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Business Is Losing The App Usability Battle

Traditional business applications don’t fare well compared to consumer options. Is it time for companies to focus more on the user experience and less on application performance?

Business use tends to drive a lot of technology advancement. The Web never would have taken off if people had to rely on the lousy home dial-up services of the 1990s. But they knew something better was possible thanks to the fast, interactive Web they experienced at work. The rise of mobile was spurred by corporate-provided "CrackBerrys" and not the minimally capable general-use cell phones of the early 2000s.

But during the last few years we've seen a dramatic change in this dynamic. Now, the office is where people use outdated equipment that runs applications that were clearly not designed with usability at the top of the list. Home is where you have a fast Internet pipe, state-of-the-art devices, and applications that are highly usable and interactive.

The BYOD movement is an example of this switch. Dissatisfied with company-provided smartphones, employees use their own iPhones, Androids and tablets, forcing businesses to adapt to this dynamic or completely lose control over their technology environments.

But this trend is moving beyond mobility and into business applications and services. It used to be that business applications could get away with mediocre design and usability. After all, employees had nothing to compare these applications to, and didn't have other choices.

Now employees know exactly what a smart, intuitive interface looks like. First-generation enterprise social networking apps are met with scorn by people accustomed to Facebook and Twitter. Personal email, calendaring and contact systems are tightly integrated into your employees' everyday lives, but at the office they need to come up with workarounds and extra steps just to make the company email system meet basic needs like collaboration.

What does this mean for IT and developers? User experience and functionality are now arguably more important than performance testing and optimization. After all, most users can get by with minor degradations in application performance. But if an application isn't designed from the get-go to provide a good user experience, that application is dead on arrival.

Luckily, business attitudes toward application functionality and user experience may be changing. In data collected for my report on mobile application performance, 35% of responding organizations said that one of the key strategic actions they intend to take in order to improve application user experience is to perform more functionality testing in the development stage. Also, 55% of respondents said that they plan to use end-user experience to inform application design and changes.

This is a good start, and it doesn't come a moment too soon. Your employees know what a good application looks like, and many enterprise tools suffer by comparison.

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