Smartphones have sparked a huge, new software segment – the mobile app. This creates an important pair of questions for user assistance professionals: What is our role going forward in mobile and how can we prepare to take that on? User Assistance does have a role in supporting mobile apps. As the mobile app market continues to soar, this is becoming the next frontier for user assistance professionals. This survey is designed to capture some information from our user assistance community about support for mobile.

The survey took place on Survey Monkey from July 22 through August 10, 2015. There were 114 total respondents. The survey offered five multiple choice questions. Here is a presentation of the results with analysis.

Platform support

q1One of the important considerations is whether you will be supporting what are called “native” apps as opposed to web apps. The decision on the type of app will be made in the early planning for the app. For many UA professionals, this decision will often be made before they even get involved in the project.

Native apps are platform-specific applications. They use proprietary frameworks and programming in a compiled wrapper. Apps for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone are all considered native. They follow a regimented development formula. These kinds of apps do not work cross-platform. In the case of iOS and Windows Phone, these apps are also vetted for quality and content. All of the statistics in the previous section were related to native apps.

Web apps are simply web sites that are optimized for use on mobile devices. These apps use the same open source technologies that have been around for many years, including HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc. Web apps can run on any device that has a web browser. There is no authority controlling how these apps are created beyond the web standards themselves. Web apps do not have the high profile that native apps have and so it is hard to find statistics on their overall usage.

The most popular and visible apps are in the native category. Generally, native apps enjoy better performance than web apps since many of the functions are drawing upon the local, internal resources of the device operating systems. Web apps are making constant queries to a remote server for all their operations.

Native apps benefit from established app stores for distribution. Apple’s App Store, Google Play, and Windows Store provide an easy way for users to find, purchase, and install apps on their mobile devices. Web apps require their own distribution mechanism. This can be difficult for mainstream apps. However, corporate web apps have an easier time of it because you have established channels to reach the customers or employees for which the app is designed.

The survey asked what platforms we support. The lead is a virtual tie between Apple iOS (64%) and Google Android (59%). Although Android enjoys a much bigger market share thant iOS, the app eco-system in iOS is much more robust.

Web apps (50%) grabbed in third place with half the respondents indicating support.

Android and iOS as a pair were supported by 54% of respondents. 31% support those two platforms plus web apps. There is clearly a recognition that our apps are being built for where the users are and our UA is going to follow that path.

The Microsoft Windows Phone (15%) and Blackberry/QNX (12%) percentages are low and probably optimistic at that. Microsoft wrote off all of the Nokia purchase this summer and it is unclear how much support there will continue to be in Redmond for building phones. Blackberry continues to grasp for ideas on how to salvage what had once been a dominant mobile platform.

 

Experience with mobile UA

q2It is interesting to see where are peers our in terms of working with mobile apps. Half of the respondents indicated having Completed one or more projects (50%). That is a pretty strong number. It indicates that we are finding opportunities to play in the mobile space as user assistance professionals.

User assistance has an important role in the development of mobile apps. However, it may be difficult to identify opportunities right now. It is important to look beyond mainstream apps and search out apps tailored to specific business contexts. Keep a look out for emerging mobile development in your own organization.

A third of respondents listed No project work yet (36%). There is still a lot of us that may need to catch up. The movement of software from the traditional desktop to small-screen mobile devices is going to continue. Some industries will be slower to move there than others. Even if you don’t see your applications moving to mobile anytime soon, you are still going to find mobile coming to you. Windows 10 – with an awkward detour through v. 8 – is a radically different kind of OS from v. 7. It embraces the touch interaction language and owes a lot to the design aesthetic of Windows Phone, iOS, and Android. “One Windows” effectively links mobile apps with desktop apps through a common codebase core.

The middle is filled out with Well into developing first project (6%) and Just starting work on first project (8%).

The survey doesn’t account for user assistance professionals with no interest in mobile UA. Those folks probably would not take the survey in the first place. There is some data for this in the annual WritersUA Skills & Technologies survey where we find that 46% of respondents support Mobile as a platform.

Types of mobile apps

q3The app ecosystems have changed users’ ideas about how they want to interact and engage with a device. The touch interface has changed how we manipulate controls to get the desired results. The physical limitations of very portable devices affects how we design the software that our customers consume. The entire computing industry has been turned on its head in the span of just five or six years.

The red flag of change is being waved in every sector of the computer software and hardware industry – and that includes the development of user assistance. The UA profession needs to radically change its ideas about how best to provide support information. The old ways just aren’t going to work.

Designers and developers of apps have been forced into rethinking everything about how they work. For two decades, software development was centered around making applications for Windows. Now the focus is on iOS and Android. There has been an unavoidable disruption requiring a rethinking of design, an acquisition of new skills, and building new techniques.

For the user assistance community, the disruption has been less abrupt. For web-based content, it is possible to technically continue creating documentation for mobile devices in the same ways that it has been created for the desktop. Mobile devices are powerful and browser-based and can physically process and deliver as much web-based content as you want to throw at them.

However, experience with mobile users show that it is deceptive to think that it is business as usual for mobile content. Customers simply aren’t accepting of large volumes of information presented in unwieldy, difficult to navigate interfaces. More importantly, traditional designs for user assistance don’t appear to work very well in the newer frameworks.

