As enterprises recognize the benefits of mobility, and move beyond mobilizing email and address books to second tier applications -- like expense approval and workflow -- it becomes increasingly obvious that the old way of developing enterprise applications will no longer suffice. Successful mobile applications require attention to user experience and user interface, two areas that have traditionally been ignored. Project managers would do well to conduct their own internal skill-gap analysis.
"To say that user experience has been overlooked in traditional enterprise applications is an understatement," said Matt Vlasach, director of mobile integration services at Unwired Revolution. "Traditional enterprise applications are built to disseminate information quickly. They're ugly, not fun to use. That stands against what made [mobile] devices fun to use to begin with," he said.
Traditional enterprise applications grew bigger and bigger as developers added more and more features to them, said Alex Bratton, CEO of Lextech. "We started with a particular workflow or piece, and we created these bloated user interfaces that tried to do way too many things for way too many people. Because of the screen real estate and the servers behind them, developers really didn't care," Bratton said.
"A strong enterprise application is one that calls to users and makes them just as interested in using that app as any other application that makes that platform popular in the consumer space," said Vlasach. "If you want [users] to be more productive, you have to enable them with a tool set that they enjoy using so that they don't have to seek applications from unsanctioned arenas."
The very qualities that make mobile applications successful among users – the experience and interface -- are also what make them challenging from a development perspective. "The UX -- user experience -- is focused on the how I do something and what the steps are," Bratton said. It is focused on the wire framing, what's going to happen on each screen. The user interface (UI), on the other hand, is how the application looks, making it visually appealing and compelling, he explained.
"Mobile is probably one of the most challenging development environments we've ever had as technologists because we have to marry the user design, user experience and user interface all in a common discussion. It's hard. But when it's done successfully, the results are amazing," Bratton said.
Recognizing the skills gap
According to Bratton, most enterprises believe their current Web designers have the UI skills needed to create an eye-pleasing mobile app. However, "the Web is meant to be driven with a mouse," said Bratton. Designing for mobile is "a different way of thinking. Designing for the touch screen -- that [skill] area is lacking," he said.
"From what we've been seeing, the skill set and the tool set are two different things. They both essentially hamper the ability to make good UI," said Vlasach. "Part of the challenge is that developing a good UI requires a designer, someone who is focused on the design elements and not the code elements as much."
Native applications allow for better design and fluid user experience, said Vlasach, but many companies face budgetary issues when it comes to staffing those skills. As a result, building a native application becomes cost prohibitive. The alternative is to use an enterprise tool set that allows developers to build applications that run on multiple platforms. "They make coding easier, but there is a lot that is lost in the user interface department," said Vlasach.
Acquiring UI skills is a hurdle that organizations must overcome when developing mobile applications, but it's not the only one. "The real challenge comes from user experience," said Vlasach. "A pretty user interface is important, but it doesn't get you nearly as far as a functional user experience. Having a UX designer who can visualize screen flows and consistency across different interactions across the application is hard to find. That doesn't just exist very easily within the organization," said Vlasach.
"That's been something that even though we've had people going to school for, the folks doing the Web never took seriously because they didn't have to. It was a nice-to-have but not a must-have. Now when we talk about mobile it is a must-have, not a nice-to-have," said Bratton.
Filling the UX and UI skills gap
When it comes to filling the UX and UI skills gap, enterprises can build those skills internally or hire from outside the organization. "There definitely are people with these types of skills," said Donna Farrugia, executive director of The Creative Group. "People have been designing a graphical user interface for a long, long, long time, and many of them have evolved as technology evolved because a lot of people in the middle of that business know technology changes, and they follow it."
"It's just changing so fast that even with all those genius people that have been in the business for a long time -- there's not enough of them to fill the need. The demand for this skill is greater than the supply of the skill," says Farrugia.
Whether you look externally or internally to build these skills, experts agree it is important to plan ahead. It is not something you can rush through. Because of the race to go mobile, a lot of organizations are tapping existing teams but "not giving them time to retool and ramp up" their skill set, said Bratton. As a result, the applications they produce don't deliver value to the user.
Ideally, Farrugia said, she has several months to fill a UX position for a client. Because the demand for these professionals is so great, it might take that long before one is available. "Timing is everything," she said.
About the author
Crystal Bedell is a freelance technology writer and content consultant. She develops and writes content that helps IT professionals evaluate technology, secure and modernize their IT infrastructure, solve business problems and prepare for IT certifications. Connect with her on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/cbedell/), and follow us on Twitter @SoftwareTestTT.