Building Mobile Apps: Top 5 Mobile Features That Make a Difference

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And how neglecting them is doing your company a disservice.

 

I've been on this earth for a long time. In fact, according to my teenage daughter, I'm ancient. During my 20+ years of being an IT professional at LANSA, I've witnessed a lot of change. It seemed every five or six trips around the sun, another game-changing technology would surface and turn our world upside down.

 

The positive side to being "old as dirt" is having a front-row seat for this amazing ride we call IT. Besides watching hardware get smaller, faster, and cheaper, we've also seen the preferred user experience transition from dumb terminals to Windows to Web, and now to mobile.

 

In my experience, mobile has beenby farthe single most significant yet disruptive innovation I've encountered. Why? Because this may be the first time in the history of IT that users are as comfortable with an emerging new technology as we are in IT, and these users are changing the behavior and expectations of today's applications.

 

Back in the early 2000s, when I wasn't so ancient, our first major mobile project was for a city government in the State of Michigan. The city had an extensive park system and employed a lot of park rangers to monitor and maintain their public areas. The team mostly traveled by bike to inspect all the areas. Every park ranger lugged around a heavy backpack filled with different types of inspection forms. When rangers found a problem, they grabbed the appropriate form from their backpack and, putting pen to paper, filled in the details. At the end of the shift, everyone biked back to the office and dropped off their paperwork. The following day, all the incidents were manually entered into the system by superintendents. Since this process was so manual and inefficient, two or three days could pass between when the park ranger discovered the issue and when it was fixed.

 

The city needed to address this ineffective process, so we helped by developing a mobile Web application to replace the paper-based process. Instead of lugging around heavy backpacks filled with papers, park rangers were armed with Internet-connected Palm devices and a Web application. Do you remember those Palm devices? Hmm, maybe I am ancient.

 

The mobile app had a real-time connection to their IBM i, which meant that, within seconds of the incident being created on the Palm Pilot, the supervisor was able to issue the work order. Resources, time, and paper costs/waste were all reduced significantly, and the turnaround time for work orders became almost instantaneous. The following year, the city won the State of Michigan's Innovation Award for its pioneering use of mobile technology to save taxpayer dollars.

 

Even though this early incarnation of mobile computing was still in its infancy, I immediately connected with its potential. It was easy to see that developing browser-based websites for Internet-connected handheld devices that provided remote users with real-time access to information was a going to be game-changer. In hindsight, I was completely wrong!

 

Do you wonder why I reminisce about a mobile application written nearly 15 years ago? No, I'm not trying to feel young again. Instead, this applicationand mobile apps just like it being written todaytells the story of why I was wrong. As it turns out, a mobile app with remote data access wasn't the game-changer I thought it was. The real game-changer happened six years after this project, when Apple released the iPhone.  

 

The iPhone changed mobile computing forever, much like how the iPod changed the way we listen to and purchase music. Not only did Apple unveil a mobile device with powerful built-in features like cameras, accelerometers, GPS, Bluetooth connectivity, etc., but they opened up those features for developers to embed within their own applications. This, my friends, was the game-changer. And if you're creating mobile apps that don't take advantage of these features, you're doing yourself a disservice.

 

Back to the park ranger app. I love using this mobile app as an example because it was in production six years before the iPhone was even announced, which means it wasn't able to take advantage of some of the features we take for granted today. Let's use the park ranger app as our subject and play a friendly game of Family Feud.

 

Imagine, if you will, Richard Dawson (dating myself!) announcing today's topicBuilding Mobile Appsand asking this question: name the top five mobile features that make a difference. Here we go, ladies and gentlemen. It's time to play the Feud!

 

Answer: Capturing Real-Time Multimedia Information. Survey Says, #1!

One of the most valuable features of mobile technology is its ability to gather real-time multimedia data. Whether it's capturing a customer's signature, snapping a photo, taking a video, or recording an audio snippet, this new kind of data adds to the richness of the information being collected and provides a level of detail to the experience that words cannot express.

 

If we were building the park ranger app today, we'd include a heavy dose of multimedia-capturing capabilities. For example, instead of forcing the park rangers to type in a description of a broken swing set, let them snap a few photos and attach it to the incident report. In place of trying to describe how parts of the sprinkler system are watering the street instead of the grass, let them record a video. Rather than typing in a lengthy description of the damage caused by last night's storm, enable park rangers to record audio snippets as they walk through the affected area.

