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Developing Your Own Business App? Customize an Existing App First

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A recent survey of IT professionals and line of business executives by Boxtone indicated that 28% of companies intend to deploy iPads or pilots in the next 3 months. And 73% have intentions of adding these devices over the next year. Amazing, less than a year ago, no one knew what these devices were going to be called, let alone how they would be adopted by business.

In the same survey, more than 50 percent plan to deploy at least one iPad application in the next 12 months. Twenty-five percent plan to deploy at least 3 or more. One of the key decision points facing these companies is which apps will make these mobile device investments pay off.

What exactly do they want their staff to be able to do with these devices?

It’s one thing to have C-Level executives buy iPads for email and reading PDF briefs. It’s a different story for those employees in departments like production, sales and marketing, customer service that have very defined tasks and responsibilities and need a tool to help them be more productive.

Likely, these positions required specialized information to help them do their jobs and justify the mobile device investment.

We talk to a lot of companies about their mobile plans, particularly around sales force productivity. Our business helps companies with these decisions and we developed an app (FatStax) to fill a gap in the business and sales app offering.

Building an Internal App

Many, if not most, companies we talk to are actively evaluating whether to build their own app internally. Some are looking at building several apps and connecting them. These can be apps built for a specific device or web apps that enable one to use the browser to access information.

Key Considerations

  • Not Enough Business Apps

One key driver for this build-it-yourself trend is that the quality and number of business apps are woefully behind App Store categories like games and consumer apps. The best developers in the space are making a good living by creating their own apps in these categories. You can’t blame them, it’s easier than dealing with companies to create business apps with a more limited audience.

  • A Good Development Team is Hard to Find

Developers are in high demand right now, if you haven’t noticed. Maybe you are tempted to use someone already on staff. They have built their own little app and you figure, they are already on salary, what do you have to lose? From my experience, the difference between a game app or a basic information feed app is a very different animal than a business app. Be careful.

  • Business’s Unique Requirements

Another driver is that there is an understandable desire to customize an app to fit the company’s defined tasks and needs. The wish lists are long and getting longer as new apps with cool features expand the world of the possible.

Companies that have or are planning to get iPads are not finding it easy to choose amongst the business apps that are out there since they don’t have the exact requirements they think they need. Apple’s App Store search engine is virtually useless so even if there is a good app out there, it’s difficult to find. The ratings are not as helpful because one person’s negative opinion about a feature might be exactly what another company wants.

  • Business App Hodgepodge

This leads to companies having to discover and compile their own list of potential apps appropriate for their sales force. For example, there are at least half a dozen good PDF readers out there all with different features. What’s right for your sales force? I have all of them. They all work, but are they optimal for your sales process? Right now, selecting apps is at best a hodgepodge, gumming up the process, making it more difficult to manage and train for the use of the apps and the equipment.

Use Existing Apps When You Can

Try and use existing apps as much as possible during your discovery and pilot phases. The use of mobile devices, the iPad in particular, is relatively new for many businesses. Until you use these devices in practice, it’s difficult to anticipate exactly how it will be used. On paper, a list of important features is one thing, but in the real world, the priorities can be changed significantly. For sales forces in particular, it’s hard to anticipate all the needs and possibilities from these mobile apps when talking face-to-face with customers until it is field-tested.

Our field experience has shown that it takes about a month for sales reps using the iPad to “get it”. Figure out how it fits in with their normal sales and territory processes and in what situations will they use it as a primary tool or as a backup tool. That also depends on the apps they are using or testing.

One advantage of using existing apps is that you can discover the features that are necessary in practice. These can feed into an eventual internal app development program, if that’s the goal. Let’s say your committee comes up with a list of key features you think iPad users need. A normal process involves layers of decision makers from different departments all wanting to add or eliminate features. So the process turns into a drawn-out negotiation on features that you really dont know are essential or not. Some companies’ normal business decision processes are failing to keep up with the market.

Another advantage of using existing apps is that they are easily available on the App Store. Distribution of internal apps is said to be getting easier with some of Apple’s changes, but the process is not well documented. Its certainly not as simple as downloading an App from the App Store.

Customizing Existing Apps Reduces Time Frame and Costs

Companies should also consider asking the developers of favorite business apps if they will customize an app for their business. We built FatStax, for example, to be a product database with a robust offline search engine. The basic components of robust search, capacity for large datasets, cloud ecosystem for easy updating, simple interface for users, and emailing product information provide the basic platform. FatStax is easy to download for free in the app store to test the features and we actively talk to buyers that want to customize some elements of it.

Some developers may not be interested in entertaining the customization of their standard apps. However, we see it as a valuable way to help our business clients decide what they need in a sales app and what they don’t. The difference between “need to” and “nice to.” If we can satisfy their requirements, then we can grow with their business. If we can’t, they can take what they have learned and apply it to their own development process.

For a developer, its much easier to work from an existing platform than to start from scratch. No doubt, some projects need that but costs and time frames are reduced if some or most of the building is already completed.

Tell us your experience and comment below.

About J. Rusty Bishop, PhD

I've spent the last 5 years helping great brands create amazing experiences for their sales teams during one on one sales interactions. Helping sales people do their job is my passion. When I'm not working, I am on the ocean fishing in San Diego, Ca.