The New Rules for Enterprise Apps

To be successful today, enterprise software must be more user-friendly, get updated more often, and offer users outside your company more transparency than ever before.

An insurance company decided to roll out an application for its sales reps. The new app would give them a wider selection of products to offer customers when out in the field. Information on those products was stored in a legacy mainframe system, so the company created a Web interface that let reps query the database to get details on offerings.

The new interface did give access to product information, but it was neither intuitive nor easy to use. "There were long drop-down lists, and it was very form-oriented," says Alex Adamopoulos, CEO of Emergn, a consulting firm that worked with the insurance company. "There were many, many fields and pages and pages of content on each product. The salespeople were struggling to find the right types of data and there was no way to do an advanced search. There was also no way to do a what-if scenario -- you'd have to do it offline with a spreadsheet-based application."

Around the same time, a second insurance company serving the same market also decided to launch an app for its field reps. This time, there was no legacy system to query, so the company started from scratch, licensing off-the-shelf software. "It was a database that came 60% or 70% baked," says Adamopoulos. "The rest was customizable and could be changed in response to user feedback."

The first company should beware of the second company and its more user-friendly app, he says. "The difference is customer experience, and it's going to be huge," he notes. "The licensed software will give salespeople the ability to quickly create a portfolio of products that's suited to the client. They'll be looking at the same types of data, but they'll be able to control it and shape it any way they need to." That might provide a serious competitive advantage, since the actual products the two companies offer are quite similar.

"We've done work with both companies," Adamopoulos says. "We keep telling the legacy one that they should look at creating a more user-friendly experience. They don't think it's necessary. They will a year from now, when they're losing market share."

"It used to be that you'd set up a server with databases and put nodes on a network. Users would have limited capability," says Joe Fuller, CIO of Dominion Enterprises, which creates both print and online publications that match buyers and sellers of real estate, used cars and other items. "The applications would all be proprietary and we would print operations manuals that were updated once a year. People would go to trainings to learn how to use the software, and they'd sit there with their manuals next to them. Today, you'd be wasting your time printing ink on paper, and your applications had better be user-friendly enough that people can figure them out."

It's a simple lesson, and one that IT departments everywhere need to absorb: The old rules for enterprise applications, both those built in-house and those licensed from vendors, don't work in today's environment.

Some IT leaders lament the consumerization of IT, in which employees arrive in the workplace bearing the mobile devices of their choice, with the expectation that they'll be able to use them to do their jobs. This means that whatever applications IT deploys need to run smoothly on a wide range of operating systems and screens, but the challenge doesn't end there. In addition to being platform-agnostic, today's enterprise apps must be as user-friendly and inviting as those found in a mobile app store in order to entice users who, increasingly, can choose whether or not to bother with them.

Here's a look at the new rule book.

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