Mobile Apps Require Customer-First Thinking

CIOs need to focus on the ‘mobile moments’ when consumers or employees want to get something done immediately. (Plus, CIOs discuss mobility opportunities and challenges in a CIO.com video.)

CIOs who want to create beloved mobile apps will need to do things that are highly unusual in IT: Go on sales calls, ride along in the service trucks and watch consumers talk in focus groups about what they hate about your business.

Speakers at the CIO 100 Symposium and Awards event in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., said that this get-out-of-the-office strategy is critical to mobile success because it helps developers identify "pain points" and think like consumers or employees who want to get something done – right now.

[Related: CIOs and CMOs Must Work Together to Satisfy Customers ]

"Right now" is the "mobile moment," a point when a company's mobile technology must be able to deliver a compelling service in context, said keynote speaker Ted Schadler, a Forrester Research analyst and co-author of the book The Mobile Mind Shift.

Hint: Your mobile app isn't compelling enough if the smartphone stays in the pocket at the key moment because it would require five clicks to accomplish something.

For consumers, the mobile moment could mean standing on a street corner and being able to score a ride in the city with one click (think: Uber). For employees, that could mean making it easier for a service technician to install a satellite TV dish on the customer's roof.

Schadler said Dish Network equips its field installers with a Samsung Galaxy Note, which fits in the technician's cargo pants pocket (so it isn't left in the truck) and includes a satellite finder in the phone. The developers "knew what to do because they rode around in the trucks and found out what it's like to align a dish on the roof. This kind of ethnographic research is critical to getting the mobile moment right," Schadler said.

[Related: How CIOs Can Boost Mobile App Adoption ]

IT professionals should even consider the user's frame of mind. Schadler said developers have to think about these components of the mobile moment:

  • Who is pulling out what kind of device?
  • What is her motivation?
  • What is her physical and emotional context?
  • Where is she on her journey (e.g., what part of the process or transaction)?
  • What can you do to serve her in that moment?

Rick Roy, senior vice president of shared services and CIO at CUNA Mutual Group, agreed that a mobile development requires "putting the customer first, thinking about what they're trying to do." The business, which serves credit unions and their customers, has developed several mobile apps, including an iPad app for retirement planning that won a CIO 100 award for innovation.

Roy said big challenges include dealing with internal politics among business departments, and creating a robust IT infrastructure so the mobile user's connection to corporate systems doesn't fail and ruin credibility. He also recommended creating multi-disciplinary teams – walled off from day-to-day operations – that can create mobile apps at a fast pace without distractions.

Tim Elkins, executive vice president and CIO at mortgage company PrimeLending, said his company ran consumer focus groups before developing its mobile apps – and got an earful. He heard consumers call the mortgage process painful, a necessary evil, and a mysterious black hole for paperwork.

That led to a mobile app that keeps homebuyers better informed about the status of the transaction and demystifies the process, Elkins said. (The next release of the app will let consumers take a photo of key documents and deliver them to the company's imaging system.)

In general, consumer expectations for what should be feasible with mobile devices are outpacing corporate IT's ability to deliver.

Progressive Insurance recently got the bright idea to develop a feature that lets customers send smartphone photos or videos of their car damage to the auto insurer. But the notion was a bit late, said CIO Raymond Voelker. "It was too late for [building] a business case," he said. "Consumers are already sending them."

Mitch Betts is executive editor of CIO magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchbetts.

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