BOSTON -- Developing mobile applications requires a different approach than organizations have traditionally taken, and it's a road fraught with obstacles.
The rise of easy-to-use, consumer-focused apps for smartphones and tablets have changed users' expectations about the kind of software they should have at work. The monolithic applications that dominated the PC era don't always translate well into this new world, and the skills needed to create new kinds of apps are often in short supply in enterprise development shops.
Panelists at this week's E2 Conference here this week discussed the challenges of developing mobile apps and shared these four pieces of advice:
Create scalable apps
No matter how much planning you do, it's still hard to predict when an app will fail and when one will take off. To prepare for the latter scenario, you have to make your app easy to recreate on multiple platforms and form factors, said Regev Yativ, president and CEO of Magic Software Enterprises Inc., an application development platform provider based in Israel.
One way to make apps more scalable is to create a "parts library" of preconfigured code that developers can use as building blocks, said Brian Katz, director of mobility engineering at Bridgewater, N.J.-based pharmaceutical manufacturer Sanofi. That way, developers don't have to start from scratch every time a new app needs to perform a certain task, such as connect to the corporate VPN or access a specific data store, he said.
Focus on user needs: The FUN principle
The flexibility needed to respond to the success of an app also comes in handy when adjusting to users' tastes, which can change quickly. Trenton Cycholl, a senior director at Citrix Systems Inc., compared users' taste in apps to children's taste in games.
"Games come and go," he said. "Enterprise apps are going to come and go. They're becoming disposable."
To keep users' interest, it's important to provide them with apps that help them do their jobs. And the best way to ensure that happens is to involve users in the design, development and deployment process.
Katz suggested developers go on "ride-alongs" with users to get a better feel for their jobs and the challenges they face. For example, his organization's employees regularly visit doctors at hospitals, and there are some areas where nobody is allowed to have a network connection or even turn their mobile devices on because of privacy concerns. That's something developers wouldn't know otherwise, and it informs their app-building decisions, Katz said.
Another way to involve users is to give them a say in which apps get deployed. Organizations can have teams of developers compete against each other to build the best app for a specific task, then have users decide which is best, said Christopher Willis, chief marketing officer at Verivo Software Inc., a Waltham, Mass.-based mobile enterprise application platform vendor.
A mobile app can't help users much if it doesn't know who they are or what data they need. That means a strong support infrastructure, now known as Mobile Backend as a Service (MBaaS), is critical. MBaaS allows mobile users to connect to the enterprise systems they depend on while also helping IT to centrally manage and secure mobility.
"There's no good mobile app that's not connected to the back end," Yativ said.
Your job isn't done when an app goes out to users. Apps should have built-in analytics to monitor how employees are using them so developers can make quick adjustments as needed.
Gone are the days of releasing new versions of applications at very long intervals, Katz said. Developers and executives should also have regular communications with users to find out what they think of their corporate apps.
"The feedback you don't want is, 'I don't know,' because that means they aren't using the app," Willis said.
Senior news writer Diana Hwang contributed to this report.