What do you do when there's no app for that?

Mobile apps create new struggles for companies, IT groups

Companies and IT groups are scrambling to find or build well-designed mobile apps to realize the full promise of mobilized business processes.

As of June 2012, there were 237,000 iPad apps listed in the App store, many of them priced at 99 cents or even free. Yet very few of them let companies actually do business -- take customer orders, update inventory, submit pharmacy prescriptions, or manage 401K retirement accounts.

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In short, companies are bogging down in a flood of apps they can't use. And the ones they can use from the online app catalogs often lack the technical and customer support that both IT groups, and frontline employees, are used to.

Software vendors that traditionally supply enterprise line of business software for servers and PCs now face a learning curve in adapting these applications, especially their user interfaces, for touch screens. And if corporate IT groups try to build their own apps, they run into the same learning curve. Some companies are reporting unexpected jumps in mobile app development costs, as a result.

Here's what companies are doing:

+ creating new bottom-up app feedback loops, partly to identify, evaluate and spread the word about catalog apps, but also to capture user-driven app ideas.

+ forging new relationships with key software suppliers, to sync enterprise requirements and schedules with those of the vendor; one new option: negotiating for access to the vendor's source code to create custom changes, and speed mobile deployment.

+ reprioritizing application development and spending, away from PCs to new mobile operating systems, and to integrating them with backend systems.

+ devoting more time, money and expertise to designing highly-usable touchscreen UIs for these next-generation mobile enterprise apps.

+ re-examing and sometimes redesigning business processes to better exploit mobile devices and apps.

Chart of top budget priorities for mobile apps

Custom built mobile apps for the iPad were the main focus at the outset for The Ottawa Hospital (TOH), in Ottawa, Ontario. Shortly after the iPad was launched, the hospital decided to buy more than 3,000 of them to deploy a mission-critical, electronic physician order entry system, which lets doctors order diagnostic imaging, lab tests and medications. The first two rolled out in late 2001 with the help of a contract software development company. One condition of the contract: Hospital CIO Dale Potter's insistence that the company have a full-time UI ergonomics expert assigned to the project.

The third app, for medications, neatly shows how mobility is disrupting conventional software development. The hospital uses on an open architecture clinical information system, Oacis, now part of Telus Health Solutions. The vendor planned to introduce mobile device access to the repository in 2014, at least a year later than the hospital needed it. Instead of waiting, TOH forged an unprecedented deal. Telus agreed to classify the hospital as a research-and-development site for the software, allowing the hospital's coders to access the full source code for native modifications.

"We have to build the thing ourselves," Potter says. "This is a big challenge for hospitals. [Healthcare software] vendors are trying to catch up and address the topic of mobility."

The first wave of rudimentary mobile apps is already proving too limited for companies.

"There are very specific user experience expectations for tablets," says Scott Snyder, president and chief strategy officer for Mobiquity, Wellesley, Mass., which specializes in a range of technology services including software development for enterprise mobile projects. "If you give me a static document or a Windows app that only lets me scroll, without really using the pointing, swiping, touch interface, then you're not taking advantage of what the device, and the user, can do."

One Mobiquity client is Boston Scientific, the Boston-based $8-billion-in-sales manufacturer of advanced medical devices and implants. Thousands of sales and marketing staff worldwide used to visit doctors carrying physical models of the devices, along with brochures, samples, and video tapes or CDs to show how they worked. It was cumbersome, hard to coordinate, and most of all, took up time, says Rich Adduci, the company's CIO.

With the first iPads, all this was replaced by what Adduci calls "super-charged brochureware" - iPad-based documents for presentation and viewing. "A brochure is just a flat document," he says. "You can't interact with it, integrate simulations, or drill down into layers of details. But in a true iPad app, there's a lot you can do to bring the brochure alive." Today, the company's sales reps can bring up a range of simulations, animations, videos, and interactive product information instantly on the iPad.

The next step was starting the process of recreating for the iPad a portfolio of laptop apps - both native and Web, covering tasks like registering products for customers, tracking serial numbers, field inventory management, as well as tools like expense reporting and sales performance data. Each was examined, and assigned a priority in the development schedule.

But when the first group of mobile apps for Boston Scientific was well into development, it became clear the UI designs were flawed. "We didn't do enough prototyping," Adduci says. "They looked nice, but as you actually used them, they were not really good at all. We didn't have enough experience in building user interactions."

Software developers tend to think logically, he says. "But mobile GUIs don't focus on logic and structure, but instead on the 'experience' so that the mobile user doesn't need a lot of training to be able to use the app effectively," Adduci explains. "We found we had to rethink how these [laptop apps] would work on the iPad, and invest a lot more in the UI [development]. Mobiquity was a great partner for us in that."

Many companies have no choice but to rely on their key software suppliers to embrace mobility. Bayada Home Health Care, in Moorestown, N.J., adopted a Web-based clinical application, from Homecare Homebase LLC, which let home-visiting nurses fill in data online, eliminating millions of pages of paper documentation each year. Initially for Windows Mobile devices, the vendor switched to Android. And Bayada leaped at the chance to put it on tablets, specifically the 7-inch Samsung Galaxy 2. In partnership with its main wireless carrier, T-Mobile, Bayada has deployed them to about 2,500 nurses.

This one app, plus email, and a few effective tools -- like a predictive typing app, called SwiftKey, which cut virtual keystrokes by 50% to as much as 75% -- is almost the entire mobile value proposition for Bayada, according to Andrew Gentile, the company's associate director for the home health operating policy office. Next up: voice-to-text tools for adding notes and comments.

Chart of top tech priorities for mobile development

The iTunes App Store has yet to provide much benefit for specialty pharmaceutical company Hawthorn Pharmaceuticals, of Madison, Mo., which deployed iPads to 120 sales people. Like Bayada, Hawthorn leverages a line-of-business app, in this case the iPoint CRM application, from Pharmaceutical Operations Provider (POP). Beyond that, it's been hard to find and evaluate other apps, and the long-standing practice of having a standard stack of apps may be fading away, says Clay Hilton, Hawthorn's director of IT.

"There are hundreds of thousands of apps out there," he says. "What do I need to look at? And if I do invest in app X for my business, is there a support infrastructure for that?" One week, he says, you can find a basic PDF reader; the next week, a more generalized reader with a wider range of features; and the week after that, a reader that also does some content creation.

Another unexpected difference is that Hawthorn, into its first year of iPad use, still has not standardized on a suite of office software for mobile users. Instead, it's left that decision up to managers and users in the various sales regions. "I would have expected more pushback from our regional managers," Hilton says. "But it really hasn't been like that. People are just doing their own thing. We have 20% or less who are using some kind of office suite."

This is all new territory for users and IT alike, and another example from The Ottawa Hospital shows just how new. A nurse in the hospital's wound care unit became fed up with repeatedly changing patients' bandages, she would remove them when the doctor came to examine the wound, and then redress the wound afterwards, recalls Potter. At one point, a doctor asked her to remove a bandage and heard a word rarely used by nurses to physicians: "No." Instead, she asked him to look at the patient's electronic record on his iPad.

When he did, he found a series of high resolution photos, taken by the nurse on her iPad, that showed the dressing before it was changed; the wound laid bare; the wound after cleaning, and finally, the new dressing. For the first time, the physician didn't ask to have the dressing removed. In effect, the nurse created an "app" using nothing except the phone's features, and the back-end patient record application.

"We now have a [custom-written] photo wizard: you take a picture, the wizard pops up, and guides you to uploading it to the patient record," Potter says. "Everyone is using this."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Email: john_cox@nww.com

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