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Developing Mobile Apps for the Multi-Screen User Base

Alan Radding, Guest Blogger

(A book is the best way to build a consulting practice: ask about ghostwriting your book)

How many screens does a mobile user use? Well, there’s the smartphone and a tablet and don’t forget the wifi-capable laptop or netbook. Then you’ve got myriad iOS and Android devices.

In the BYOD world and now the multi-screen user world mobile app dev is changing. Leading consulting firms, like Capgemini, Accenture, Deloitte, and more have jumped on the mobile app dev wave. But the challenge, however, is getting more complicated by the day.

Even how users work with mobile is changing. For example, they might start with an email message that pops up on their smartphone. When they get into the office they may reply to that message from their laptop. The message might reference a QR code so they might pull out a tablet to bring up the QR code.  Before long they are switching between 2, 3, or more devices, going back and forth between them without even thinking about it. What does that do to mobile app development?

This goes beyond multi-tasking seem. Maybe we should call it something different, like multi-dimensionaling as you jump between multiple mobile screens in the course of completing a task. That’s exactly what Google researchers dub the new norm in mobile behavior.

The Google study, The New Multi-screen World: Understanding Cross-Platform Consumer Behavior, found that 90% of people move between devices to accomplish a goal, whether that’s on smartphones, PCs, tablets or TV. If this is true we need to rethink how organizations design and build mobile apps.

The researchers found that the most popular cross device activities were Internet browsing (81%), online shopping (67%), managing finance (46%), and planning a trip (43%).  Search, it turns out, is the most common ways users continue from one device to another. Although these activities are distinctly consumer oriented, there is a clear business counterpart to these activities. Managing finance is not much different from submitting T&E expenses or planning a business trip.

Where consumers and business diverge is when it comes to online shopping. Over two-thirds of consumers report using multiple devices sequentially to shop online. Of that shopping 19% is planned while 81% is spontaneous, spurred by the smartphones accessibility and the kind of deals, often location-based, that increasingly pop up. Business shopping is unlikely to be spontaneous, at least until Staples starts offering instant groupons on office supplies.

The critical connector in all this turns out to be search, the researchers report. Furthermore, they found that when people use multiple screens sequentially to complete an activity, they often use search to pick up where they left off. That means developers should enable users to save their progress between devices and support keyword parity to ensure that they can be found easily via search when that user moves to the next device, the researchers suggest.

This research, if it is validated by subsequent studies, has serious implications for mobile app developers:

  • Plan apps for multiple devices and formats
  • Apps need to behave as they would on the native device in all circumstances
  • Developers need to accommodate both sequential and simultaneous multi-screen usage
  • Recognize the importance of search and keyword persistence
  • Invest in tools that enable you to code once for multiple devices and formats
  • Design applications that leverage the specific attributes of each device

But there is even more involved here. This kind of usage of multiple mobile devices also suggests that the underlying application and network infrastructure—servers, switches, middleware, storage, security, management, tools—be redesigned for new and significantly different demands and usage models. For some time it has been obvious that mobile is not your father’s client/server or even browser-based computing.  The latest mobile devices are much more and much different than browsers and fat clients. With dimensionaling, that should become more apparent than ever.


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