14 October 2014

Enterprise Mobility – Designing for UI

We recently launched a page on Enterprise Mobility which details our focus on utilising businesses existing resources or in some cases taking the opportunity of building from the ground up…

We recently launched a page on Enterprise Mobility which details our focus on utilising businesses existing resources or in some cases taking the opportunity of building from the ground up. Reading over it has made me consider how my approach to designing user experience and user interface has evolved since the arrival of the iPhone and subsequent devices. Designing for mobile and now mobility is constant evolving, the technology is changing on a 6 month basis and with each subsequent advance the challenge for a designer is both keeping up to date with the standards and being mindful of where the technology is moving. While the app world is now only 7 years old, which is pretty much still infancy, it is sometimes hard to remember just how much of an impact smartphones have had on the world.

I was thinking about the process of designing for apps and how the medium is evolving. Thinking back to my first client that wanted an app, they knew little more than ‘we want an app’ to which we typically replied: ‘OK what would you like that app to do?’ Early apps or adopters used them almost solely for marketing purposes and sometimes the discovery process was as much about looking for a purpose and generating an idea before designing or developing something. Very quickly after everybody started becoming much more savvy and now everyone has a smartphone.

When thinking about this blog piece it struck me that the conventions of designing for phones was at one stage similar to designing signage. In my mind good signage is where the balance of the architecture and typography sit in harmony while at the other end of the scale a limited area is filled with something less appropriate. The really good ones are almost invisible, they sit in perfect harmony with the building and surroundings. This harmony is similar to the approach of designing a User Interface for an app. Designing UI for effective usability relies on familiarity and logic. It’s telling that devices typically have little or no product documentation and yet remain entirely accessible and engageable in a way desktops aren’t. User expectation for tablet and smartphone based systems is more launch and go. The smartphone and subsequently tablets are almost instantly usable from everyone from toddlers to silver surfers. One of Steve Jobs messages “It just works.” (which was underlined with “Automatically.”) has become the expectation.

Facebook set the standards at an early stage with simplicity and the hamburger menu. Their mass audience made it familiar on a worldwide basis. Although Facebook have since moved away from the stack, it remains the standard and is hugely important for Enterprise. Typically Enterprise apps have a lot of information and it’s an effective way to tier or architect the information while retaining maximum screen area for the task currently at hand. Very quickly standards were set and user expectation of those standards was in place. Back/Menus/Action buttons all appear in certain places. The first app I designed started with a grid of buttons with a limited space (320×640 now seems tiny) brand and content were layered on top and very quickly the app came together. I’ll always remember the process of demonstrating a design solution where the client started touching the jpegs on a phone expecting or wanting it to work. ‘Gloss’ or skeuomorphism sometimes hid the fact that the app maybe didn’t do very much.

The iPad and tablets really changed this landscape, while originally derided the tablet quickly gained traction, in the home market first being used as a second screen, it then graduated into the marketing and retail spaces as a business tool. Users loved the simplicity, battery life and ease of use. Very quickly Enterprise needed to move to catch up. Users began using them in work environments which gave rise to Bring Your Own Device and Mobile Device Management.

The current move and the area Gravity is honed in on is Enterprise Mobility. Whereas app development for phones is decidedly multi platform, the market for Enterprise (at present, I expect this to change) is held by the iPad. The one exception to this rule seems to be hotel & hospitality industry which is favouring Android and Samsung devices. Windows is lagging seriously behind with Surface possible mainly due to price point, but the fact that Microsoft are not charging for iPad apps and is starting to aggressively price the Lumia devices may be a signal their market share could grow. Firms are now realising how using devices can impact on their business efficiency and bottom line. The shift from external facing apps to internal functioning apps supplementing or replacing desktop based systems has created a need for a revised approach to user experience. Apps particularly within the Enterprise arena are becoming more complicated while users have become more visually aware which is raising the bar on interface design.

Looking at our first iPad enterprise app was a great process. In the past I had designed and artworked paper based forms for banks, insurance companies etc so the process was both familiar and alien at the same time. The first thing I found liberating about designing for Enterprise Mobility was the approach of handling information to be slightly different. Firstly the freedom of users expecting to scroll freed up the information. The standards coming from Human Interface Guides defined usability prior to styling. I have found that on looking at paper based forms and presenting the information for tablet, language is imperative. On most projects where we translate a paper based medium to tablet the copy sometimes needs tweaking. Secondly the structure of the information can sometimes benefit from reordering. One of the big advantages of working alongside a team of developers is that their logic is invaluable while structuring this information.

