We live and work today in a decidedly multi-device world. Desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones—most workplaces today are flush with hardware of all sorts, and IT must account for them all. Employees want to be able to do their jobs where they want and with the device best suited to that location and task. That means enterprise applications built and supported by IT departments must work and scale well across all those devices. They must function properly, over varying network connections—and sometimes no connection at all — and must be viewable on screens of all sizes.
Properly aligning enterprise application design with corporate device strategies can be challenging, but best practices have emerged that are worth noting as your company wrestles with this important challenge. In this article, we detail the device trends impacting businesses today and examine the application design philosophies enterprises are using to make apps accessible wherever, whenever, and however their employees require.
One of the best ways to assess the types of devices being used in an enterprise is checking one’s own briefcase or carry bag. Likely it contains a laptop, a smartphone and possibly a tablet, often supplemented by a desktop PC or docking station/monitor back in the office. And that’s not even accounting for the growing number of devices such as smart watches.
Indeed, it’s a much different device world today than even a few years ago. As recently as 2010, according to the research firm IDC, PCs still made up the bulk of so-called smart connected device shipments, with desktop PCs and notebooks together accounting for 52.5 percent of shipments versus 44.7 percent for smartphones and 2.8 percent for tablets. By 2019, the shift toward more mobile devices—already underway—is expected to be complete, with smartphones accounting for 77.8 percent of smart device shipments and PCs (11.6 percent) and tablets (10.7 percent) bringing up the rear.
Yet, even as device usage shifts to smartphones, no two smartphones are quite alike. For instance, phablets—smartphones typically ranging between 5 inches and 6 inches in screen size—accounted for 20 percent of the smartphone market in 2015, which is expected to grow to 32 percent by 2019, according to IDC.
As anyone who has used devices of different sizes can tell you, consuming websites and applications can be a much different—and frustrating—experience given variances in system performance, and especially screen size. Many public websites still lack mobile versions, making them all but unviewable and unusable on smartphones. While evolving mobile application design techniques have made it easier to build apps that scale across devices (more on that later), many apps fail to scale properly from the desktop to the small smartphone.
Given those challenges, the first step any IT organization must take is understanding very clearly the devices being used by employees. Back in the day, controlling device usage was simple. So-called “corporate-liable” devices—or devices issued and paid for by the company—were the norm, and thus could be standardized across the organization. That made it much easier to match application design to device specifications. But things are much different today. Like it or not, most enterprises today must deal with varying degrees of “bring-your-own-device” reality, with IT forced to support a wide range of devices. Indeed, 70 percent of mobile professionals are expected to perform at least some of their work on a personal device by 2018, according to research firm Gartner. That means IT must not only build apps to the varying capabilities and screen sizes it knows about, but those it doesn’t know about as well.
Given those realities, IT managers must adopt applications that adjust to the device the users have available. Thankfully, application developers have developed techniques to address just this problem. Some best practices are common across all techniques: minimize oversized images; simplify menus and navigation; leverage fluid rather than static layouts; and keep forms minimal and easy to interact with. Beyond those web and mobile design basics, two general approaches to application design have emerged:
At its most basic, responsive design focuses on building apps that can change fluidly and respond to any screen or device size. The responsive design approach is characterized by style sheet-driven design using grid percentages and flexible images, type and even video embeds.
Given the religious arguments around responsive versus adaptive design, it’s possible to fall down a very deep rabbit hole trying to determine exactly which approach is best. Responsive design renders apps on the client-side, delivering whole web pages to the browser or app engine, which then changes how the page appears on a particular device. That can simplify development, allowing developers to build a single page or app that can adapt to many different devices. Adaptive design, meanwhile, is managed on the server-side. The server detects the attributes of the device and loads the version of the site or app best suited to the device dimensions and native capabilities. That can result in better client performance while also making it easier for developers to tweak the design for a specific device without impacting performance across all devices.
In the end, and for our purposes here, what is most important is that application developers today have mature and well-tested techniques for building apps that can be viewed and used on a wide range of devices. There is no reason to deliver mission-critical apps that work on an island—only on the desktop or in a dumbed-down way on the smartphone.
In today’s multi-device enterprises—where many of those devices are outside of IT’s control or even knowledge—it’s critically important to closely match application design strategy with organizational device realities. In smaller businesses, a simple device audit can help paint a picture of target devices. In larger organizations, a mobile device management platform can help IT better manage devices, from corporate-liable to BYOD, while also providing tools to begin putting in place a well-aligned application design strategy. Today’s workers require apps that scale across all devices; IT today has the tools and techniques to make that happen.