I have been using Foursquare on my iPhone lately. If you haven’t used it, Foursquare is an app in which you “check in” to places you go. Your friends on Foursquare see where you have been, and you see where they have been. If you check in somewhere more than everyone else, you become the “mayor”. Some places offer a coupon or discount after you check in. I find the app somewhat entertaining, but I think it is doomed to ultimately fail.
If you compare Foursquare to other social networks, you’ll see what I mean. Facebook is very dynamic, and draws you in. Your friends post pictures, articles and comments, so there is a constant flow of activity. Similarly with Twitter, there is a constant feed of information. Some of it is junk, and some is really interesting. You can also use Twitter to view social trends, so for example during the election I watched posts about it, even from people I don’t know. Both Facebook and Twitter are so dynamic that you feel compelled to return over and over.
Foursquare is just less interesting. Seeing where your friend had lunch just isn’t that exciting, compared to seeing their latest photos or a link to a blog post your friend found interesting enough to share. After you use it for a bit, the compulsion to return wears off.
Enterprise IT developers have the same issue when building mobile apps for their fellow employees to use. Building and maintaining apps is expensive, and it is only worthwhile if the apps are continually used. Some apps will be used infrequently but are still necessary, for example checking on company benefits. You don’t do it frequently, but you appreciate it when you do. But other apps are there to help improve your work life, and if they are not compelling then users will give up on them. For example, if you build a sales dashboard, it must be attractive, easy to use, and provide timely and useful information. If you get it right, your users will continue to return. If you make it difficult to use or fail to provide good information, users won’t come back to it.
For Enterprise mobile apps, security is particularly challenging. On PCs, security is a solved problem. As every laptop user knows, the corporate VPN is ubiquitous, and identity is centrally managed. To access company resources, you must first connect and identify yourself. In many cases, you also use your secure key fob to provide an extra measure of identification. But on mobile apps, while these things are available, they feel very different and are not readily accepted by users. Starting a VPN every time you want to use a mobile app feels cumbersome and annoying, even though you don’t think twice about doing it on your laptop. If Enterprise IT views mobile devices merely as tiny computers, their apps are doomed to fail.
Fortunately, there are ways to have your apps be secure and yet feel usable. For example, you can use app wrapping to enable in-app VPN. Your users will have to authenticate to the app, but they won’t have to figure out how to run a VPN on the device. You can also choose how long to remember a user for before they have to log in again. Security is always a tradeoff, and relaxing policies just a little can make mobile apps feel much more usable.
Providing access to a rich set of data also helps. Users will find a way to make data available, and if you don’t do it for them, they will circumvent security to do it. Putting files on Dropbox is a great example of how to avoid corporate security policies. If the apps you provide offer the data that users need, they will not feel the need to find other ways of getting it.
Strong mobile apps can make your users empowered and productive. Spending the effort to make apps compelling pays off, and makes the investment worthwhile. Take the time to build apps that are clear, simple to access, and provide useful services, and your users will keep returning.