Developing Apps for the Future of Work

Last week, I discussed bring-your-own-apps (BYOA), a shift that will piggy-back on the bring-your-own-device trend, and which will see increasing numbers of workers making their own choices about which applications they use to get their jobs done. This week, I’ll be focusing specifically on what developers can do to ride that BYOA wave, and make products that will gain traction in the workplace.

Cross-Platform and the Network Effect

Recently, I got the chance to catch up with LiveProfile CEO Phil Karl, whose messaging app recently managed to rack up approximately 1 million new users in just five days. The secret sauce that led to the app’s rapid growth? LiveProfile is available on all major U.S. smartphone platforms, including iOS (s aapl), Android (s goog) and BlackBerry (s rimm), and it can operate between and on all three platforms, allowing platform-agnostic messaging.
Users in distributed teams want collaborative apps that work well on their preferred smartphone platform, but that also allow them to work with friends and colleagues using different devices; multi-protocol IM clients tend to do better in the App Store than do single-service offerings, for example. Many developers will be focusing on Android or iOS, but those that target BlackBerry (which, despite relatively flat growth, still commands a very large user base, particularly in the enterprise space) in addition to the newer entrants stand to gain the most traction now, even if only because BlackBerry users will become their most vocal supporters among other device owners in their circle.

UI and UX Are the Keys to the Kingdom

Once upon a time, you could get away with making an ugly app for enterprise use. As app selection moves from the hands of corporate IT to the general worker population, user interface and user experience design become much more central to an app’s likelihood of adoption. When a user isn’t just assigned a tool and given a certain number of hours training on that program, they’ll lean instead towards the apps that are most intuitive, and that require the least time investment on their own part to complete the task.
User interface (UI) and user experience (UX) are no longer things developers can take for granted. If I’m faced with a choice between four spreadsheet apps, all of which use the same universally-accepted document formats, and all of which can get the job done, UI/UX is going to be a (if not the) key differentiator. App developers should recognize this and invest resources accordingly.

A Smart Web App Is a Safe Bet

Web apps may not have the same sex appeal as a native app, but a well-designed one that’s customized for the various smartphone platforms is a good bet. It’ll help you cast widest possible net in terms of device compatibility; it future-proofs your app against the whims and dangers OS platforms are subject to. Apple can’t reject a web app, for instance, and investment isn’t lost if, say, Windows Phone 7 (s msft) gets axed by Microsoft (s msft).
That’s not to say going with a web app is easy, however. Building a good app that provides a solid experience no matter what platform it’s being used on is a challenge that can exceed platform-specific development in terms of degree of difficulty pretty easily. But making something like Facebook’s new mobile site, that intelligently monitors and responds to visitors’ hardware choices, will eventually pay off in terms of long-term development costs and user satisfaction.
Making apps that people want to take to work with them is the new backdoor to widespread enterprise adoption. It’s exciting, because it means even the smallest development studios can potentially compete with major publishers, but it also means competition will be fierce. But if you can strike a chord early with users by beating the competition in ways that are most appealing to the remote workforce of tomorrow, you’ll be ahead of the game.