The Evolution of Enterprise Apps: From Text Forms to Fluid Layout

March 10, 2013 Mark D'Cunha

Remember the days of Palm Pilots, PDAs, HP iPaqs, and blue BlackBerries? Every self-respecting business professional eagerly carried one of these “cutting-edge” devices in order to be more effective.

Back then, the main question was a matter of function: How do we get backend enterprise data onto mobile devices? Originally, the visual layout was extremely text-oriented. Then, the iPhone came along.

The iPhone breathed life into applications. They became much more visual and engaging: they were interactive, responsive and extremely well-designed. We fell in love with them. This is where the consumerization of IT began, around four years ago. It ushered in a series of changes:

Emphasis on Usability

Employees realized that there was a different way to experience apps; a more intuitive way. In the past, the fastest internet access, best computers, coolest devices, and other best pieces of technology were mostly only available at work. Now, at home we have access to better technology and more beautiful applications than exist in the workplace – it’s a curious and bizarre scenario. As a result, workers are demanding access to smartphones, tablets and better designed and more visually engaging apps – and businesses have to deliver, in order to keep employees satisfied.

Growth of BYOD

Many employees are being encouraged to follow a “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) policy. Employees can now choose to bring the device of their preference to use at work, which means enterprise software needs to work on 4-5 different platforms now. A 2012 study showed that the average knowledge worker carries 3.5 mobile devices.

Necessity of Adaptation

People have started to consume information and use apps across multiple devices (phones, tablets, phablets and padfones). The fixed text form of previous enterprise apps wouldn’t even work on a different model on the same platform because of the different screen sizes; today, enterprise mobile software needs to have the ability to adapt to many different types of screen sizes.

So, how are we going to build enterprise mobile software that does all this?

The solution is for enterprises to use Responsive Web Design and HTML5 for web applications and to design native apps with different layouts for different form factors (e.g. phone vs tablet). These fluid layouts will adapt to each device’s properties as opposed to text forms built for one specific device.

Why HTML5/RWD Over Native?

Native apps continue to have the best performance and user experience, but require more effort and cost more to maintain than web apps. Predictions by industry analysts suggest that by 2016, about half of all mobile apps will be Hybrid or Web apps. Web apps with responsive design and fluid layouts will become popular because of lower cost and broader mobile device support, while still maintaining a reasonably good user experience.

If you need enterprise mobile apps built and you’re reading this: Don’t choose to continue building apps with old development tools that have fixed layouts, text forms and rigid designs – you will get a poor user experience. The worst thing you can do today is create a sub-standard app that employees won’t like to use. Instead, invest in development platforms that provide pre-built modules reducing your build effort, allow you to develop a rich user experience and provide both app and web capabilities.

Responsive web design is a design technique that delivers a better user experience at a more reasonable cost, as users swap between their various devices.

Many enterprise developers don’t know a lot about mobile application design and development. The smaller screen, network and data storage restrictions reduce the number of features that can be supported. Proper fit of the app to the user is critical, meaning UX design becomes a major challenge in order to maximize app usage. As a result, there is a shortage of good UX designers and it’s going to get much, much worse – almost a third of enterprises are expected to build 5-9 apps per year starting the next few years.

The next generation of enterprise mobile platforms will give developers design patterns to use instead of having to invent them from scratch – similar to Oracle’s Design Patterns and Guidelines for Oracle applications.

Responsive web design and mobile design patterns are techniques that improve design and reduce the cost of enterprise mobile application development. Make sure your next step in enterprise architecture platforms takes this into account.

Connect with Mark on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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