Mobile

Designing mobile enterprise apps for ‘high cognitive load’ environments

Doug Van Kirk is the Director of User Experience at ServiceMax, a provider of field service management software.

2013 has been an amazing year for mobile enterprise, but it’s just the beginning. As Mani Zarrehparvar of Visage also noted recently, more than a third of the world’s labor force (more than 1 billion workers), will identify as mobile workers by about this time next year. Both Apple and Android devices grew by leaps and bounds in the enterprise market according to the most recent survey released by iPass and MobileIron. And iOS7 could be Apple’s most important upgrade yet for enterprise developers.

Simply put, the computers in our pocket, whether they’re our own or provided by our employers, can make our lives easier, faster and better, everyday. It’s an exciting time to be a worker, but it’s even more exciting to be a technology provider. As the CEO of my own company Dave Yarnold argued earlier this year:

The real innovation (and what gets me up in the morning) is when previously ignored worlds themselves are empowered and elevated, and entirely new sources of revenue opened, thanks to the promise of [enterprise] mobile. This is not just making business “mobile for mobile’s sake” (for example, being able to submit expenses on the go) but instead the nexus of mobile and cloud computing completely transforming entire business functions in some amazing ways.

While this article did a great job discussing high-level business transformation such as improving revenue, productivity and costs, there’s just as much to examine on the other side of the coin: the end user. Very soon, it’ll be every worker on a smart device, not just the traveling salesman submitting his lunch receipt on the go. Imagine technicians working on top of wind turbines or in the bowels of hospitals fixing state-of-the art equipment on iPads. Or brain surgeons removing tumors thanks to a Nexus. Or to get Hollywood about it, astronauts working off that shiny new Surface 2 up there in space.

The applications built for these workers in high-cognitive-load (extremely complicated) environments must get them out of that power plant, operating room and space shuttle safely. An erroneous turn of a micro-wrench by even a millimeter is the difference between life and death; making or losing millions.

The design of mobile enterprise apps that must serve these high cognitive-load business environments require an extreme balance of form and function, and must keep context, communication and clarity front and center despite the complexity of the job at-hand.

Workflow as Story: Don’t lose the reader

Like a good novel, even the most complicated workflow has a story arc: A clear starting place; a plotline and a definitive finish. So should its app. You never want your user to wonder,  “Now, what do I do?” For example, make sure that screens are labeled clearly so that even new users know exactly what each function does. Limit options to ensure that every screen plays a distinct character. Make sure users know what they can expect and what the output will be, and give them unambiguous indicators that they have completed their tasks. Finally, don’t be afraid of making the complex too simple – user satisfaction is always higher with fewer, better-defined functions than a broad range of poorly-implemented features.

Context is king, so keep it front and center

Mobile Enterprise apps face a constant tension: The need to work with large amounts of data versus the limited screen real estate on which to display it. In practice, this means that users often need to browse or search through several organizational layers of material to find a value for an input field or form. At the same time, mobile users are frequently interrupted with calls, texts and other events that take over the entire screen. So it’s critical to maintain context at all times. Use color, iconography, and text to ensure the user knows where he or she is in the application at any given time. For example, if a user needs to search for a diagnostic code for that MRI machine, be sure that the search dialog screens remind him/her what’s being searched and where the information will be used next.

Leverage common paradigms and use familiar navigation

No matter how mission-critical your app is, the simple truth is that even your most frequent users spend most of their time doing…something else. Use that to your advantage by leveraging the patterns, interactions and navigation they already know.

For example, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Or the pull-down menu. If your application includes a calendar function, it should mimic the look and operation of the calendar function on the target platform. For example, iOS users can swipe to show the next and previous date. Your calendar should do the same, even if you think you’ve created a better way to accomplish the task.

One of the toughest challenges mobile developers face today is creating a consistent cross-platform experience but thankfully we’re seeing some real standards emerge. For example, the “Navigation Drawer” (a panel of menu choices that slides in from the side of the screen) is rapidly becoming the standard for top-level navigation. Applications your customers already use, like Youtube, Google Maps, Spotify, LinkedIn, Netflix, Foursquare, WordPress and Salesforce Chatter have adopted this navigation paradigm; expect others to follow.

Details count here. It’s not enough to make your function look like the reference application; it needs to work like it as well. Your users already know how to follow links, navigate with a back button and tap a disclosure to see more information; your app shouldn’t deviate from these patterns.

Apple and Google publish comprehensive user interface development guides. Commit them to memory – they not only provide reference for nearly every pattern and interaction, but are a great insight into the design philosophy behind the products that people are using in their everyday lives.

Make communication the easiest function, or you’ll be sorry.

Lastly, neither your app nor your end user lives in a vacuum. Make sure it’s easy for users to launch other functions, most especially communications functions. Complex work requires instant connection to greater resources. For example, don’t hide a “call” button two levels down on a contact details page. But do think creatively about how Facetime can bring a technician and product expert together to solve a problem. If it’s likely the user will want to communicate, make sure that there are call, text, video or email buttons wherever the user sees a colleague’s name or would encounter the need.

It’s an exciting time where the most complicated, mentally-taxing procedures can meet the beauty of an iPad, but only if those of us building these high-speed apps get it right. Are you trying to bring the promise of enterprise mobile to life with your software or app? Please share how it’s going in the comments.

Doug Van Kirk is the Director of User Experience at ServiceMax, a provider of cloud-based, social and mobile field service applications. Prior to ServiceMax, Doug was a Usability Analyst at UEVision, a San Francisco consulting firm, where he designed interfaces for enterprise and government applications. He is a former product manager at Palm, Inc.

More information:

ServiceMax is a complete suite of cloud-based, collaborative and mobile field service applications, which gives companies capabilities in field service management to optimize operations. Companies use the ServiceMax suite to handle eve... read more »

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