4 min read

Mobile Developers Must Focus On Tasks, Not Apps

We need more brevity in mobile app development. Develop for user needs -- and capture the user's task on a cocktail napkin, not a 50-page requirements document.
"They said I could only…."

Those are five words that don't tell us anything, but can say so much. They say that the speaker wasn't able to quickly articulate what he wanted the audience to hear; they say his thought was lost before it even started. They also say this could be a Webby Award acceptance speech. In fact, it was a Webby Award acceptance speech from The Onion in the humor category. But it got me thinking how business people need to change how they go about developing requirements for apps in the mobile world.

For those of you not familiar, the Webbys is an award ceremony that has celebrated the best of the Web since 1996. Since its inception, many things have changed, but one rule has remained: acceptance speeches can be only five words.

This has led to some of the funniest and most creative acceptance speeches of all time. Think about it. You can say a lot with five words. It makes you consider what you're talking about, be concise, and not let those superfluous words that get in the way like "I would like to thank…" Oops, out of words.

[ Creating a mobile app? Take these requirements into consideration: 9 Challenges To Your Mobile App Strategy. ]

This concept of brevity is something that belongs in mobile app development, but instead of five words, five screens. We have asked our enterprise teams to use five screens to tell our developers what their mobile app is, what it should do and how users should interact with it. And it's working to create more clarity up front.

The move to mobile layouts is changing the way people must think when planning for a design. Many teams have developed large-scale enterprise applications, often in-house, that have been around for years and they aren't about to start over from scratch just to move to mobile. The general initial response I receive is, "Great, Mike, now go away and leave me alone." And for those of you in enterprise IT, you know that quantum changes in thinking are never welcomed with open arms.

In truth, application owners shouldn't have to start from scratch. But they do need to rethink the planning process with the concept of focusing on the task, not the app. This task orientation allows teams to take a nugget from a huge application and create an app, or section of an app, that handles just that task. Alex Bard, a senior VP at, put it this way in a recent panel discussion: "We actually think about each device, then the context, the use case, and how you create a micro-moment experience to leverage that device."

So how do you discover that "micro-moment"? Well, for starters, you need to throw out the 50-page requirements document and grab some cocktail napkins. Seriously, sit down with your users and have a conversation. Ask them what the most important things they do in your application are. Don't guide them or prod them; just have the conversation. Oh, and getting out of the office and enjoying a martini or cold beer can often aid those creative juices. Once you've gotten some ideas then you can go to work.

A key example I use to illustrate this is our expense reporting system. Anyone who has worked at an enterprise company has had to deal with a big, unwieldy expense reporting system. It's a necessary evil, and at times can be just that: evil. Our system is worldwide and has to take into account all of the laws, taxes and regulations in more than 150 countries. So when I sat down with the team we quickly realized that taking this system and putting it on a phone just didn't make sense.

However, once we had the discussion, we found that the biggest problem people faced was not filling out expenses but waiting for their manager to approve them, which often would take days, and sometimes weeks, if they were traveling. So we sat down and created a basic flow of what it would take to approve expense reports from a phone and we did it visually in just five screens:

-- Login

-- List of reports

-- Report details with approve/deny button

-- Individual report item with approve/deny button

-- Comment screen

That encompassed the entire app. From there the engineers went about creating specifications for connecting these screens to a very complex back-end, the app was tested, then deployed and it has now become an indispensable part of thousands of managers' mobile devices.

This is just one example, but it illustrates the shift that needs to occur in the new world of mobile development. So with that, I'll leave you with these five words: Develop for Your User's Needs.

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