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6/28/2013
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Occum's App: 5 Barriers To Mobile Simplicity

Big enterprises are hard-wired to botch mobile apps design. But you can change your culture to avoid the pitfalls.

The big banks are in a mobile arms race, constantly adding features to their already bloated flagship apps and misguidedly defining success by how closely their mobile capabilities match their more mature online offerings.

The unfortunate casualty is customer experience.

What's lost on the big banks -- and most other large enterprises -- is that software should be so simple as to border on the obvious. It's a design imperative for mobile.

It's counterintuitive, but the optimal mobile experience comes from the app with the fewest features. It's not simply that each new feature provides diminishing marginal returns. It's that each new feature actually detracts from the product.

That last paragraph isn't a secret held by twentysomethings in Portland. Fortysomethings like me get it. Mobile is different. It's about context and simplicity. A paradigm shift.

So why do mobile banking apps, like most enterprise-produced software, continue to have the Microsoft Word problem (i.e., as adoption of a platform broadens, there's an inertial institutional response that often leaves v2 worse than v1)?

Here are five reasons large enterprises are hard-wired to damage the mobile user experience, usually by increasing product complexity.

1. Consensus is predictable.

With something as sexy as mobile, every senior manager with a smartphone thinks his design aesthetic deserves knighthood. And the larger the org, the more seats at that roundtable. Consensus (unfortunately) gives them a voice. So even if there were a semblance of product vision, once all those stooges are heard, consensus plays the role of eye poke.

Minus a coherent product vision, consensus affirms the seemingly intuitive, a problem compounded for mobile because the answers to the harder questions are usually counterintuitive (i.e., pare down your offering). Consensus, designed to amplify a crowd's intuition, predictably falls on its face.

Intuitive output confuses bigger with better and necessarily increases the app's complexity. And with enough releases, that complexity becomes the defining characteristic of the app.

The answer here is obvious. The best products, app or otherwise, are taken to market by independent, engaged individuals -- visionaries who I'll continue to argue (counter-intuitively) need to be engineers. And who, for the most part, fly solo.

Get your org a visionary. Just one. Make sure she has real technical depth. And craft her role so she has veto authority on design decisions over the old knights.

If you're lucky, you'll land one with social skills, the kind of talent who humors the rest of us and makes us feel like we got to her conclusions through the banalities of consensus.

2. Customer voice adds noise.

Survey the users of any major mobile banking app and you'll find that they don't know what features are already in their pocket. They either lost interest dozens of app releases ago or they're only now joining the party.

The odd part is that even though customers don't know the complete list of existing features, they operate like the senior stakeholders in section 1: They're wed to their own unique wish list of future features (some of which are already hidden in the app).

Mobile customers and the well-intentioned folks who listen to them fail to realize that their "next new feature" is like that wafer thin mint in Monty Python's "Meaning of Life."

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It's perfectly reasonable to aspire to listen to customers. But when, like the major banks, you have millions of users, their collective ask is essentially consensus amplified. And following intuition at that ungodly scale leads to the Bizarro universe, where putting "customers first" ensures that the banks never achieve "mobile first."

Given that context, the banks are actually benefitting from the sad fact that the primary feedback loop in mobile -- the app store -- is broken. As a channel for actionable feedback …

3. App store ratings are $#*%@# and should $#%&@ in their @#$^&#%@!

Give me a minute.

If you're the proud owner of an app, you know that those scathing single stars followed by a paragraph of existential outrage don't foster any meaningful dialogue. It's like tweeting into the abyss. Both sides are left feeling helpless because they can't further engage each other. Customers feel disenfranchised. And institutions struggle with raising the quality of their apps.

App store anonymity, another example of misguided corporate do-goodism, butchers the concept of community, ending support conversations at the very time they're needed most, ensuring that, regardless of intent, neither side can deepen the relationship enough to get a meaningful answer.

The only solution, given the obstinance of the big two app stores, is to bypass them. Not with a third, centralized Goliath, but with thousands of Davids. Every brand that cares about mobile needs to invest in an app store, building its own vibrant, engaging mobile community, a place that fosters connecting.

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