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Familiar landmarks on the roadmap from clipboards to tablets

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The folks behind Alpha Anywhere, including Alpha Software CTO Dan Bricklin, gathered a bunch of their users to focus on mobile application development and specifically on tablet applications yesterday. Many of the applications their users are building are clipboard replacement applications. That is, they are applications whose function would be done with paper forms on clipboards if tablets weren’t a better option.

If tablet applications are to be successful, “they can’t be worse in certain ways,” Bricklin pointed out, “They can’t slow the user down. They have to have some advantages, like making it easier to scan in new information, add photographs, etc.”

Frequently these apps are used to tie the data collection agents out in the field with enterprise databases on a central server. They’re about as utilitarian as a tablet app is likely to get. And yet much of the meeting was spent talking about design issues that at first mention you might think of as relatively minor. For example, on a 10-inch screen, the soft keyboard on a tablet in portrait mode can be difficult for a field worker like a plumber or an electrician to type on. (The term “fat finger” may have come up in conversation.) While turning the tablet and using a landscape display makes it easier to type, it also severely reduces how much of the app is visible on the screen.

This limitation actually turns out to be a huge problem for some applications. The keyboard can cover so much of the screen that the user can no longer see the label for the field they’re typing in. When filling in dozens of fields, the user might lose track of whether they’re filling in a first name, last name, or address. Again, this doesn’t sound like a big deal when the user can just minimize the keyboard and start again, but it is a big deal when field workers are transitioning from a paper form they’re very comfortable with to a digital form that might not come naturally to them.

“The critical thing for us is that if we’re going to have a replacement for a paper form type of product, we need to understand that the adoption rate of that by people formerly using paper is clearly, directly related to how familiar the experience is going to be on the tablet,” said Britt Whitaker, implementation consultant at Manufacturers ERP Services LLC.

Speaking specifically of aerospace parts manufacturers, Whitaker said that routine inspections are done with six-page paper forms that include checkboxes, images, nominal measurements and more. These forms are used up and down the supply chain. Whitaker doesn’t believe that everyone who uses the forms will be easy to sweep up in a big change.

“We won’t be successful asking them to convert to a completely new paradigm with a pure iOS-panelized environment,” he said. “They’re just not going to do that.” However, Whitaker was confident that making the app look more familiar would win them over. He suggested using buttons that look like the headers on the old paper forms and tying those buttons to the data elements from those areas of the long form. Those header buttons act as landmarks to tie the new workflow to the old.

The concept of using landmarks was referred to frequently at the meeting. The idea is to use familiar wording and imagery to gently direct users through the use of a new interface. When users see an icon, word or image that they saw on the desktop version of an app or on paper or PDF forms, they naturally assume it has the same meaning in the new version. Application designers can use those landmarks to make new tablet apps more intuitive and easier for enterprise front-liners to adopt.