Business Strategy

Rise of the App Ecosystem (Part 1)

October 24, 2017

  • Nelson Taruc Nelson Taruc

A fellow designer and I were sitting in a restaurant last December, listening to a user clearly frustrated about the apps on his tablet.

“It’s just overwhelming,” he explained, as he swiped through page after page of apps required by his company to do his job. “I can’t even log into some of these apps half the time. When I do connect, it takes forever to sync data. My customers don’t have time to sit and wait for me, so I wind up just using different apps that I’m not supposed to use … but I can’t do my job effectively with what they give me today.”

As designers, we’ve heard this story too many times: As companies pile on more apps to “enable” their employees to work mobile, they often fail to see how this hurts their work experiences.

According to Gartner data from 2016, the average enterprise App Store contains 26 apps: one-third of them custom-built, the remainder off the shelf. Is this good news? For companies that believe mobile experiences are essential to transforming their businesses, you would think so.

Unfortunately, this “rush to mobile” has had nasty side effects, especially for companies that jumped on the bandwagon without thinking through the overall user experience. The result: A patchwork of apps that result in friction-heavy experiences that turn mobile workflows into disjointed ones.

“When users show us the apps they use on a daily basis, we see all these different, inconsistent interfaces from one app to another, which really adds a lot of cognitive overhead to their jobs,” says Brian Mila, a UX designer at Lextech.

“We often also see problems trying to navigate between apps,” adds Cyril Wochok, a senior UX designer at Lextech. “When two apps deal with the same type of record, they can’t easily get that information into the other app quickly. There is no common presentation of data, much less sharing it.”

Some other problems as a result of app overload include:

  • Instead of single sign-on, multiple apps require separate log-ins and passwords that need to be memorized.
  • Instead of fast performance, users are at the mercy of legacy desktop-era back-end systems. Data loss and sync errors are common because these systems weren’t built for mobile workflows where connections could be spotty or non-existent.
  • Instead of mobile-first experiences, swamped IT developers resort to shoehorning desktop experiences onto mobile devices, often without proper design and testing beforehand. Frustrated users give up on these apps, resulting in low adoption.

That last problem often manifests itself in cumbersome user interfaces that work poorly with touchscreens.

From a visual standpoint, “in a lot of existing enterprise apps that users show us, everything we see is jammed onto one screen,” says Lindsay Alberts, a UI designer at Lextech. “Users can’t easily figure out what to do because the design is so cramped and crowded. For them, it’s usually a guessing game before they figure things out.”

Fortunately, we’ve found the best solution to this problem, thanks to our experience and expertise: app ecosystems. In part two of this article, we’ll explain our guiding principles for designing app ecosystems, why they’re superior to a single “do-it-all” app and some best practices your company can follow to create your own app ecosystem.

In the meantime, are you working for a company that’s overwhelmed you with too many apps to do your job? We’d love to hear your stories; please share them in the comments below.

Nelson Taruc is the design director at Lextech and author of the upcoming book “Design Velocity: Accelerate Your Mobile Design Flow.”