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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 $#%[email protected] in their @#$^&#%@!

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.

And if those brands aspire to real greatness, they should use those community hubs to give customers transparency into their visionary's product roadmap. There will be business pushback, especially in banks, because the old timers will argue that competitive advantage can't be created when you let your competitors know your secret plans.

Forgive them their age and idiocy. They're senior managers. Listen patiently to their stories about penny candy and their third-hand accounts of the secrecy that allowed Apple to beat the Germans in the Great War. Keep nodding and smiling -- they were relevant once. Remind them gently that their own plans were never really secret, not with all their management consultants reporting back to the mother ship. How do they think they get their own competitive intelligence?

And as they nod off to sleep, whisper in their ears: Transparency is competitive advantage.

4. Big can't teach.

"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Never one to second guess the co-founder of the London School of Economics, I'd just add: "Those who do, can't teach."

It's not that we're too busy or that corporate incentive structures focus us on new features (both true). We simply don't know how to teach. And that's reflected in how well we actively increase the sophistication of our mobile users.

Not well, if you're wondering.

In banking, a good (and damning) measure is how the release of a new mobile feature impacts other channels. Does the new mobile offering increase or decrease volume to call centers? Answer: increase. Is that an initial spike with a drop-off over time or is that a persistent net increase? Answer: no end in sight. Does the mobile offering at least allow for the deprecation of support to legacy channels? Nope. Anyone who still thinks mobile banking will help close brick-and-mortar locations is freebasing.

The point here isn't to abandon the chimeric cost savings that is mobile. The point is to balance that investment in new functionality with one in structured handholding.

Hint: If you need help figuring out how to teach your users, ask yourself how it is that a third of seniors play video games at least once a week.

5. Big doesn't catch well.

Trust-building exercises where you fall back into someone's arms don't usually end with a thud. We can all agree, though, that regardless of where you land politically on the question of corporate personhood, it's a bad idea to fall backward when the "person" behind you is a corporation.

Now combine that mental image with my definition of the best employees: those who do everything they can to make themselves, their teams and their functions obsolete. Intentionally.

I think of top talent as editors because they're skilled at paring -- orgs, processes, code, apps, everything. They distill whatever stands before them down to its purest, simplest core. And what editors need, when they deliver the counterintuitive (a simpler mobile app) or the countercultural (a dramatically smaller team), is to trust that their awesomeness will be rewarded, that their fall backward will end in real arms.

And make no mistake, it is a fallback, with a high level of personal risk. Because, culturally, the popular kids in big corporations usually gauge individual success by the size of a person's org. Very locker-room-esque.

If you're skeptical, consider how Big rewards success. Answer: with headcount and budget. Like God, Big creates success in its own image. Belt tightening, the Satanic act of getting smaller, is a sign of failure, usually forced on orgs during hard times, when they're most vulnerable.

"Alas, poor Yorick -- he had such a big org once. What happened?"

"He's not exactly dead. Just an 'individual contributor' now."

"Tsk tsk. Code for demotion, regardless of how the org announcement spun it."

The nuance lost on most is that when an editor tightens her belt, it's artful paring. It's not done out of necessity but thoughtfulness. It's planned obsolescence, the opposite of empire-building. And it's a thing of beauty.

The empire builders don't get it because as Upton Sinclair once wrote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

Your answer should be to build a culture that rewards the artful edit. Give those who take that risk all the air cover they need. And be courageous and unrelenting in your appreciation of small.

Occum's App

If William of Ockham were alive today, his razor would be shaving features from mobile apps. That wisdom is lost on the big banks, all of which suffer from the cultural baggage of big.

If you're in a large org, the fight to simplify your mobile app, to pare it down to its bare essentials, will be a long, bloody battle with your stakeholders. They'll probably never get it, or by the time they do, mobile will be as relevant as desktops are today.

Your flagship app, the one with every feature on the planet, is worth this fight.

Well, technically -- if you listen to app store feedback – it's not.

But your customers' experience is.

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