On a recent project based on 4 traditional handwritten forms we assessed all forms as a single entity (the data will all reside together). This identified similarities and differences in the forms and language. Working alongside a developer (we consider how we are going to handle data alongside design — theres no point styling something to discover it won’t work. As a designer I tend to think where the system could go while the developer viewpoint keeps me grounded) we presented a solution where we restructured the data in a logical manner first and foremost and then applied branding and stylistic elements. (The project was one in the healthcare sector and by simply reordering medical conditions, chronic medical conditions and medication into one section we could make a huge change to the structure and usability of the solution) The process is similar to wire framing for web while being simultaneously freer and more rigid. As always form follows function.

Designing for Enterprise is somewhat of a challenge as the discovery phase is imperative. Enterprise projects are typically governed by organisations annual budgets but as we are working on a project we invariably consider an iteration roadmap and are already factoring in options for Stage 2 and Stage 3. At discovery we identify an ideal solution and then work to deliver what is achievable within the budget and timeframe, again the Facebook roadmap is a good example of this – start small, or with limited function, and iterate. The process is all about delivering more bang for the buck. The challenge is presenting the information in a usable way, my view is the interface should improve the experience of what was in place previously. Creating or implementing an Enterprise Mobility platform creates a huge opportunity for businesses to assess and refine processes. The key here is we want to encourage user buy-in on the apps we produce. In our Enterprise Mobility piece we discuss how some of the core advantages for organisations are efficiency and real time data, designing the user experience in an effective manner works alongside this: usability is key. The challenge for the interface is tiering the information and making the content relevant (hence the benefit of the menu stack)

Becoming device neutral is highly informing. I found my initial familiarity of iOS to be somewhat of a limitation when translating to Android. I tended to ‘think’ in iOS so automatically had an expectation of where the back button should be. I do find Android and Windows to be generally more demanding operating systems but more and more I find myself combining the best of their standards in some of our UI solutions. Thinking for a Multi platform solution is highly beneficial.

Although now seen as old hat Skeumorphism had its place: translating physical objects onto a touchscreen made it instantly familiar and logical to follow, this promoted effective usability for all age groups. If it looks like a book it maybe behaves like a book. Skeumorphism was superseded by flat design while retaining the structure. The recently launched iOS8 hasn’t changed the visual style substantially, concentrating more on improved functions (Incidentally I think Healthkit and Androids Google Fit will have an increased role in the future of Enterprise as wellbeing is being structured into more corporate policies)
Although Android are lagging behind in the tablet for enterprise stakes, the Android L design kit is a remarkable jump forward in usability. As the price point of Android tablets are so much lower I would imagine budgets will either stretch to include Android or as the devices become more responsive more users will shift. On a financial basis an organisation has the ability to deploy three Hudl 2 for around the same budget as a single iPad. Cost being a huge factor in the market share of Windows Surface.

In combination with this its important to be aware of trends and directions not just in design and tech, we have already seen a huge increase in healthcare in the last year and the pattern of Enterprise Mobility has been a consumer led process. Devices first entered the hands of early adopters who then started to use them for enterprise. Enterprise adapts. Those early adopters are now engaging with wearables. Similarly Enterprise was early to adopt M2M and this is now filtering back into IoT, connected cars, Apples Homekit. Being mindful of these elements informs where we may move with UI and UX in the very near future.

I expect the next year to be an interesting time for the evolution of UI design: The areas I will be watching most will be the iPhone 6+ (which I think will have a huge effect on Enterprise Mobility: it offers close to the screen real estate of an iPad mini and is a big challenger to the established Android phablet market), Android L and I hope to see Windows gaining more traction with the Lumia Denim updates. I believe Android to be hugely important release: I expect Googles ‘Material’ design to quickly replace ‘Flat’ as the standard, my early evaluation of it is a hybrid of iOS, Android with a little Windows.

The result is we are now at a point where desktop and mobile operating systems are starting to merge (Apple’s Yosemite is about to be released which takes cues from iOS and has been moving in this direction for the last few years. Windows already made this jump with the radical shift to Windows8) so the way everything is moving is device and platform neutral. Old desktop based systems typically provided information overload and took time (and training) to become familiar with. The new standard requires a more cohesive linking of platforms. This raises new challenges in designing usability but then the challenge for any designer has always been to evolve.

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