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Ram Menon is President of Social Computing at TIBCO, where he leads up enterprise social network tibbr.

Six years after smartphones first hit the shelves, I have my bank, newspaper, games, and shopping a swipe away. But what about getting actual work done? To enter a purchase order, approve an invoice, or access a work order, I still have to go back to the desktop to do it right. Most enterprise mobile apps suck when it comes to getting work done on the go, but there are three things we can keep in mind to make them better.

User experience is everything

Enterprise app developers are still under the tyranny of legacy applications. App designers who are just a few years away from the Palm Treo believe mobile experience is replicating the desktop. Their primary priorities continue to be, for example, to mobile-enable a Java app for Android or to redo a Flash app for iOS. This means ensuring that all the little things — cramming the navigation bar on a small screen to all the edge cases — have been addressed.

Enterprise IT decision makers have focused heavily on “mobile enablement.” In most cases, this means accessing enterprise data after punching in multiple passwords which expire in 30 days on an unfriendly mobile form. In return, you can consume notifications and open a few documents if you are patient enough. Yet IT decision makers forget that bankers, lawyers, and executives, when it boils down to it, are still just consumers. They use Facebook and Angry Birds and are increasingly expecting a consumer-grade mobile experience at work.

For the oncoming tsunami of mobile-only communication in the 21st century workforce, enterprise IT, developers, and designers need to drop their “enable” hangover and design enterprise apps with a user-first orientation. Users’ attention-spans on mobile apps are dwindling fast, so this means marrying functionality to content that matters to the user at specific points in time. The user wants to act, forward, create, and post in real time with a swipe of a finger as opposed to just access and consume the information. They want to do all this with simplified navigation, minimal steps to action, and optimized keyboard input. Screen resolution, device constraints, connectivity issues all matter — not desktop equivalency. In some sense, enterprise software continues to have the computation legacy of the 1960s, designed for the business processes and actions of a prior industrial era. We need to change and adapt to our contemporary device ecology of iPhones, iPads, Androids, and even Galaxies.

Enterprise content: Best served selectively

In the pursuit of desktop-equivalency, designers unwittingly unleash an unfettered firehose of updates and data, covering every edge case under the sun. In the mobile experience, content, and data needs to be delivered selectively.

For example, let’s say you’re on a plane collaborating with your sales team and you have six documents floating back and forth. When you get off the plane, what’s the first thing you want to know? You want an update on the most recent versions of these documents so you can dive back into the process, not have to sort through the edits to find the newest iteration. Delivering information in context, and the right information in context, is key to a great mobile experience. Enterprise mobile content delivery is not solely a data or a tools project. It’s still people- and UX-centric, so we must control the influx of data and selectively access what’s most important to users at specific times.

Yes, there is a camera. Use it.

A smart phone offers us a mind-boggling array of new input sensors from gyroscopes, GPS, accelerometers, and cameras — all enabling us to interact in new ways. Instapaper lets users scroll through a document simply by tipping the phone. The Walgreens pharmacy app can refill a prescription simply by taking a picture of the barcode on the label. Maybe now the old enterprise shipping application can be reimagined with a camera, or the inventory application can be reimagined with mapping for pallets in the warehouse. These are all options not available on the desktop version. Tracking and monitoring all these applications should take advantage of the new class of sensors and functionality available on a mobile devices.

Given that themes in enterprise software like big data, collaboration, and content management are becoming increasingly intertwined, it’s not a surprise that we are still struggling to find the balance that works best on mobile. But in this process, let’s not lose sight of what enterprise mobile apps are here to accomplish: to effectively enable individuals to get work done on the go.

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