user experience? Rather than a ‘dumb’ app that requires the user to navigate a series of options, something more like an intelligent search app (e.g. Wolfram Alpha as behind Apple’s new Siri application). A user enters the term ‘shirt’ and the server-side infers a product search. Similarly, entering ‘Smith’ implies a customer/vendor.

    The server returns commonly useful information related to the inferred entity without further interaction. The user can quickly scan/scroll the returned data for what they need.

    It should not be the case that a mobile app is simply a slimmed version of a full-fat client.

    Reply
    • Dan Matthews

      Dan Matthews

      Agree 100% if you talk about smaller form factor devices used “on the move” such as Smartphones and some pads. I have seen enough examples where vendors have put out apps that look like miniaturized versions of thir PC or web UIs. This is not the way to go. It gets cumbersome to use on the small hold-in-one-hand device, does not leverage the device capabilities etc. As you say, when doing these sort of apps it is neccessary to re-imagine the user experience completely.

      However when talking about larger form factor devices, from iPad size and up (including touch enabled laptops), I think there is a case to also apporach things from the other end so to say. I think we will find that in business use iPads and similar devices (like the upcoming Windows 8 pads) will often get docked into a keyboard, and often also an external display. When docked, a more traditional PC/laptop interface works just fine (assuming this interface is well designed). Even when undocked these devices have a screen resolution on par with laptops. What we need then is a “traditional” laptiop style user interface that has been enhanced to also work well when using it through touch rather than keyboard+mouse. Don’t forget that it is perfectly possible and smart to be innovative and re-imagine the ux to be much more task focused in this environment. Such a “fully functional coverage” can of course be complemented with more task focused apps.

      But when it comes to apps that should be used “on the move”, then yes a re-imagination is needed.

      Reply
  4. Mathias Dahl

    A comment to this comment from Ian:

    “It should not be the case that a mobile app is simply a slimmed version of a full-fat client.”

    It is a very good point to aim high but it does not mean that a slimmed down versions of the full client is a bad idea. For many cases it will work excellently I am sure. For me, typing on a smart phone is not very easy so I’d rather click or slide some buttons/panels/whatever to get at what I want, if appropriate.

    We can have both, I hope :)

    Reply
  5. Jami Fahad Ali

    Hi,
    We are a manufacturing cum retailers of building material and a client of IFS based in Middle-East. We have been using IFS for almost 10 years. Recently, we decided to equip our sales man with iPads. As pointed out in one of the above post, the primary reason for opting for mobile app is to reduce the time sales person takes to seal a deal with customer, especially since our showrooms are huge and everytime there is an inquiry from customer, salesman says “Let me check for you” and spends 1-2 minutes going back to his station, querying for part and getting information. It will be wonderful if he could just tap open an app that could give him just enough information to let him know how many piece of one color of one particular item do we have in our stores. We decided to do just that “search” functionality but found out that running IFS/IFS portal through citrix/remote desktop application is nightmare when it comes to usability. The screen appeared crammed up, with touch making things even more complicated. Zoom in, pan right, zoom out, scroll up and zoom back out just to find one information was painstaking. We decided to develop an app in Visual Basic with just right amount of information/columns that salesperson need and have this app run through remote desktop. Ah! better but not best. Everything in this app is magnified 10x. Buttons appeared big, uncluttered and touch-infallible. Then we realized that if we can have searches done through iPad, why not have sales quotation done through same? If a salesperson can search, create and print a sales quotation all while standing and talking to customer, not only each salesperson would be able to serve more customer but also the need of workstation could be fully eliminated. And that is where we are now. An app that can search for customer and inventory and that can make and print a sales quotation
    would be final nail in the complete sales app that we are looking for.

    This leads me to wonder if IFS has or will have any such app in near future.

    Thank you,

    Reply
    • Dan Matthews

      Dan Matthews

      Well, watch the space of IFS Touch Apps in 2012 and you might find some things you like.

      In the mean time, feel free to send some screen shots of what your app(s) look like today. We are continously gather input and ideas for what customers out there want to do on their Smartphone and pads.

      Reply

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