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Mobile apps for business: Four CIO rules for building a mobile future

Niel Nickolaisen suggests fellow IT leaders ignore the hysteria over 'mobile-first' enterprises and take a balanced approach to mobile app development.

If I hear one more IT person tell me that they are pursuing a "mobile-first" strategy or if I get another unsolicited...

email from a vendor telling me that if I hire them, they will deliver mobile application nirvana, I might run screaming from my office. OK, I get it. Mobile is important and critical and should be at the top of my list of priorities, and I should unleash the creative minds in my team to come up with a life-changing mobile business app and, and, and -- I get it.

But, before we go too far, let's think about how to take a somewhat balanced approach to mobile apps for business. And, by balanced, I mean an approach to mobile app development that considers factors besides hype and urgency. After all, I am old enough to remember the hype and urgency of the dotcom craziness. I don't want to offend any of my readers, but who really thought that creating a Web business called Pets.com made that much sense? Did that many people really need to go online to order and have shipped across the country a 10-pound bag of kitty litter?

Now that we've agreed on the prudence of a balanced approach to developing mobile apps for business, let's talk tips.

Building for a mobile future: Four principles

1. Design for the future: First of all, I am a big believer in mobile applications. As wireless technologies get better and better, speeds will increase, and so what is not a great experience today will become a better experience over time. In fact, I expect that we will eventually be able to replicate the wired experience over wireless networks. Thus, one of our first considerations should be to assume that in the future, the mobile experience will be perfect. Our current plans can anticipate this perfect future without a future re-do.

2. Let function determine form: Second, some activities are not yet ready for a mobile experience. Some months ago, I was being pressured to build out a native mobile shopping app. Now, I readily admit that I am not nor ever will be one of the cool kids who attempt to do everything from a smartphone. But, the research is clear that I am not alone: Only a fraction of consumers shop from a mobile device. Consumers might buy from a smartphone, but the form factor does not make for a good shopping experience. In our case, rather than build out a native mobile app, we created a responsive front end that tapped into our Web application.

Some of my best, recent technology successes were great mobile apps, and so I am a believer. Some of my worst, recent technology challenges were weak mobile apps, and so I am a believer in these four guiding principles.

3. Assume zero network security: Third (while we are on the topic of mobile transaction processing), we need to consider data security. Like all aspects of mobile technology, data security will get better, but until it does, we need to make sure to use only the data we really need and to encrypt that data. We often use not-too-well-secured wireless networks for our mobile transactions, and so we should make sure that our app designs assume zero network security and rely on application design security. Watch out for app data leakage. A lot of mobile business happens in the wild, so think of ways to keep things tame. If your mobile engineers are not sure what to do, get some help from someone who does.

One pixel Startup takes on the future of mobile:
deep linking

4. Aim for simplicity: Finally, spend some time on the design of your custom mobile apps for business. To me, the perfect mobile app achieves a simple elegance. I have found that I should do lots of design and design iterations before I ever write a line of code, and those design iterations should be done with my target customers. With the limited real estate of the mobile format, design and flow (aka the "experience") is critical. The right design also makes use of the on-board tools in a constructive way. If you lack design skills, find someone with experience in design.

Some of my best, recent technology successes were great mobile business apps, and so I am a believer. Some of my worst, recent technology challenges were weak mobile business apps, and so I am a believer in these four guiding principles.

About the author:
Niel Nickolaisen is CTO at O.C. Tanner Co., a human resources consulting company based in Salt Lake City that designs and implements employee recognition programs. A frequent writer and speaker on transforming IT and IT leadership, Nickolaisen holds an M.S. in engineering from MIT, as well as an MBA degree and a B.S. in physics from Utah State University. You can contact Nickolaisen at nnick@octanner.com.

Next Steps

Having a hard time crafting a balanced approach to mobile app development? You're not alone.

"No easy answers on enterprise mobile app development tools" interviews CIOs on the challenges they face in building an enterprise mobile app development strategy.

"The future of mobile app personalization" looks into the cool and creepy side of super-targeted mobile apps.

Also check out Nickolaisen's column on how mobile apps for business force CIOs to look into next-gen security.

This was last published in October 2015

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How much pressure are you under to develop mobile apps for business?
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The most pressure I feel is from my fellow internal stakeholders, and it can be large, especially when a competitor launches something. I am not feeling the pressure from current users or the potential market. I just don't feel like there are currently enough mobile only or even mobile primary business users to translate to high-pressure demand.
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As a media company, we want to make it easy for people to consume out content. That said, it is very important that we develop mobile apps that take advantage of new platforms as they appear and are adopted. New distribution platforms equal new revenue streams equal higher pressure.
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