Finding ROI in Enterprise Mobile Apps

The mobile revolution has empowered individuals to supplant enterprises as early adopters of personal technology. Because we’ve chosen the convenience, utility, and speed of mobile apps, most of us would fail at everyday tasks without our smartphones—and we’re just fine with that.

Though these consumer needs are becoming priorities in the enterprise (80% of manufacturers are working on apps, and bring your own device (BYOD) is soaking up headlines), it’s still difficult to find research that will help to build a strong business case for a mobile app. If you’re among those starting your mobile strategy, proving ROI requires a lean process that allows you to place small bets while retaining the potential to win big.

Here’s how you can build a mobile app that provides measurable returns:

Step 1: Define Success

Before taking on a mobile project, it’s important to know which metrics to follow. Many mobile apps are invaluable, but infrastructural in nature—like mobile email, which has no hard ROI.

One area to watch is productivity, which can be improved through the convenience, utility, and speed of well-designed mobile apps. Most industries have seen productivity increases thanks to the technical optimization and integration of corporate systems, but the subsequent neglection of user experience has since influenced a trend of decreasing productivity gains. Apps hold the potential for reversing this trend back towards the positive. But they each have specific metrics to track productivity, such as issue resolution time/customer retention rates for customer service apps, sales cycle duration for sales apps, lower error rates for data entry apps, and completion times for workflow apps.

Investment Size: $
Risk: Minimal

Step 2: Find Ripe Areas

With a clear idea of which needles to move, determine which business areas can move them the most. Think about the largest concentrations of employees, while remembering that some apps will be successful even with a small number of users.
Then, look for specific tasks that:

    • Require short, intense bursts of interaction with a computer or device
    • Would better be done in the field than in a cubicle
    • Are prone to frequent and costly human errors
    • Hinge on information that is constantly updated and distributed

Employees can provide input through focus groups, surveys, and simple observation. Find out how they’re working smarter by utilizing outside tools—and when they’re waiting for processes to move, how technically literate they are, and whether they’re concerned with security and privacy.

It also helps to follow the paper trail. While instructions written on sticky notes indicate user experience issues with software, anything written down and then keyed into a workstation may indicate an opportunity to automate the process with a mobile app.

Resist the urge to make assumptions, as few visionaries can deliver the right products without conducting the user research that will guide the way. It may also take actual use—for instance, banks found out that online bill pay and mobile check deposit were killer apps well after releasing their web and mobile apps for public use.

Investment Size: $
Risk: The investment is still a minimal amount of time and some money for research.

Step 3: Test Like No One Will Use It

It’s costly to build a fully-featured app, so test concepts with easily-built, throw-away prototypes to further reduce exposure to the risk of a bad investment. Prototypes help determine if the application holds promise of being adopted and is worthy of further investment.

Hundreds of tools exist that deliver prototypes to mobile devices. Limit the features to only those that are absolutely necessary and don’t expend effort to integrate with the internal infrastructure, add features to address outlier cases, or scale.

Test most functions with a small user base through human intervention. For example, if the app depends on approvals or routing, assign a human to simulate automation.

Keeping it simple, focused, and cheap will raise the odds that the benefits will outweigh the costs.

Investment Size: $$
Risk: Low. The ante has been upped, but pulling the plug is still very much an option.

Step 4: Build the Minimal Feature Set

If the app has tested well, it’s time to choose technologies and build the real thing—but don’t gold-plate a still-unproven app. Produce an app with the simplest feature set that’s useful for the device that the majority of target users have, and address other platforms later. If there are no clear leaders, a hybrid or HTML5 app can be used across platforms, but beware of the tradeoffs. Integrate it simply with as few systems as necessary.

If you choose to go native or hybrid, distribution doesn’t have to be complicated. Both Apple and Google offer methods of app installation from outside of their stores. If your company doesn’t own employee devices or have a BYOD policy, one wireless carrier already offers the ability to pay for your employees’ bandwidth when they’re using your app, and others may follow suit.

Investment Size: $$$$
Risk: Moderate. Though the time and money has been spent to build an app, the risk of underperformance has been mitigated through research and limited project scope.

Step 5: Evolve or Die

Users expect mobile apps to evolve over time, and a stale app will show diminishing returns. If it’s successful, they’ll expect that the features and devices that were left out earlier in the process be added over time. Take those features into account, along with any new requests, insight from analytics, issues from crash logs, and maintenance needs when creating a roadmap for future updates.

Investment Size: $$
Risk: Low. The size of each roadmap item should be kept small and be properly vetted while the app itself should have already be producing returns.