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.

Coverlet Meshing, Contributor

June 28, 2013

4 Min Read

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.

About the Author(s)

Coverlet Meshing


The author, a senior IT executive at one of the nation's largest banks, shares his experiences under the pseudonym Coverlet Meshing. He has spent the last two decades in the financial services sector, picking a fight with anyone who doesn't understand that banks are actually software companies and need to invest in engineering as a core competency. His cheery outlook and diplomatic nature are rarely reflected in his writing. Write to him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @CoverletMeshing.

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