The changing shape of mobile apps

We find out how organisations can gain the agility they need to keep pace with mobile app innovation

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How to develop mobile apps for business

In the mobile device world, there is no such thing as one size fits all. Although just two mobile platforms dominate the market today – Android and iOS – applications will need to work well on devices of all shapes and sizes, from the sleekest smartphones to the bulkiest tablets.

Apps might also need the ability to support new classes of mobile device as and when they take off, such as smartwatches or augmented reality viewers such as Microsoft’s HoloLens. And the explosion of fixed and mobile connected sensors and appliances – the internet of things (IoT) – opens up countless opportunities to develop ever more useful mobile apps that control and/or communicate with these devices to enable innovative capabilities and services.

So how do organisations achieve the agility they need to develop useful and compelling mobile apps and services, in a timely and repeatable way, that continually delight customers? Should they opt for cross-platform web apps or create separate native apps for Android and iOS, optimised for different-sized devices?

And what is the best way to organise development teams and processes? Among those at the forefront of mobile innovation, opinions on the most productive approaches to mobile development vary, but it is possible to draw out some common threads.

Native versus cross-platform apps

On the question of whether it is better to develop native apps or go for a cross-platform approach, there is no right or wrong answer – it depends on the business’s needs and its customers’ preferences. Many organisations deploy both.

Innovation consultant Nick Lansley spent three decades at Tesco, including over 10 years as head of research and development and latterly as head of open innovation at Tesco Labs. Having talked to many customers, he believes that although there are pros and cons to both the native and cross-platform approaches, native apps generally offer the most advantages for retailers.

“They give customers a sense of ownership and easy access,” says Lansley. “They are more stable, can be written so they work offline, and offer greater speed and performance than equivalent web apps.”

Also, Lansley says people are generally happy to give native apps permission to send them notifications and alerts. “This allows us to be more proactive in conversations with customers, which is very important for maintaining loyalty,” he adds.

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Customer engagement

Stephen Janaway, a head of technology at online fashion retail group Yoox Net-A-Porter (YNAP) group, agrees that native apps can promote closer customer engagement, but points out that web apps are an equally important part of the mix, particularly when it comes to attracting new customers.

“To target a first-time customer, you want to make the barrier of entry as low as possible, so we would typically begin by developing a responsive HTML5 website,” he says.

Having to download a native app is a key barrier to entry for some customers, says Janaway, and web apps are becoming more functional all the time. “Some of the stuff Google is doing around progressive web apps, for instance, blurs the line between native and web apps,” he says. “For example, caching data so they work offline and closely integrating them with the Android user interface to give them a more native-like feel. And once you’ve enticed someone with a web app, they’re much more likely to download your native app.”

Generating ideas

When it comes to optimising an app development process for maximum business agility, organisations want to ensure they are continually able to generate timely, achievable ideas for compelling new mobile apps and services, and can turn those ideas into reality as quickly and efficiently as possible.

To generate and develop ideas, an open culture is needed where people can collaborate freely across traditional organisational boundaries and hierarchies. A compelling app idea can emanate from anywhere in the business (or, indeed, outside), and may start life as just an unformed thought, or even a question: “Could this new technology help us help our customers in some way?”, “Can we solve this problem people are talking about on Twitter?”, and so on. But if they cannot be discussed with people in other parts of the business, or outside, it is unlikely that such embryonic ideas will come to anything.

Organisations need a mechanism by which everyone – whatever their role and function – can bounce ideas around freely, and feel motivated to do so. Lansley says: “At Tesco, we found Yammer very useful for this, although today there are quite a few similar tools. It’s a bit like Facebook for business and we found that it got people at every level of the organisation conversing freely as a matter of course, right up to senior director level. It was instrumental in promoting a culture where ideas could grow and flourish.”

Case study: KMC Controls cuts labour costs with NFC-enabled mobile app

Mobile app innovation is not just for consumer-focused businesses. Using a novel near-field communication (NFC)-enabled mobile app developed on the Kony platform and cloud, independent building automation company KMC Controls was able to retrofit smart technology to its legacy controllers, massively reducing labour costs.

KMC CEO Richard Newberry says: “Engineers simply tap their NFC phone on the box containing our controller and they can address and configure it wirelessly. Previously they’d have to take the controller out of the box and wire it up to a PC. It cut a four-day job down to four hours and the results have been astounding – we’re showing 20%-plus growth and have launched our own open app platform and ecosystem to enable others to develop useful building control apps for specific horizontals that take advantage of our technology.”

Equally, initiatives such as encouraging staff to engage on social media, organising hackathons for technical teams and giving them time to scope out new ideas can all help to ensure the organisation’s culture is sufficiently creative.

Michael Facemire, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, is co-author of a recent executive paper on building mobile experiences that drive engagement. He says the single most important step an IT department can take to boost its mobile agility is to separate the development of front-end user experiences from back-end service and data enablement. “This ensures one team isn’t dependent on the other,” he says. “There are many other organisational changes that can facilitate rapid innovation, but this one is at the core.”

Lansley, meanwhile, stresses the importance of implementing a microservices architecture. “When you use a big platform, you often have to do things the platform’s way rather than your  way,” he says. “The best approach is to take the systems you already have and wrap microservices around them. You want them to work in the same way that your people work – loosely connected to one another, taking inputs and providing outputs.

“You have to break those services down to a very granular level – Tesco created several hundred microservices covering every part of the organisation, for example. Once you’ve done it, though, it will be the gift that keeps on giving.”

Small, nimble units

YNAP splits its technology teams into small, nimble units, each aligned to one of the group’s four main businesses. “All those teams follow various agile approaches – Scrum being the most popular among our mobile teams,” says Janaway, who heads up the various tech teams for The Outnet, the group’s luxury end-of-line brand.

His mobile team comprises just four people, who focus on the Android and iOS app development, while web apps are handled by the web development teams.

Tools for the job

In terms of choosing the right development tools, again there is no one size fits all approach. Lansley says once an organisation has a sufficiently large set of microservices, it can use visual drag-and-drop development tools to take much of the effort out of creating apps, simply linking various components visually to create most of the code automatically.

“For example, if you use something like Xamarin, you can write all your main code in C# and 60-75% will be common to Android and iOS,” he says. “The other 25-40% should be handed to the user experience people to make sure the app is optimised for specific devices.”

But it is best to consult your developers before shortlisting specific tools. “While this change [to an agile model] is critical, there is no single tool or set of tools to enable it,” says Forrester’s Facemire. “Developers are like artists; they tend to have strong preferences about the tools they use to produce that art. Creating an environment where they can excel is as important as choosing the tools by which they do it.”

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