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Mobile first? Not so fast

Strategies that say mobile comes first give mobile apps priority over desktop apps. Some experts say mobile and desktop apps should coordinate.

A concept known as "mobile first" is gaining wide attention as the demand for smartphone and tablet apps outpaces the need for desktop applications.

Genefa MurphyGenefa Murphy

But some mobile experts say planning and developing mobile applications before progressing to desktop projects is all wrong. The most successful enterprise mobile projects require desktop and mobile components, and getting each version right requires software teams to plan both simultaneously. "What you want is mobile-desktop coordination," said David Sachs, a user interface and user experience expert at software consultancy Ci&T Inc., headquartered in Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil. "On a mobile device, filling out long forms is frustrating. So, you go with a short form on mobile, and let users fill in additional information later on the desktop."

In this article, experts discuss which features make sense on mobile devices, and which are better suited to desktop versions of the application.

Filling out forms is a nightmare on mobile apps

Nathan Clevenger, chief technology officer at iFactr, a St. Paul, Minn.-based firm that sells mobile tools for Microsoft developers, agreed with Sachs that long forms don't work for mobile apps. He offered an example of a mobile app that a Fortune 500 company developed for its safety inspectors. The app was intended to replace the manual process where inspectors filled out paper forms on their clipboards and faxed them back to the office. But the app essentially replicated the manual process, leaving the frustrated field inspectors to fill out detail-intensive forms on tiny devices, Clevenger said. Finding it easier to do their jobs the old way, "they quickly went back to carrying clipboards," he said.

On a mobile device, filling out long forms is frustrating.

David Sachs,
user interface and user experience expert, Ci&T Inc.

Take advantage of mobile device features

To determine which features belong on mobile apps and which are better left on the desktop, it's useful to focus on taking advantage of mobile device features, said Genefa Murphy, director of product management and user experience at HP Software. "Mobile devices have built-in cameras," she said, and offered an example of an expense reporting application that includes mobile and desktop versions. "Mobile users can photograph receipts associated with a business expense," and quickly upload them on their smartphone, making only brief notes about the expense. Back at their desktops, they fill in further details about whom they entertained and what was discussed at the dinner meeting," she added.

Fast search on mobile

Ci&T's Sachs worked on an iPad project for a client that sells medical devices. Designed for the client company's sales reps, the application provided mobile access to a catalog of the 100,000 devices the company offered. The key thing that the sales reps wanted from the app was the ability to search the catalog very quickly, in front of clients, in order to show them slick videos that demonstrated a product's most important features. To ensure fast search, Sachs and his team made tough decisions about which features belonged on the iPad, and included only those that were essential to one-on-one sales calls with customers. That meant, for example, that the iPad version of the application didn't allow reps to create detailed reports on sales trends a task better suited to the desktop.

Analytic reports destined for the desktop

To devise sales reports, which pulled data from several sources, salespeople had rely on the desktop version of the app. "They could go back to the desktop version and see reports, and get more information," Sachs said. It's crucial to make tradeoffs, and determine which features take priority on mobile devices and which work better on the desktop, he said. "The goal of mobile apps is not to mimic the desktop. The mind-set for mobile is different. The context is different. You're outside. You're walking around."

What's your mobile/desktop coordination strategy? Let us know and follow us on Twitter @SoftwareTestTT.

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