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…and why enterprise solutions like Mobile BI are doomed without them.

Real-time Operational Intelligence has become quite the hot topic and quickly.  This is great for vendors like us, but it also means the market can look forward to many of the growing pains that come along with chaotic growth.  The primary problem is that every vendor will take a different approach because the market is immature and there are no standards established, or at least that’s what you might think.  And you would be wrong.

The first thing to do is ignore mobile BI for a minute.  Successful mobile apps are successful mobile apps.  Period.  What’s more is that all of the top mobile apps, for consumers or business, all share similar traits.  If you can capture most or all of these in your mobile BI app, chances are you have a winner.  This post is intended to highlight those characteristics in the context of mobile BI and dashboard applications, but frankly, this applies to mobile apps of any kind.

Definitions:  Apps?  Mobile?  Success?

Apps: well that is still a big debate (web apps vs. native apps) but it doesn’t matter for this post because it applies to any mobile situation (standing in line, working in the field, on a plane, on the couch, etc.), using any device (smartphones, tablets, notebooks, etc.), and via a downloaded app or the browser.  Why don’t these things matter?  Read on…

Mobile: I’m currently reading yet another great guide to mobile app design (Build Mobile Websites and Apps for Smart Devices) and I came across this quote from another book (Designing the Mobile User Experience) by Barbara Ballard:

“Fundamentally, ‘mobile’ refers to the user, and not the device or the application.”

Wow.  We could not agree more, and we are continually shocked by how many vendors get this backward.  You might be using a giant notebook with a 17” screen, but if you are using it in a taxi on the way to the airport you are still mobile, so mobile app characteristics still apply.  The same is true in reverse, so if you are using your iPad at your desk these factors might not be a priority.  Conclusion – it’s the user that matters more than the device.

Success: mobile apps are ranked on lists everywhere and while each uses different criteria (downloads, time spent, visits, etc.) the winners are usually the same.  The real factor for businesses and Mobile BI is “are they continuing to use it and get value” and therefore “getting their job done more effectively.”

So lets get to the meat of this post…

What do successful mobile apps have in common?

Below is an explanation of the top 10 success factors for any mobile app (native and web apps), including Mobile BI, and some examples of each (in no particular order):

1. Timely information

When a user is mobile, they are way more interested in what is happening right now, just happened, or is about to happen.  Giving them planning data about whether you should put a new restaurant in a particular city a year from now is best left for the desktop.  This is why Twitter, Facebook, SMS, email, stock ticker and weather apps are always at the top of the most successful apps lists.  Most importantly, timely = addictive.

2. Small chunks

This is critical for Mobile BI and difficult for most vendors, especially if they come from a traditional BI / analytics background.  You might be used to giving users access to every permutation of data possible on the desktop, along with all the number-crunching tools in the world, but that is a recipe for disaster for mobile users.  Mobile users have limited time, and the need to accomplish something or check on something quickly and move on.  This is why Twitter and small posts on Facebook are so much more popular than reading full articles or books while mobile.  Even successful mobile games (like Angry Birds or Farmville) are broken into very small chunks  When the task is business related, this is amplified further.

3. Alerts

Not only must your app be great for people to want to use it, but real success comes when people don’t even have to proactively open the app to know when something has happened.  Remember, timely information is critical, so alerting someone that there is new information or that something has changed has a huge impact on the usefulness and overall usage of a mobile application.  Examples should be obvious, but here are a few: new emails vibrating your phone or popping up on screen, a new SMS makes your phone vibrate telling you your flight has been delayed, new Facebook messages are highlighted on the app icon itself, and breaking news stories pop up over the core application.  In Mobile BI applications like Visual KPI, you can not only alert people to state changes of KPIs or other metrics, but you can define a different ‘who’ to alert for every metric so you know you got the right person (or group of people).  This is a huge deal – no question.

4. Location-aware

Top app lists always include mapping, directions and GPS applications like Bing and Google Maps.  What is more telling is how many other applications now highlight location as one of their top features.  Foursquare is all about checking in (as is Facebook), Twitter has geo location, photos are geo-tagged automatically, weather apps follow you, etc.  Think about how you use technology on the go and what questions you ask of your devices:  How do I get THERE?  WHERE am I?  What is the weather going to be like HERE this afternoon?  WHERE are my friends?  Is there free wi-fi NEAR ME?  This is also true with business applications.  Visiting your Paris facility?  What is going on there?  It is no secret that all of the assets and data you will track in the future will be geo-tagged, so success with mobile data apps will also take advantage of this.  Here’s a screen shot of geo-located KPIs (tank levels) at an oil refinery in France.  Makes sense, right?

