Billion Dollar Apps

Billion Dollar Apps℠: How To Identify Workflows That Need Apps

November 23, 2012

  • Alex Bratton

The following is an excerpt from Alex Bratton’s upcoming book, Billion Dollar Apps℠.

Anywhere you see one of the symptoms described below should be a chance to pause and think, “there should be an app for that.” These symptoms are specific, hard indicators mobility can be applied to an area of your business.

1. Clipboards, Binders and Note Pads

Many business workflows are still paper based. We cart this stuff around, scribble partial notes and hope we can remember to fill in the parts we skipped later on before we turn it in to someone. Clipboards, binders or note pads imply a paper-based system that needs to be mobile, so it can be picked up and carried around as part of a business workflow. Mobile devices, especially the iPad, are clipboard killers. I’m not referring to paper cluttering up someone’s desk, but rather any paper that moves around the business environment in hand and is written on as it travels.

That paper system has two critical flaws. First, paper assumes the user has been trained how to fill things out and knows how to handle a myriad of exception cases . If someone orders product A, make sure to ask them about product B. That works for a concession stand with a dozen food items but not for complicated restaurant menu or a product catalog of 10,000 SKUs. An app can provide expert guidance on the information and process at hand, prompting with leading questions and wizard-like functionality to make things easy. This simplifies employee training and empowers the user to drive up-sell opportunities or efficiencies. Let the user focus on the person they are interacting with rather than fight with the process.

Data double entry is the second critical flaw of mobile paper. Writing something down just to be entered into a computer is begging for data entry errors and information inaccuracy. It also slows down the real time flow of information businesses require today. Historically, mobile data entry was slow and cumbersome, but the new breed of mobile devices are very quick on their feet. Recording information once reduces the chances of entering data incorrectly or of someone not being able to read the handwriting. Direct to digital data entry also gives the organization immediate access to the data, which speeds up workflows.

Mobile paper tells us, there should be an app for that.

2. Specialized Hardware

Anywhere specialized hardware is in use, there’s a high probability there should be an app for that. Warehouse systems use expensive specialized hardware that is complex to operate and makes new development difficult. Thanks to the application development capabilities of mobile devices like the iPhone, we can now build systems that work on cellular networks or WiFi to replace specialized hardware that costs 100 times as much.

Another example of proprietary hardware replacement is the point of sale system used in Apple Stores. Replacing the stationary cash register with a mobile device transformed the customer checkout process, allowing transactions anywhere in the store. This system consists of an app on an iPod touch inside of a case that contains a bar code scanner and credit card swiper. It has mobile connectivity via WiFi. Using the iPod touches in the scanner/swiper cases instead of the old proprietary hardware reduced the average transaction time from over 11 minutes down to two minutes — an eye-opening increase in efficiency.

A while ago, I met an organization in the speech augmentation market. They sold specialized gadgets which allow people with a variety of speech challenges to use a device to speak for them. These devices are proprietary and very expensive. Unfortunately, their world view was that apps and mobile phones could never replace the rich audio experience they gave their customers. The capabilities of those multi-thousand dollar devices are now available as apps on phones that cost less than 1/10th the price, are always in their owners’ pockets, and have much broader capabilities. What could have been a leadership position servicing their market has become a fight for survival against new mobile app competitors.

Next time you see specialized hardware in use, ask yourself how the workflow would be different if that capability was based on a mobile platform instead.

3. Data Interruptus

A mobile workforce, like home healthcare workers or cable technicians, needs to submit and access data in real time to optimize customer service. Rather than recording visit information on paper or calling it in, there should be a mobile app for that. Addressing issues immediately while engaged face-to-face with the customer can go a long way to improving service, reducing churn and preventing unnecessary additional field service truck rolls.

If you have technology or data in place for a small subset of your team that could provide value to other, remote audiences, there should be an app for that. And this isn’t just about text and numbers stored in a database. A wide variety of real time data sources exist. For example, a police dispatch officer views video in a back room full of monitors, but the officers patrolling the area do not have access. Give the remote officers a mobile device with an app that ties into their cameras and you’ve placed real time information in the hands of people who have to make quick decisions.

4. Remote Users of Existing Systems

Virtual Private Networks are used to access corporate data while on the go. Very often, these connections are used for data lookups or simple functionality that really don’t require the cumbersome link to a laptop. A suite of secure mobile apps can provide the quick data retrieval mobile users need without forcing them to lug out a laptop. Take a look at the resources VPN users are accessing and you’ll probably find there should be apps for that.

Another set of remote users are those hitting your web systems using a mobile device. Take a look at your web site log files. For all the websites your organization already hosts – marketing sites, corporate sites, intranets and extranets – who is using them? Go see how many iPhone, iPad, or other mobile users are already hitting web assets today. The results may surprise you.

Find out what mobile web users are doing on your site. What functionality are they using? What data are they trying to access? You might be able to break out that chunk of mobile functionality or data and deliver it as an app to better address the needs of this group. Significant web traffic from mobile devices screams, ‘There should be an app for that!”

5. Self Service

Anywhere you see a stationary kiosk or information display used to look up information, there may be a mobile app opportunity. Kiosks tell users they have to physically go somewhere to get something they want, even though the information is not stored on the kiosk anyway (it’s usually on a server somewhere else).

Anywhere in an organization where you are asking people to use something like a kiosk, there should be an app for that. People should not have to come to your store to look something up or interact with your data, and even if that’s the ideal place for the interaction, they’re not wandering the aisles if they’re standing at a kiosk. Kiosks are a great indicator you need to extend data to your user on a mobile platform so they can have it on hand regardless of location.

6. Turning Your Back

If you turn your back on the customer to walk away to find data and come back — whether it is in medicine, selling a car or working with someone out in the field —  there needs to be an app for that. Having data immediately available can speed up workflows and improve the customer experience.

Is your sales team constantly calling back in to the main office because they are mobile and can not get to the latest data? The sales brochure? A shipment status? If your outside sales force has to call people in your office to ask questions, there should be an app allowing them to access that data without disrupting other employees or stepping away from the customer they are engaged with.

Stay tuned for additional excerpts from Billion Dollar Apps℠.