Consumerization at work: Designing for the business consumer

Consumers are driving the development industry by no longer simply accepting the applications they are given, but instead by insisting that the applications they use are a fun and friendly as the ones they run on their smart phone or use in their own home.

The combined trends of cloud computing and BYOD are creating a paradigm shift in the IT world. The average Joe began consuming cloud on a massive scale before the technology began making significant inroads into enterprise. Now, Joe is bringing his cloud-connected smart device to work with him and expecting IT to support it. Once, this kind of hubris was met with stern lectures to use the company issued blackberry and, as Bill Cosby’s father would say, “Be thankful for it!”

Today, that attitude simply won’t wash. There are still, to be sure, organizations that prohibit the use of outside devices (government agencies are particularly reluctant to allow BYOD). But the penetration of this trend has already gone too far for any turning back. The average person now has access to a more sophisticated device in the palm of their hand than anyone ever imagined 30 years ago. People are accustomed to getting what they want, when they want it outside of work when it comes to devices and the applications that go with them.

Now, employees and other stakeholders have a whole new set of expectations when it comes to using applications for work. This fact has far reaching implications for how IT provisions technology and support resources. At an even deeper level, it changes how enterprise applications will be designed going forward. Here’s a look at some key design and usage aspects developers will need to consider as they build tomorrow’s business software.

Internal Enterprise Consumers

In an increasingly fast-paced tech-heavy world, there’s one thing that Baby Boomer and Generation Y employees have in common: If they already know how to do something one way, they don’t want to have to learn to do it another. They crave the familiar. Just look at the recent ruckus over FaceBook’s shift to the “Timeline” structure. It almost caused a riot. And that’s just changing the format of an existing application. Imagine trying to get employees to learn a whole new application that does something they already do using a different tool. DropBox is a good example. There are many enterprise applications for secure file sharing. But actually getting users to adopt these may be difficult. They don’t see the back end where IT is sweating bullets over keeping data safe. Instead, they just see the front end where they have to relearn how to share files.

In the case of enterprise applications taking the place of consumer apps, the closer you can get to the type of visuals and navigation experience users are already accustomed to, the better. Of course, this means being careful to avoid infringement of intellectual property. Getting sued by the developer of FaceBook for creating an enterprise social platform called WorkplaceBook isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.

The other main issue facing application developers is the proliferation of touch enabled devices. We are in the new “digital” age where the word has reverted to its original meaning – having to do with fingers. People are using touch to operate UI controls on a tiny screen. All command “buttons” must be large enough for easy manipulation. This determines how options for various actions are clustered since having a main menu with 20-30 choices isn’t feasible. You can’t even label the buttons very clearly with text. They have to be icons that are intuitively understood. Business apps designed or updated for mobile may need to be a simplified version of desktop applications for this reason (and because of limited processing power). In some ways, this is a good thing. It makes you focus on the most essential elements necessary to get the job done.  

Workplace application testing will also take on a whole new dimension once you start bringing intuitive use into the equation. Having an app tested by developers won’t be sufficient proof that it works. Enterprises will need to identify the lowest common denominator of tech neophytes within their organization to try out the new business app in beta. If this type of user makes mistaken assumptions about which button does what, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. This turns the idea of functionality on its ear. It essentially doesn’t matter if the app works correctly. If it makes the user feel stupid trying to figure it out, it isn’t an efficient app for the workplace. The employee will just go get a different application from the Apple store that does pretty much the same thing and feel smart for finding a workaround. 

External Enterprise Consumers

Suppliers, partners, and B2B customers represent the upstream, lateral, and downstream ecosystem within which enterprise applications operate externally. These stakeholders have some of the same criteria for apps as the internal consumer. However, they also have another layer of concerns that have to do with their own application development and deployment. Apps that are full of bugs won’t just frustrate a B2B consumer. Faulty software could spell the end of a lucrative business relationship – especially if security concerns are involved. If an enterprise expects suppliers to use its apps in administering their account, the focus must be on efficiency. Any added “handling” required to use a company’s apps to fulfill orders can affect competitive pricing in the procurement process.

Interoperability is likely to be high on the list of “must haves” for all external consumers. For example, if corporate headquarters is developing an application that will be rolled out to franchisees, the individual franchise owners will want to know whether the app can integrate or at least interface with any business programs they may have installed locally. From the developer’s viewpoint, SOA, middleware and open API will play an ever larger role in ensuring that apps can talk to each other. There is a contingent of information technology community that believes Java will not be up to the challenge of consumerization. Certainly, Oracle will need to step up its game if enterprise Java is going to play more than a supportive role in this app revolution. It remains to be seen if ADF Mobile Client will be up to this task.

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