5. Context is king

Related heavily to timeliness, alerts and location, putting information in context for users is critical.  If you on the TripAdvisor application or site and you are checking hotels in Hong Kong, it wouldn’t make much sense to show restaurant reviews in Sydney.  The same is true with Mobile BI and along with showing small chunks of information, the utility of the application relies on showing the right information, to the right people, and surrounded by relevant information that puts it in context.  If you see a sexy trend of data without any targets or limits shown, it is fairly useless.  If you get an alert that says something went wrong but it can’t tell you if it was a temporary blip vs. getting worse, along with what led up to that point, the alert also has no context that might help you make a decision.  The tough part is keeping things simple and providing small chunks while still providing enough information for context.

6. Changes frequently

This is another big debate in the BI world.  Traditional BI is throwing all kinds of data into their mobile apps and some customers ask for that, but we would disagree.  Again, look at the most successful apps; the ones you always have open or constantly check.  Compare that to apps you have that collect dust.  Notice a difference?  How often do you check email, or your stocks?  If you are like me (and most people) you do this constantly.  Every time you open up Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn there is new information, even if you just checked 10 minutes ago.  Applying this to Mobile BI software tells you more about what type of data you should be focused on rather than a feature of the app per se, but it is critical.  Speaking of critical, operations data inside of a company is what changes most and what often leads to critical situations and expensive mistakes if they aren’t exposed in time and in context.  That is why operations and other fast-moving data is the place to start in mobile BI.  Quarterly or monthly reports?  Even weekly?  Why bother putting that on your phone?  How about “is my manufacturing line still running?” or “how much cash do I have?” or “is the AC still on at the data center and how much bandwidth is available?”

7. Simplicity

I’m not just referring to the concept or the data, but also the number of features.  The winners here give people just enough information to be satisfied, entertained or to get their task accomplished and usually no more (unless they ask for it).  Some of the best ones won’t even give additional information (Apple is notorious for this and Windows Phone 7 does a great job as well).  This doesn’t mean you need to skimp on data in Mobile BI, but it means you need to think carefully about how to present that data given the user’s objective.  Information rich = good.  Feature rich = not so much.  Removing features is painful for a vendor and most are incapable, but those that master simplicity are often rewarded.

8. Multiple devices

If you look at the top 10 lists of mobile applications and websites by device, you instantly notice that the winners appear on almost all of them.  Why?  Because unless you make a solution that only Android users care about (maybe “find other Android users near me”) then you are severely limited your potential for success.  This ties in well to the native app vs. web app debate.  Netflix has decided that even their native apps will just be containers that present a web app that works on any device, and we do the same (if someone really wants an app).  Oh, and don’t forget that a mobile user is not the same as a smartphone user.  They could be on a tablet or even a notebook.  In the corporate world, you used to hear that “BlackBerry is our standard” message, but as soon as one exec demands an iPad or someone convinced their boss they need a Windows Phone or Android, the standard is blown.  Believe me, we talk to customers all day and there is no such thing as a standard.  Get over it.

9. Sharable

When dealing with content, the best thing you can hear is “it went viral.”  This is true in mobile applications as well.  The stickiness and share-ability are directly related to their success.  The social networks would be dead without this, but almost all successful applications have this feature built in.  I know what you are thinking – why would I let my users share my sensitive operations data?  Think about it – if there is a fire on your oil rig or a Tsunami is impacting your nuclear power plant, you want people to know and quickly.  Not the public, but the people inside of your organization or anyone else who can do something about it.  I’m not talking about cutting and pasting data into an unsecured email, but instant sharing of exactly what you are looking at (like a trend or alert).  If you get this wrong, you just lost half or more of the value of having the solution in the first place.

So there you have it.  The nine success factors of the worlds best mobile applications.  Hey, wait…  You said there were 10.  Agreed, but if you re-read number seven you’ll see we cut a “feature” because it wasn’t important enough.

Agree?  Disagree?  Please add your feedback below and share it with your pals.

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