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Mobile - shifting from 'enabled' to 'optimised'

By Rob Bamforth

Workers have used various tools to access IT on the move for some time, but much of it was simply shifting desktop applications onto laptops and it took the arrival and massive success of smart phones and tablets to really get the mobile application sector moving. This in turn has created mobile app marketplaces and an opportunity for developers. 

Way back in 2008, Quocirca conducted some research amongst mobile app developers for a major mobile platform provider. These developers wanted stable platforms, developer support and market opportunities in which to sell their offerings, and largely over the intervening years the commercial elements of these needs have been met, certainly in the Android and Apple environments.

Many of the technical challenges remain. It is still difficult to keep up with new versions and derivatives of platforms, plus specific mobile app development skills can be hard to find, but the huge take up of devices and acceptance of use throughout the home and workplace means that there is an expectant user community and commercial opportunities.

But one bar has risen - user expectations - and it is no longer sufficient to 'mobilise' an application to work on mobile devices. The whole mobile user experience needs to be optimised, and this means successfully tackling two elements; the immediate user interface on device and the end-to-end experience.

At one time it was possible to separate out those aspects that might impinge on consumers from those that affected workers, but with so much crossover from the consumerisation of technology, the boundaries are blurred. Even applications for the workplace need to be written to appeal to the consumer appetites of individuals as well as meet the needs of businesses.

The user experience is significant as it impacts directly on the ability of an individual to do their job as effectively and efficiently as possible. Non-intuitive or even 'different' usage models in user interfaces force people to spend more time trying to learn the style of the application rather than getting the most effective use out of its substance. Some will just give up.

In the mobile context this is exacerbated by the immediate environment surrounding the mobile user; distractions, limited input/output, less comfort (standing or walking) and no time to wait for slow networks or applications. Presenting mobile users with too much or difficult to navigate information, expecting complex responses and not pre-filing with known mobile context e.g. location data, is not going to encourage effective frequent use.

Mobile users are impatient, often with good reason, and user experiences that mirror, mobilise or 'mobile-enable' the traditional desktop, whilst delivering consistency across different devices, often struggle to optimise for mobile needs. The recent market wavering between native and web interfaces for mobile indicates the dilemma faced by developers. They need balance a need for consistency and minimizing porting effort versus delivering a more mobile optimised user experience.

Current trends seem to be again moving towards favouring native mobile apps, indicating a rise in the desire for optimisation, but this alone is not sufficient for delivering the complete user experience that users increasingly expect, as 'mobile' will also often mean 'remote'.

Taking more control of the user interaction on device is one thing, but the end-to-end experience is more complex, with the trend towards delivering services to mobile devices, often going hand-in-hand with concentrating the service delivery into some mix of remote cloud services. These may be public, private or hybrid and accessed over a mix of service provider networks - cellular or Wi-Fi - of varying coverage, capacity and quality, so controlling and delivering of an end-to-end experience requires much more thought and attention. Network and remote application access needs to be streamlined and optimised to ensure the mobile working experience is fully productive. This will mean gaining a greater understanding of the challenges of mobile networks, which will often impact on application design.

Application developers and companies targeting mobile working need to start from the outset with a mobile strategy oriented around users, not just devices or even applications. They need to design for the constraints and advantages of the mobile environment to optimise for mobile working not just in the device - no dependence on mice, keyboards or seats - but also in the challenges faced in accessing the network and services that the device (and therefore user) relies upon.

Smart phones need smart apps and smart networks for mobile employees to be smart workers.