Bundling Features in an Employee App — When to Say When

Bundling Features in an Employee App — When to Say When

Stephen Baker

One app for employees that does it all? It sounds better than it actually is.

 

Mobile Apps for Employee Engagement

At Shockoe, we’re fortunate to work on consumer and enterprise apps for clients ranging from entrepreneurs to fortune 500 companies. In the world of enterprise apps, we’ve seen increased demand from large organizations using mobile apps to reach employees, and not just office workers on the go. These companies are searching for greater connection to employees such as warehouse staff, factory staff, and drivers that are never in front of a desktop. Organizations want to leverage mobile devices that employees are already carrying to create engagement, helping them be more productive, safe, satisfied with their job, and likely to stay.  I think the recent uptick in demand for employee engagement mobile apps is due to a confluence of business and technical factors:

  1. Challenges finding and retaining skilled remote workers (e.g. drivers and warehouse staff) mean organizations are investing more than ever engaging remote employees
  2. The ubiquity and scaling of mobile means all employees have high-powered devices and the pace of hardware/software change has slowed so large organizations can catch up.
  3. Improvements in Enterprise Mobility Management tools and cloud authentication make it easier to deliver enterprise apps on personal devices.
  4. Organizations have been building mobile solutions for operations and can leverage that expertise for employee engagement apps.

It’s not new to use an app to foster employee engagement, but we see it picking up steam. It’s similar to the boom in intranets when the web was mature enough that we expected it enable collaboration across the entire organization. But that fell short when employees that weren’t in front of a PC all day never saw the intranet. So mobile has matured enough to solve the Intranet reach problem!  But this comes with a challenge: What mobile content and features will create employee engagement?

The One App Trap

Most employee engagement apps will include corporate news, leadership messages, operational and safety guidance, personnel profiles, and other info related to corporate communications and HR.  This is similar to the basics for an intranet and successfully extends that information to remote employees that may not have email or a PC. 

But how do you attract employees to that mobile information so that they see it and, even better, participate in it with their own information or feedback?  One way is to add features most remote employees need such as timekeeping, facilitates information, and payroll results. Adding transactional and operational capabilities to an employee engagement app can increase usage of the app and visibility of content. 

 

But it’s a slippery slope. We’ve heard organizations say, “I don’t want my employees to have to download multiple apps, I want one app”.  We call this the “Employee Hub App”. This an understandable approach because downloads are a point of friction and offering too many apps can be confusing. For example, you probably don’t want to go the Verizon app store route. You can strike the right balance by evaluating features with a few key criteria:

  • Do you improve the user experience by adding the feature?  Or does it degrade the user experience because it has a unique user interface or complex navigation?
  • What’s the technical effort to embed the feature?  Can it reuse existing design elements, authentication, roles, and business logic?   
  • What’s the release cycle for the core app vs. the feature?  Do all employees get an app update when there’s a change that only impacts a few?

There’s a good overview in the Google Play guidelines about unbundling. The guildelines are written for consumer apps, but many points apply to enterprise apps, especially:

 

“What is your app’s core experience? If your app has multiple pieces of functionality, unbundling can help streamline the app and make it more intuitive for users. Don’t let product roadmaps dictate decisions around unbundling.” Google Play Guidelines

 

Even if you can bundle features without too much technical effort, it may not create a better user experience or be useful to limit downloads. It’s not easier to use if it only moves the selection of a feature from the home screen into multiple clicks in the hub app. Imagine having one massive Google app where instead of clicking on the app I’m ready to use (e.g. Maps), I have to open a Super-Google app, click thru to the feature I want by wading through those I don’t.  It simply moves my selection from my home screen to a menu in an app and even though many of the Google apps share login and features (e.g. comments), they are obviously better unbundled. You also may not create too many downloads by unbundling because with enterprise apps, EMM tools such as Intune can push relevant apps to an employee’s device, even organizing them in a workspace.

The bottom line: don’t let fewer apps, or the desire for a single app, be a goal.  

 

Add to the Hub App vs. a Standalone App?

It’s not always an easy answer and each case can be different.  We’ve used the decision model below that starts by evaluating features for complexity and whether or not the feature is already available as responsive web or 3rd party apps.  From there, we consider the types of users, the breadth of the user base, and whether or not offline access is required. This can give you a starting point to determine if a custom app is right and whether or not to use a hub or standalone app, but make sure to adapt it to your specific technical environment, budget, and skill sets.

 

What Next?

Plenty of features can be added to an employee hub app as long as they meet user experience criteria and you don’t create technical hurdles. If it’s not obvious that a feature belongs with others, avoid the drawbacks of bundling such as complex authorization and role management, the inability to rapidly test new features, and long maintenance cycles.

If you do want to add features to your employee hub app, define the  business goal first (e.g. employee engagement, safety, quality, more efficient business processes), then prototype it and test with users.  That can help you find out quickly and cheaply whether or not it fits within a hub app or it works better standalone. And if you are ready to bundle features, think about patterns such as micro-apps where you can to minimize maintenance headaches. One way to do this is with cross-platform apps using React Native and CodePush.  But that’s a blog post for another day, and for one of our engineers that can explain it better than me.

 

Stephen Baker

Stephen Baker

Engagement Manager & Digital Strategist

Stephen is a technology strategist with over 20 years of consulting experience. His background includes energy, retail, health, and transportation industries where he’s partnered with clients to deliver ERP, web, mobile, and service layer solutions. Stephen’s experience in wide variety of roles including strategy, architecture, project management, and development allows him to add value to all phases of projects from idea to go-live.