 

Not only is the multimedia data more useful to its target audience, it's also much quicker for the end-user to capture the information as well.

 

Answer: Geo-tagging People, Places, and Processes. Survey Says, #2!

Another powerful feature of mobile devices is the ability to capture geo-location information. This data allows companies to know where items or people are located, better calculate delivery routes, or find nearest points of interest.

 

If we were building the park ranger app today, we'd use geo-location information to pinpoint the spot of the incident. This means park rangers wouldn't be forced to estimate the location of an incident or item. So instead of typing, "The broken fence is roughly 50 feet east of the northwest corner of municipal park," the rangers would simply touch the screen to capture the GPS coordinates. On the other side of the spectrum, the employee assigned to the work order would use the GPS coordinates to locate the fence much quicker.

 

Answer: Taking Advantage of Barcode Scanning. Survey Says, #3!

Companies are constantly looking for ways to increase employee productivity, and utilizing barcode scanning is a great way to accomplish it. Scanning barcodes, via an internal camera or a Bluetooth connected device, instantly moves data into the mobile application. Not only is it one of the faster forms of data entry, it's one of the least error-prone as well.

 

If we were building the park ranger app today, we'd definitely take advantage of barcode scanning. Imagine every street lamp, park bench, swing set, and jungle gym having its own unique barcode, and the park ranger simply scans the faulty item to initiate a new incident instead of entering all the information manually. And, by taking advantage of the geo-tagging technology in answer #2, the repair person can instantly locate the nearest storage facility housing the replacement item.

 

Answer: Provide Offline Capabilities. Survey Says, #4!

I'm not sure why this feature is ranked fourth, probably because most organizations don't realize its importance. As a developer, you can build the best mobile app in the world, fully utilizing features 1 through 3 above, but if your end-users lose their ability to continue working when they lose their Internet connection, then what good is your app?

 

Let's think about our poor park rangers for a moment. Imagine pedaling four miles down a public biking path only to discover yesterday's storm washed away a large section of the trail. If the park rangers are in a spotty coverage area, then they won't be able to enter an incident, which means they still have to lug around backpacks filled with forms, manually fill out paperwork, estimate location information, and enter descriptions where a picture or video would have been worth a thousand words.

 

While you don't necessarily have to make your entire application work offline, at a bare minimum you must enable users to 1) capture and store data locally and 2) sync up the data up once their connection is restored.

 

Answer: Leapfrogging Your Competition. Survey Says, #5!

Yes, I do understand that leapfrogging the competition is not a physical feature of a mobile device. But I also recognize this technology for what it has become: a catalyst for end-user innovation that has been lacking in IT for many years. Weaving mobile into your company's application stack not only positively contributes to your company's bottom lineby streamlining processes, eliminating errors, and increasing productivitybut also empowers your company to become a market leader.

 

The park ranger app addressed many of the city's back-office inefficiencies, but the end-user application itself wasn't very efficient. Believe me, entering data on a mobile device, especially a phone, for several hours per day is no walk in the park (pun intended); it's a laborious, tedious, and error-prone process. To be successful, the mobile version of your app must not behave the same as the PC version. If it does, you've lost the chance to add real value to the application.

 

Every company in every industry has competition. Even the city in this article competes with other cities for state funding. Don't pass up this opportunity to use IT as a source of competitive advantage within your organization.

 

Game Over; Time to Collect Our Parting Gifts

As IT professionals, we need to constantly remind ourselves that mobile technology will continue to change the dynamic of how we interact with our employees and customers. We also need to remind ourselves that, while every organization is different, winning the moments that matter starts with understanding what your users want in a mobile solution, and that is a constant for every company.

 

Over the last five years, we've helped a lot of companies integrate device features into their mobile apps with great success; many companies achieve their ROI in just a month or two because of the reduced labor costs. If your mobile strategy focuses only on remote data access, then you're underutilizing mobile's potential. Remember, innovation is fueled by problems. If you don't know where the problems exist, then ask your end-users; they'll be more than happy to provide you with many examples of how mobile can help the issues they struggle with every day. Once you're armed with this information, you can then better plan for what your mobile app needs to accomplish and which features will provide the best and most efficient user experience.

 

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