With Enterprise Apps, Sometimes Less is More

Guest author Ian Fisher is CTO of Taptera, a mobile-app development company.

Recently, I found myself having a very familiar conversation: How many features should you put in a single mobile app? This topic comes up constantly in the enterprise mobility space, largely due to the huge influx of new users and development going on right now.

The conversation usually goes something like this: "We want an app that lets us easily find our coworkers' contact info. And it needs to be able to book conference rooms. We also need it to send reports to employees' managers as well as let them approve expenses."

Hearing a list of requirements like that, some people envision one app. Some envision four. Having had this conversation constantly for several years, I can safely say that you want four. While one monolithic office-management app can sound appealing, breaking it into small parts has many tangible benefits.

Pick One Thing, Do It Well

Think of your favorite mobile apps. I'm guessing that nearly all of them have a specific function that they do really, really well. I use individual apps on a daily basis for email, project tracking, app deployment, note taking, personal to-do lists and file management, to name a few. Each of these apps has chosen a specific problem and does a great job at solving it.

Another benefit that is often overlooked is the viral spread of these focused apps. When you see a coworker perform a task that one of your favorite apps does well, it's really easy to tell them about the app-if you can summarize what it does quickly. Once users start telling their friends and colleagues about how great an app is, adoption skyrockets! Even for apps developed internally within an enterprise, this is incredibly important—you want your employees and coworkers to benefit from your apps as much as possible, and there's no better way than to have them spread the apps organically throughout your organization.

Mix And Match

Often, the most surprising thing I see happen with small, focused apps is how users combine them in new, innovative ways. Need a document signed on your iPad from your document management app? No problem! Send it over to DocuSign, get it signed, and then save it to the cloud with the Box app.

Sure, you could build all of this into a single app. That might even be the right answer some of the time. But by having this suite of apps, you can quickly combine them to create new, efficient workflows. If you switch from DocuSign to another e-signature app, you only have to swap out one piece of your flow. If the signing feature was built into the content management app, you've forced your users to do things a certain way, limiting their creativity and discouraging them from discovering new tools that can add significant value to your organization.

Having smaller apps also helps keep your context throughout your workday. Imagine my first example, where your employee directory is combined with conference-room booking. With an app like that you could find a coworker and book a conference room with them. So far so good. However, then you want to browse your other booking for the day, and check if a recurring meeting you have tomorrow has been cancelled. Then you realize that you needed to invite your coworker's manager, but you can't remember who she is. In the monolithic app you have lost your context within the employee directory and have to start the task of finding your coworker all over again. To make things worse, as soon as you do that, you've lost the context of the meeting you just created!

If your directory and room booking solution were separate apps, you could easily switch between them with each maintaining their context. Looking up the manager is one app switch away and when you go back to add them to the meeting your other app remembers exactly where you left off.

In And Out

With some exceptions, most mobile apps fall into the in-and-out category. You want to launch them, do a specific task, and then get on with your day. Checking your next meeting, checking a flight status, and approving an expense report all fall into this category.

By keeping your apps small, you can optimize this workflow by reducing the number of taps needed. When you make things easy, users will love you. Conversely, if things are cumbersome they will run screaming!

Focused Doesn't Mean Incomplete

Taking a very focused approach to your apps doesn't mean they can't be feature-rich. Consider Evernote : It is focused to the point that they have released a suite of companion apps that each target new uses, like taking notes on people you meet or the food you eat. You can summarize what Evernote does in a single sentence, but I feel like I am still discovering new features and ways to use it all the time.

Being focused doesn't mean you can't continue to add useful features, it just means that you should do one thing well and use that as your foundation. Keep the simple things simple and the complex things possible.

Image courtesy of Taptera