The End of the App Frenzy Leaves Enterprises to Scale Mobile

The End of the App Frenzy Leaves Enterprises to Scale Mobile

Stephen Baker

I spend a lot of time talking to Shockoe teammates, clients, and partners about mobile apps. Plenty of those conversations are about a specific solution (somewhere on the spectrum between enthusiasm about an app and the panic of delivery), but I’m fortunate that many conversations are about strategic approaches to mobile and where mobile technology is headed. For those forward-looking discussions, I frequently lean on a graphic from Benedict Evans:

“Evans, Benedict, “Mobile is Eating the World, Benedict Evans, December 2016.

This slide from his December 2016 Mobile is Eating the World talk depicts the rise and eventual leveling off of PC computing, mobile, and the next wave of AR/VR. If you haven’t seen the presentation, it’s very good (as are his newsletters), and this particular slide summarizes a shift in mobile technology from frenzy to scaling, or in his terms, moving from “Creating the tech” to “What can we build with this tech?” We’re in the Deployment stage where the mobile S-curve is scaling and while that certainly applies to mobile hardware, it helps me think about the direction of mobile apps, specifically a shift in focus to enterprise apps.

There’s Probably Still an App for That

Evans describes us at the end of the mobile frenzy, and there’s plenty of data to support that. For example, Comscore’s 2017 Mobile Report notes more than half of all smartphone users download less than one app per month. That same report shows that the top app, Facebook, accounts for half of all app time and the top ten account for almost ALL app time. So we’re downloading fewer apps and using only a few of the apps we download. I can’t say I miss “There’s an app for thatTM” (Apple trademarked it in 2010!), but those statistics paint a dire picture for new apps. But I don’t think the dire picture applies to enterprise apps, where the important number is ROI.

If we’re past the frenzy, that means it’s time to scale, or as Benedict Evans asks, “What can we build with this?” I think we’ll see that scale through enterprise apps for employees that add value through productivity, quality, safety, efficiency, and generally improving the employee experience to create revenue and cost savings. This will happen while App Store and usage statistics continue to show some degree of app decline (or app fatigue) from consumers, but we shouldn’t conflate the end of the frenzy with less-valuable mobile apps.

I don’t expect App Store download or usage statistics to account for enterprise apps, and it’s not going to change the S-curve, but the scale phase presents an opportunity to add at least as much value as the frenzy (probably more, but I’ll let that go so we don’t have to debate the value of Angry Birds). We are well beyond the PC frenzy, and there is still tremendous opportunity as enterprises continue to leverage cloud services, SaaS applications, and new integrations with their PC-based applications. It’s the same with mobile—enterprises will be responsible for pushing mobile up the scaling part of the S-curve.

Value Through Enterprise Apps

Value Through Enterprise Apps

“Enterprise apps” can mean different things, but for this post, let’s define them as mobile solutions an organization deploys for employees or consumers to meet business objectives. The term usually describes only apps that target employees, but I think enterprise apps can also target consumers (e.g., mobile customer support extension of a CRM). Either way, these solutions are separate from social, content-driven, or gaming apps.

It’s extremely difficult to build the next great social or content app, and even if you do, Facebook or Google awaits. I also think most of the low-hanging fruit is gone for consumer apps. Most organizations have public-facing mobile apps and they will continue to add new features (e.g., we’re adding proximity and voice features for our clients), but it’s becoming tougher to break new ground with consumer apps in a way that creates real business value.

But there is still plenty of room for enterprise apps. Take a look at your phone and count apps for personal vs. work use. (For the sake of argument, consider a corporate-owned device as one with your personal device.) I bet it’s 7 to 1 or higher, but that ratio will change. When I joined Shockoe earlier this year, in my first few weeks I started using eight new apps for work: Google Drive, Google Calendar, Hangouts, Slack, Trello, Expensify, a VPN, and an internal app for our office. I’m an average mobile user at best and definitely download less than one app/month (maybe that’s because Stranger Things reminds me of my childhood … the 1980s part, not the world-ending monsters), but according to those comScore stats, in my first few weeks at Shockoe I downloaded an entire year’s worth of apps. Those were basic apps for HR, collaboration, and personal productivity, and it’s the operational apps, many of which will never hit the App Store, that present a huge opportunity.

Consider a warehouse operator who picks up an Android tablet when she arrives at work then opens an app to see her order list, most efficient picking route, and connection to a wearable scanner. That’s a valuable app for the warehouse, but it doesn’t rank on app download or screen-time statistics. We need a better way to measure enterprise app adoption. Why compare social or gaming app statistics to a logistics app that optimizes shipping loads, routes, and the overall customer and employee experience? Or why compare them to mobile solutions that enable sales teams, train employees, or track assets?

Time for Enterprises to Catch Up on Mobile

Shockoe has always had an enterprise-app focus, and I think the mobile challenges facing our clients are similar to challenges with SaaS applications that helped enterprises scale along the PC S-curve over the last ten years: How do you know when to go with a mobile app (or a SaaS solution)?  What technologies and vendors should you use? How do you secure them? How do you effectively integrate apps into back-end systems and your overall technology portfolio? And critically, how will you measure mobile app success? That measure, hopefully, an ROI identified up front and validated after the app implementation, is a much more important number of enterprise apps than downloads or app usage time.

The mobile app frenzy was fun and while the scale phase may not seem as exciting, it is for many of our clients. The slowing innovation in mobile hardware (where smartphones get better but have fewer groundbreaking features) gives larger organizations, governments, and other non-digital natives time to catch up on mobile apps. And they need to catch up quickly because the frenzy phase on that AR/VR S-curve feels rather steep.