Want to build an enterprise app? Read this first...

There is a logical progression of thought that leads enterprise users to build mobile apps and it goes something like this: Communication with customers and colleagues is increasingly electronic. We use mobile devices more than desktop computers, as the analytics from our own web site shows, and this looks likely to continue.  And now  Google said there are more searches on mobile devices than on PCs (in ten countries). Therefore, we need an app to talk to our customers.

The notion is hugely attractive to consumer facing companies, such as ecommerce firms, but also a temptation to B2B-focused enterprises offering key services, such as CRM.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking app development is quick and cheap. After all, there are 1.5 million Android apps, 1.4 million iOS apps and a myriad of resources encouraging us all to become developers – so how hard can it be?

Good internal coordination and a strategic approach are essential

In reality developing a credible app demands a range of skills beyond coding and can prove costly and time consuming if you get it wrong.

For the best outcomes, app development should be owned by the enterprise, driven forward by the IT team and sit within an overall mobile strategy. Clearly identified goals add clarity: you might want to develop an app to increase end user sales, or to provide online ordering facilities for the B2B sales team. You can’t do it all at once. Tim Lyn of Enterprise AppsTech notes “The average enterprise has more than 700 business applications.  If you were to mobilize even 10% of them, at six months of development time each, it would take 35 years to complete.”

Invest time and money

US based developer Kivney surveyed 100 chief information officers and 100 mobile leaders in North American companies with more than 500 employees. The resulting study, State of Enterprise Mobility, published in November 2014 found the average development cost of an app was $270k. 18 percent of respondents said the cost was between $500k and $1m per app. This is not chump change.

The same research looked at app development time. Only 11 percent said they developed an app in one to three months, and overall 56 percent of those surveyed said it took between seven months and a year to build their app. So give yourself enough lead time.

Success at all key stages

The time-frame is not something to be afraid of. An app is a resource like any other, and development will take time, not least because there are several key stages to complete. A good app will need time and resources devoted to each of these.

It is essential to complete each stage before beginning the next. Each step contains a number of different elements. Your design agency will expand further, but here are some points to consider at each of three separate stages of app development:

Scope. Be clear about what you want to achieve and why. Understand the benefit(s) the app will offer and to whom (both externally and internally). Formulate your preference for tablet or smartphone – or both, as this will influence the user interface design later on. Show the concept to focus or user groups to be certain it is viable and meets a real world need. Check what is available already – could you use a third party tool or purchase a prebuilt solution that meets your needs? If you intend developing an app that’s similar to one that already exists, does yours have traction? How? 

Design. Understand the app’s internal workflows and how it connects to the rest of your IT infrastructure. Formulate the technical aspects of how data is shared with your back end infrastructure. Draft the user interface and be prepared to spend time testing and refining – with input from potential users as well as from the designers in your agency.

Develop. Development can’t begin until you have decided whether to develop natively for different platforms, use HTML5 as a cross platform option, or use a cross platform development framework, such as Xamarin. It is important to work through the pros and cons of each approach.  You must also decide which mobile operating system(s) to support. The obvious ones are iOS and Android. But do you also want to support Windows? And BlackBerry? These decisions will be informed by the nature of your external and internal users and the platforms they choose.

Failure is not an option

To paraphrase a well-known speech by Churchill, unleashing an app onto the world – or onto your workforce – isn’t the end, or even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.

Once it is in the wild your app needs to be marketed and maintained, and you’ll need to use multiple strategies which often focus on both goals. Make sure your app is well named so it appears high in app store searches. Crowdsource update ideas to keep users loyal. Use social media to help raise the app’s profile, and embed social, for example ‘tweet this’ options, into the app itself.

Monitor comments and address the negative ones – including fixing problems. Performance tester Perfecto Mobile has found that 24 percent of app defects are discovered by direct user feedback, and further 20 percent from public user reviews in app stores.

Finally, understand what users want, and monitor trends. You could do worse than keep an eye on App Annie https://www.appannie.com/.

By the time it gets into the wild you will have already invested considerably your app, but the investment has to continue. This makes business sense. For many enterprises there is only one reason for developing an app: to grow the business. In that, it is no different to building a new manufacturing plant, opening an office in a new territory or taking on a new area of work. Treat it with the same level of attention, use external expertise to drive it through, and be prepared to invest serious time and money. 

Sandra Vogel

Sandra has been writing about technology for more than 15 years, with books, newspaper columns and a myriad of articles published. Prior to that she was a senior information management professional in the charity sector. She enjoys discovering how technology can make our lives and our work more effective at all levels, and in sharing what she learns with others.