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What developers need to know about building mobile apps for business

Enterprise mobile app development doesn't happen overnight. Developers must plan ahead, determining an app's purpose and potential users before deciding what type of app to build.

Building an enterprise mobile app takes more than just assembling a collection of files. Developers must take into account a wide range of considerations to ensure they create an app that workers will actually use.

Even an internal app that serves only a small group of employees requires careful planning and attention to the many factors that go into application development. If an app doesn't make workers' jobs easier and enhance their productivity, chances are that app will fail.

Developers should take a few important considerations into account before building mobile apps for business.

Mobile application users

Learning about users and the environments they work in is essential to building a successful app. Users are the ones in the trenches, so they know where processes are complex and cumbersome, and where workflows get bogged down. They also have a good sense of what they need in an app to alleviate the problem areas. Yet development teams often ignore what their users want or need, failing to take into account their perspectives until it's too late.

Before building mobile apps, developers must find out what users need and how they work without assuming anything about their business patterns, habits, workflows or environments. Surveys, interviews, focus groups or other types of outreach will help developers fully understand the culture the app will be implemented in. Developers must also take users' expectations and levels of technical expertise into account.

Developers should not build an app without a specific audience in mind. If they don't take the time to understand users, they are much more likely to develop an app that fails.

Purpose and tasks

Developers must also identify what tasks the app should allow users to perform and which features it will require. They should work with users to come up with an app that will simplify their workflows and benefit them overall.

To achieve this, developers must have a thorough understanding of the problems at hand and the features the app will need to solve those problems. This is why it's so important to learn what users want and need as well as what they don't. Also take into account the different roles users play and how those roles translate to the tasks they perform each day.

When the app is finally deployed, users should be able to easily understand its purpose, workflow and how it connects to existing systems. They should quickly grasp how the app will solve their business problems and make their lives easier. The only way to achieve this is to have a clear vision of the app's goals.

Part two: Mobile UX design must inform app development

Part three: Mobile app content is everything

Platforms, devices and app types

Early in the development process, determine which platforms and devices the app will run on and decide which type of app to deliver.

Google's Android platform is implemented in greater numbers to global audiences, but Apple's iOS is generally favored by the enterprise. Windows mobile devices are making some headway in organizations, and BlackBerry-based devices have fallen out of favor. Determine which operating systems the app will run on and which OS versions. For example, the app might need to run on Apple iOS 8 and 9 but none of the earlier versions.

Also identify which kinds of devices the app is for. Should it run on both smartphones and tablets or just one or the other? Device types can play an important role when making decisions such as how to display features or manage data.

Remember that identifying operating systems and device types must be done in the context of the app. An organization might support iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows smartphones and tablets, but if the new application will be used only by the sales team on their iPad Minis, developers can narrow the app's scope considerably.

Deciding on the app type is a little trickier. There are three options: native, web-based or hybrid. A native app uses the same code as the host system. If the app must run on Android and iOS devices, developers must build two different versions of the app, one for each platform.

In this video interview, mobility expert Craig Mathias explains the basics of deploying mobile applications, why IT should consider mobile app deployment in the first place, which apps IT should mobilize and potential 'gotchas.'

A web-based app is delivered through the device's browser using technologies such as HTML5, Cascading Style Sheets and JavaScript. Just about any modern mobile device should be able to access this type of app. But web-based apps tend not to be as feature-rich as native apps and cannot take full advantage of a device's built-in capabilities. At the same time, the web-based app is faster, easier and cheaper to build and deploy.

Hybrid apps incorporate both native and web technologies. They provide a balance between the two approaches, and they offer some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

There is much debate about which strategy is best, often with little consensus. Many web-based app proponents point out that internal enterprise applications cannot justify the time and resources required to build native apps. But even for internal apps, developers should keep users' needs at the forefront. Implementing applications that are ineffective or make tasks more cumbersome helps no one. Let the app's requirements and circumstances determine which type to build.

Next Steps

Master the basics of mobile app dev

The ABCs of iOS app development

How to choose the right app dev tools

This was last published in September 2016

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