The survey questioned how organizations are adopting support for mobile and the results were as follows.

A feature-equivalent version of an existing software application (28%) – Some traditional software applications are supporting mobile consumption feature for feature. Responsive design makes it possible to adapt web-based code for delivery on different device types. The Windows 10 One Windows initiative is an attempt to simplify the development of mobile, small-screen equivalents of desktop apps.

A subset of features of an existing software application (38%) – For many traditional desktop software applications, the issue is not how to transform it bit for bit into a mobile deliverable. It is more about adapting one or more discrete pieces of the application into a mobile context. For example, a large scale human resources application might spawn a mobile app that just supplies candidate information for interviewing purposes.

Not connected to any existing software system (10%) – The percentage for this category seems to be a lot smaller than would be expected if we were polling the software industry at large. It is a fair guess that the large majority of apps found in iTunes and the Play Store are mobile only. In other words, they were developed specifically for small-screen, cellular, touch devices. Most of the mainstream consumer apps that people use fit this category.

Not currently developing any mobile apps (24%) – A significant percentage of respondents indicated no activity in mobile app development. This number will probably continue to decrease as mobile devices and usage continues to proliferate.

 

Audience

q4Certainly the nature of our audience is an important factor in how we design our UA. A consumer app purchased through the iTunes store is likely going to have different constraints from a corporate web app delivered directly to employees. There are a lot of ways to slice and dice our audience into categories. The following are onea that seem to broadly cover most of our constituencies.

Enterprise customer / subscriber (69%) – The top vote-getting group consists of apps that service people in a B2B relationship. While these types of apps might be downloaded from iTunes or the Play Store, they often require logon credentials from an existing relationship. This could represent any number of industries and content domains.

Internal user / employee / partner (41%) – Many organizations are decoupling components of large-scale enterprise applications and creating discrete mobile apps. Employees have become mobile with relevant data for human resources, sales, engineering, factory floor, audits, etc. One of the respondents commented that their app for field engineers works in online and offline modes.

General public / consumer (32%) – The most visible types of apps are the ones that are available for free or for a nominal price and which provide us with entertainment, personal productivity, health, news, and travel info. These apps often have to compete with several – or even dozens – of similar competitors.

 

Personal Device Choices

q5Most of us in the user assistance profession now own a smartphone (91%) and/or a tablet (76%). If you don’t have one you should be considering getting one. In the survey, 11% indicated using a phone other than a smartphone. It will be very difficult to get serious about working with mobile software unless you have some personal experience with the devices, apps, and ecosystems. Developing Help for a mobile app without having a smartphone would be like creating Help for a desktop app if you could only view the app on a TV. You can probably get it done but it is not likely to result in great user assistance.

If you are buying a smartphone mainly for your own personal use then the world is your oyster. There are dozens of new choices appearing every month. However, if you’re buying one with an eye on learning about mobile UA, you need to give it a more focused consideration. You’ll need to balance the high cost of the devices and associated service contracts against the value it can provide for your professional use. Hopefully the organizations that employ us will start buying devices for us to work with, just as they provide us with desktop workstations. This is already the case in companies like Amazon and Microsoft. They have in-house inventories of all the popular devices which designers and developers can “check out” for test purposes.

All the automotive manufacturers are figuring out how to support our mobile data addiction. Whether or not it is a good idea to be using apps going 60mph on the interstate, that ship has sailed. Ten percent (10%) of respondents indicated the use of mobile with automotive. Most of the latest activity seems to be tethering a smartphone to the vehicle via Bluetooth or linking to apps through the vehicle’s cellular connection.

A few respondents (7%) are using connected wrist watches. There have been several models over the past couple of years from Samsung, Pebble, Microsoft, and others. The consumer uptake has been slow. With the Apple watch now out, there is more mainstream consumer awareness of this category. Wearables, in general, will likely become more widely used over the coming years.

Comments

Several respondents had comments and they are listed below.

  • Where I work the book paradigm is deeply entrenched, so I’m testing delivery of an eBook to start the conversation…one group likes it (so far).
  • Want a responsive Web/content technology – single sourcing for print, web, and devices – is important
  • I answered “A subset of features of an existing software application,” but I would say that the apps I work on have been both new functionality entirely, and also new functionality that takes advantage of current software features but builds on them in a uniquely mobile and new way.
  • I have created the html format for e-mails sent internally via Outlook or externally using marketing automation software. We ensure these function in Android and iPhones as well as desktop and laptop computers. Others in our group have created mobile apps for iPhone and Android phones that are a subset of our public website pages.
  • No mention of responsive design?
  • We consider our responsive User Assistance site, which was prototyped and tested for iPhone and Android, our first Mobile project (but not a mobile app). I answered the questions above based on our user assistance information strategy. I know that our organization has done some small-scale testing and support for mobile, but I don’t have all the particulars. I’m assuming that we have no “mobile apps” per se, but that is just a guess.
  • Our app was for iPads. We also have a phone app for Microsoft software used with our products, but it’s not something we built.
  • We don’t do mobile apps much. Rather we focus on responsive web design.
  • EPUB supports all platforms