Montréal/San Francisco – December 9, 2013
There is an ongoing discussion among industry players, VCs, developers, customers as to whether it is worth developing a consumer app or go directly to a business app.
In the classic model of the “PC” days, business applications were purpose-built for a large client, and only later modified to be more suited for “General Purpose” business clients (or at least a wider range of specific clients). Sometimes, the application could even end up in the hands of an average consumer, although this was far from the norm. Say, for example, the United States Army was the initially targeted customer, the second target may be Bank of America, and so on; most of the energy in creating the product would be put towards developing for the specific entities, and one would merely hope that an angle towards mass-market friendliness would reveal itself at some point down the road.
In the new world of “mobile-first”, the paradigm has changed. Given the personal, intimate nature of mobile devices, mobile applications are almost always driven by a consumer need first, business need second. “Joe Smith” is the first user.
Luckily, at some point “Joe Smith” will notice that he could use your app in his day-to-day business. Perhaps “Joe Smith” even works for the United States Army or Bank of America.
And, of course, a large organization like the United States Army holds a much larger wallet than the average consumer. The average consumer is not interested in paying much, if anything, for mobile software. As such, it becomes tempting to create a business app to capture customers who can pay; however, developing a specific business app is fraught with additional downsides.
Legacy / Workflow
The first barrier to entry in the business world is compatibility with existing infrastructure. The benefits of mobile technology are readily apparent, and can be an agent of change for business operations; though businesses have been standardized around Windows PCs for the last 25 years, and asking them to give that up is a difficult proposition. Thus, a business app must fit into the process, workflow or tool chain the company has been utilizing. Fortunately, we have noticed that productivity gains brought about by a mobility-enabled workforce can be so compelling that connecting to legacy back-end systems is less of a deterrent to implementation. Mobility empowers “employees” and workflows can be changed.
Adapting a consumer app to specific business needs requires both understanding and matching the business workflow, as well as development of specific features and handling of specific business data. This could mean developing a different app for each client, which would lead to a support and maintenance nightmare as well as a loss of focus, and sometimes even a change in the nature of the company, as it becomes a multi product- and service-oriented organization.
There is a simple way to adapt consumer apps to business specific needs and workflows.
The key is the ability to customize the app via specific data, rather than specific code. One way to do this is to identify a user upon login, and load the appropriate data that will customize the app. Specific logins can trigger specific functionalities, layouts, and interfaces. There is only one app, one code, one brand, but several data sets for different app customizations.
Using ourselves as an example, we created MagicPlan with this scenario in mind. Our recently released MagicPlan version “3.5” is the first visible release to showcase this vision. Beginning development three years ago, we have spent most of that time developing both the core functionality of our software, as well as adding user-requested, general “features”.
Recently, though, we have noticed a shift, and our users have begun to ask for specific workflow scenarios. The question has not been, “[When] do you plan on adding this functionality?” but rather, “Is it possible to accomplish this using MagicPlan?” The difference may seem subtle, but it is the difference between a feature-incomplete consumer technology and a completed consumer technology being used professionally.
MagicPlan is now moving towards allowing businesses to customize the software. Our partners can have specific client surveys, objects and object attributes, customized interface, export option, reports and more. For example, electricians can bring their own product catalogue into MagicPlan including photos and prices; security companies can generate a quotation for services directly in the app; etc.
In some cases the customization is so deep that it changes the nature of the app; MagicPlan, at heart, creates a floor plan, though we have clients who have transformed it so that the floor plan becomes a way to organize and structure all data collected on-site.
Asia’s leading telecommunications company, Optus, is a tremendous example of this. In the course of doing business Optus must manage very large server rooms. When we began collaboration with Optus, they collected large amounts of data on-site in complex questionnaires (room size, wall type, equipment details, project references, etc.). With MagicPlan, we collect the same information, but instead of being filled out in a long questionnaire, it is all organized via a floor plan; room size and shape as well as servers positioned are visualized in an easy-to-understand, graphical manner. We have customized MagicPlan so that Optus can insert and manage its specific servers and their components, adding specific attributes for each object. While none of this is anything a consumer would use (and consequently is not visible to the average end-user) its availability is key for Optus, and triggered by the user login.
Another partner to leverage MagicPlan customization is Integral Security Systems from Canada. Integral focuses on positive access control through retail entrances. Now, with MagicPlan 3.5, they can incorporate their different gate systems’ specific attributes, giving people in the field the ability to communicate in real time. Both quotes for potential clients as well as installation documents can be delivered in no time.
In this way, we have ensured that any number of businesses can use and benefit from MagicPlan in ways that are extremely specific and tailored to them, while not fragmenting our product or our brand. We remain focused on the core of our product, rather than servicing multiple “important” clients and/or verticals. Customization via user data ensures that MagicPlan can appeal to a broad range of consumers and businesses. Organizations can fit MagicPlan into their workflow to reach markets we never would have imagined.