Business Strategy

Rise of the App Ecosystem (Part 2)

November 2, 2017

  • Nelson Taruc Nelson Taruc

In a previous article, our design team explored an emerging problem facing many companies trying to build a truly mobile workforce: An overload of apps results in a disjointed user experience, which leaves many employees frustrated with the company-given tools that were supposed to make their lives easier.

Fortunately, there is a solution: More companies need to embrace app ecosystem experiences, which at Lextech has two guiding principles:

  1. The best workflow-optimized apps do one thing very well.
  2. The best app ecosystems feel like one app.

Prospective customers often ask us: Can’t they build just one app that does it all?

“From a design standpoint, one of the biggest concerns of monolithic apps is that your navigation hierarchy becomes overly complex when a single app tries to do too many things,” says Cyril Wochok, a senior UX designer at Lextech. “The users of tomorrow are going to want to do their jobs on phones and tablets, and there’s often not enough real estate on these devices to make do-it-all apps work well.”

Brian Mila, a UX designer at Lextech, sees the limits of a single-app approach in more practical terms.

“A gigantic app makes your development and deployment much harder. When you make a change to one app in a suite, you can roll out changes much more easily,” Mila says. “It makes management of apps much easier because you can issue app updates without heavy regression testing.”

Some other reasons for avoiding the “big-app trap” include:

  • It delivers a more digestible experience: The apps needed for one employee may be different than another. App ecosystems can create the “right mix” of apps for different user groups and needs.
  • Robustness: If one app goes down, the others might still work just fine. If you roll everything into a single app, an coding error or hiccup in your data services could cripple your entire workflow.

So how do you design app ecosystems smartly?

Looking back at the app ecosystem experiences he’s crafted, Wochok says everything starts with the workflow: “A great app ecosystem requires some re-imagining of the entire process,” he says.

It also requires more than just designers and developers.

“It’s a coordinated effort with everyone involved at a visionary level,” Mila adds, which means bringing in executives, workflow experts and end users into this conversation.

“Collectively, we need to understand the whole problem and decompose it properly before breaking down the workflow. The worst thing you can do is take a bad process and map it to a bunch of apps arbitrarily,” he says.

Instead, you need to smartly break up the workflow into separate apps. Using this approach, you can get the most critical functionality into users’ hands sooner, rather than wait for everything to be delivered at once.

“Once you have that re-imagined workflow mapped to a potential app ecosystem, you can prioritize which steps in that workflow solves the biggest problems, so you know which apps to focus on first,” Mila says. “This gives you the ability to triage user needs, deploy iteratively and learn user insights using a more agile methodology.”

When necessary, a well-designed app ecosystem leverages the best existing off-the-shelf apps and combines them with custom apps specifically tailored to match user workflows. Some other best practices for creating app ecosystems include:

  • Upfront strategy and vision to build a prioritized app roadmap everyone agrees to
  • Apps with clear success metrics and ways to quickly get feedback from end users
  • Thorough end-user testing to make sure the the app ecosystem design is usable
  • When required, integrating in off-the-shelf apps that have APIs that allow for easy data sharing between them and custom apps
  • Common standards for custom apps to share data easily and reduce multiple data entry

From a visual standpoint, it’s important to establish user experience standards so multiple apps share common interaction patterns, making them easier to learn and more intuitive, according to Linsday Alberts, a UI designer at Lextech.

“As a visual designer, it always comes back to consistent experiences,” Alberts stresses. “The experiences don’t have to be 1-to-1, but it should feel like a family between apps, where the interaction, animation, colors and typography are related closely from one app to another.”

“For instance, you wouldn’t expect Facebook Messenger to look too different than Facebook,” she points out. “They aren’t the same experience, but you can easily see that they’re related.”

The future of the mobile enterprise is not thoughtlessly flooding iPads with more apps, or even building one monster app that does everything. Instead, the future of mobile enterprise should be built on focused app ecosystems that deliver cohesive, efficient and intuitive experiences. With the right app ecosystem at their fingertips, frustrated employees can fully benefit from a mobile-first approach.

What do you think about the concept of app ecosystems? What other questions do you have about them? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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