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.

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"That's been a really dramatic change in the industry," Fuller says. "Google's probably leading the way, with their incremental changes released nearly every week. You don't know when they're coming -- you go to the interface and it's different. And more than 90% of the time, it's better."

He adds, "We used to use the waterfall method. We would create a specifications document, argue about it until it was etched in stone, and then the developers would work on it and release it." Now, he says, that way of working is "turned on its head." Instead, he and other experts favor an agile development approach, in which new application versions are routinely released every other week, with user input sought between releases. "We make incremental changes," he says. "And because the software is cloud-based, there's not the hassle of sending out disks. You've tested each version thoroughly, so you just push it out to users. And their expectation is that it's OK to have changes. The response is 'What does this do? Let's try that!' instead of 'Oh no, you changed my interface!' "

In fact, Croucher says, it's a good idea to experiment with different user interfaces, changing them frequently. British Airways even conducts an in-app form of A/B testing, in which some users are given one interface version, and other users are given another, to see which works better. "You need to get that segregation of back-end functionality and business services, which need to be correct, and front end, where you can be more experimental," he says.

That doesn't mean, however, that you should expect the back end to remain static. While you may not want to make changes on an every-two-weeks schedule, it's likely impossible to create truly user-friendly and appealing apps without overhauling the underlying functions and databases.

In British Airways' case, that meant changing the way fares were calculated, because the complex tangle of rules involving Saturday stay-overs and many other elements were nearly impossible for customers booking tickets online to understand. "It never made sense why some fares were more than others," Croucher says.

There was no way to do that by improving or changing the user interface alone. "We learned from our customers that you have to simplify the back end overall," he says. "If a process is too complex, you can't make a simple and user-friendly interface for it."

And if you can't make a simple and user-friendly interface, you're sunk. With mobile devices proliferating, screens in every direction, and more and more competition for mindshare, the time when you could count on anyone stopping to learn an application is over. As Fuller puts it, "You have to be aware that the user today has a very short attention span."

Zetlin is a technology writer and co-author of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive. Contact her at minda@geekgap.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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