Best practices for building your company's next mobile application

Building a mobile application may hold several advantages over buying one, but first you must build an effective mobile application development strategy.

What’s your company’s next mobile app project?

Along with the upswing in Web application development, many businesses are also trying their hand at creating customized mobile apps. These projects can involve creating a mobile version of a Web application or building a completely new app specifically for use on mobile devices.

Why build instead of buy?

In some cases, it’s possible to use off-the-shelf apps for business. That’s often the case with file sharing software for small to mid-sized businesses since file formats are fairly standardized across industries. If you can share MS Office documents and spreadsheets and PDFs, you’ve pretty much got things covered with popular apps like GoogleDocs or DropBox. However, there are many businesses that do have processes which require bespoke mobile apps. This is most likely to be the case for:

  • Large enterprises (needs tend to be more complex)
  • Niche industries (needs tend to vary from the average)
  • Apps that are linked to customized internal databases
  • Apps that must be integrated with an ERP
  • Apps that require greater than average security and control

What types of apps are most popular?

65% of respondents to Readership Survey 2011 put business apps at the top of the list for the type of mobile application they will be developing in-house. Another 20% list finance apps as their main focus. Of course, the term “business” isn’t all that specific. That’s partly because there’s really no limit to what an imaginative organization can create to make the most of its resources in the new, mobile era. Here are a few custom-crafted mobile apps that could add value for businesses:

Crossover financial transaction apps

The custom-built business finance apps of the future are likely to be multifunctional. This goes way beyond building a mobile cash register. There are many mobile apps already developed that allow sales reps to accept credit card information and generate electronic receipts in the field. Some can even be interfaced with accounting databases and software like QuickBooks that many companies are already using for basic A/R purposes. However, a more advanced version might also offer customer self-service and be able to pull relevant data to enhance the consumer experience. This would mean integration with the customer’s past order history, the ability to handle returns and other non-standard transaction details, and perhaps even targeted marketing with coupon codes. 

Other mobile finance apps might allow users to track expenses and make certain categories of purchases on behalf of the company based on predetermined parameters or interactive authorization with mobile users up the “approval path”. This type of application might be useful in logistics. Truck drivers could have access to funds for emergency repairs and track fuel purchases along with mileage using their mobile device. Ideally, this type of mobile app would be interfaced with the company’s logistics tracking software that keeps GPS tabs on vehicles at all times and logs trip information automatically. 

Mobile ERP applications

Any app that ties into the core operations of a business is likely to be an attractive option for mid to enterprise level firms. Mobile doesn’t have to mean users are far-flung geographically. Sometimes, mobile technology can be just as useful on-site as off-site. For example, barcoding and inventory management points of contact that are currently managed with stationary equipment might just as easily be handled with mobile devices. This actually sets the stage for strategic expansion. Rolling out a mobile app for use in production through distribution and even retail might prove simpler than attempting to standardize an upgraded electronic inventory management system throughout a supply chain. The issue, of course, is designing a custom app that is compatible with a broad range of mobile OS and hardware. Otherwise, you face the challenge of standardizing mobile devices across the supply chain.

Customer focused mobile apps

This is the area where customization really goes wild since it involves the greatest opportunities for branding and interactivity. However, smart businesses will still focus on what they’re actually achieving with mobile apps rather than how flashy the experience is. Driving revenue means keeping the UI simple and giving customers what they actually want. Take industries such as direct sales where customers are expected to fill out lots of forms to get a quote or make a purchase. A mobile app that auto-populates fields from one form to the next is a real time saver and a powerful sales tool.

A somewhat riskier approach that can still pay off is the creation of business apps solely for the purpose of building brand loyalty. This might include:

  • Loyalty program apps that let customers build and redeem points
  • Entertainment apps (games) that create a buzz about the company
  • Educational resources (free information that builds credibility and trust)

These are the types of business apps that can “go viral” or simply be a flash in the pan. One way to choose concepts that catch on is to make sure that sufficient business intelligence is collected beforehand. This is actually an area where other mobile apps (especially those that interface with social media) can shine. We’re likely to see a rapid expansion in the type and functionality of mobile apps for business over the next few years as enterprises cash in on the customer data they’ve been accumulating over the past decade.

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