And four ingredients to make them irresistible
In my inaugural Mendix blog post a few weeks ago, I shared my excitement about the style of application development that Mendix supports. These apps are typically built in an iterative approach, focus on business outcomes and are small and nimble.
Analysts like Gartner and Forrester refer to these type of applications as Systems of Differentiation / Innovation and Systems of Engagement respectively. These apps are supplementing and extending the so-called systems of records; the transaction backbones like ERP, policy administration or core banking systems.
The need for more agile and engaging apps has become quite manifest as consumer demand and expectations for interacting with suppliers of goods and services have fundamentally changed. And not only consumers; employees and business partners demand the same user experience for enterprise systems as they are getting with all the social media and consumer apps that have become part of their life.
Traditional systems of record simply can’t cope with the pace of change required to respond to evolving needs. They’re also not providing businesses with the competitive edge that’s needed to stay ahead in the game.
As I see huge potential for business operations improvement by adopting this style of application development, I was wondering if the concept is getting adopted more widely in our industry.
Interestingly enough, I recently became aware of a new start-up called Elementum that spun off from Flextronics, one of the world’s leading contract manufacturing companies. Elementum is backed by highly prominent investors.
The Elementum proposition is to address the unique supply chain challenges that OEM manufacturing companies are facing in their global supply chain operations. Supply chain made simple. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Deborah Gage, Nader Mikhail summarizes the key differentiator of Elementum as follows: “Most players have looked at this space and said, let’s build a big system to help you run your supply chain. We say, there are 50 unique problems that an OEM has to deal with, and each one deserves a bite-size app.”
The benefit of this approach is that “The software can be deployed in weeks instead of the months or years required by older supply chain software.”
I like this “bite-size” label, and it’s intriguing to see it popping up in an enterprise context for apps that address complex business challenges.
While Elementum focuses on building a series of standard apps to address specific supply challenges, organizations across industries are turning to app platforms to enable business and IT to rapidly build those bite-sized apps in collaborative fashion. The philosophy is very similar though. And one thing is sure: this movement is for real.
Shorter time-to-value in this context actually delivers a two-fold benefit. Not only is the time and effort it takes to build and deploy these apps significantly reduced. More importantly, as they are fit-for-purpose and address very specific business challenges, the value that they bring is increasing as well. They’re bite-size apps that boost your business.
Bite-size Apps made irresistible
Now, having a platform to build bite-size apps doesn’t guarantee that success comes automatically. Here are four principles, ingredients if you like, that I recommend you to apply to deliver great apps that users will love.
- Focus on the Business Outcome
It sounds obvious, but focusing on the business outcome is probably the most critical principle. However, it’s often easier said than done. The best way to achieve this is to involve the experts from the business directly in the app delivery cycle. There’s no one else who better understands what needs to be achieved. Support for direct involvement of business stakeholders in app development puts some fundamental requirements on the application platform:
- First of all, it should support model-driven development, which means that an application is designed and built by using graphical models. Also these models should be at the right level of abstraction for a business stakeholder to really understand and comment on the model, and for the developer to build robust and powerful apps with the ability to leverage open standards and technologies in conjunction with the model.
- Secondly, the platform should support the whole App Delivery Cycle, not just the development part. It all starts with capturing the requirements from the business stakeholders and logging them as user stories. The user stories are prioritized so that the most important ones are delivered first. During development it should be traceable which user stories are actually covered in the models. Users should be able to validate the same and give their feedback straight from the user interface.
- Keep them small and release fast
It’s very tempting both for business stakeholders and IT to make the apps too big. Business users, through their experience with traditional app development, may feel that there is this one-and-only chance to get their scope in. Developers, accustomed to long and tedious release cycles, may want to build scope substantial enough to keep the balance between lead time and effort of development and the activities for test and acceptance. The reality is that the bigger the project becomes, the bigger the likelihood it will be derailed. Keeping the app small and bite-sized and applying a higher pace for release allows you to test and learn way quicker than in the traditional waterfall approach. Remember: you’re not building an ERP or insurance policy back-end! Develop some tolerance for imperfection. The next release is just around the corner…
- Make them modular
What if manufacturing companies would still apply techniques from the beginning of last century? Our economies would not have grown at the rate we’ve experienced over the last few decades and consumer and capital goods would have stayed incredibly expensive. In modern manufacturing, the smartest companies strike the right balance in applying Make-to-Stock, Engineer-to-Order and Assemble-to-Order principles. It strikes me that in IT, we seem to support two flavors only: commercial off the shelf (i.e. Make-to-Stock) and custom-development (i.e. Engineer-to-Order). Why aren’t we applying the same Assemble-to-Order concept that had such a dramatically positive impact in the manufacturing world to drive down the cost of complex products and increase variability?What if the application platform came with an App Store full of re-usable modules and widgets that developers can easily use in the app they’re building? What if such a module or widget wouldn’t disappear in the larger constellation, but be recognizable and interchangeable as a self-contained module during the entire life cycle of the app? This would be a significant productivity booster! Developers should be able to create new re-usable models themselves as well, publish them for public or private use to the App Store and leverage them in various other applications.
- Deliver a great User Experience
There’s this saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” and it’s so true. If you aim to make your apps engaging for customers and empowering for users, you can’t spent too much time and effort on creating a great user experience. Not just the look and feel but also the usability. So the application platform should support responsive UIs and flexible layouts to deliver the best user experience across various (mobile) devices. By adopting standards like HTML5 and CSS3, as well as popular frameworks like Bootstrap, you can style your apps as per your needs and requirements easily and cost-effectively.
Innovation at your fingertips
Software companies at the forefront of technology development are now offering viable alternatives for traditional IT approaches. The days of daunting IT projects that take ages before solutions are delivered seem to be numbered.
The good news is that you can try and experiment this approach yourself. Just sign up for our Community Edition and find a buddy from IT or the business (depending where you come from) and discover how easy it is to build that app that boosts your business.
Need to be convinced? Have a look how Dun & Bradstreet adopts this style of apps to deliver value to their customers and partners.
Would like to learn how Mendix supports the four principles to build irresistible bite-sized apps? Download our e-book and see how you can break away from the traditional app delivery model.