Android development: How to deliver a successful mobile app for business

Innserve’s director of IT says his firm benefits from flexibility and openness as it develops applications that meet worker requirements.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

"When we decided to make our own mobile app, we knew it could be a mode of competitive differentiation for us," says Kieran Delaney, director of IT at Innserve.

Developing applications in-house on Android is the best way to ensure the right software functionality required for workers at the company, which manages the drinks-dispensing systems for 80,000 pubs, bars and cafes, according to Delaney.

"Android's given us the ability we need to develop the right software over time. Our engineers can use their devices in the field in real time and that data is sent back to the head office and is great for inventory control," he says.

Delaney says the key benefit of Android is its flexibility and openness, particularly in regard to specific hardware – such as barcode scanners and thermal-imaging cameras – that might not be supported across the more limited range of iOS-based devices.

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Innserve technicians use the app to receive their schedule of up to 10 appointments a day, plan their journeys, and record information about each job. When it comes to the hardware, Delaney's team are currently rolling out Panasonic Toughbook L1 Android tablets to its field technicians across the UK.

This device is also used to help technicians place orders and return parts, as well as to give access to emails, HR, payment information, and training videos.

Delaney says planning is absolutely critical for other CIOs who are thinking of developing enterprise-ready Android applications in-house.

"It takes quite a lot of willpower to get those apps over the line and into the field," he says. "There have been times when things have gone wrong, but the better you are at planning, training and testing, the more likely you are to succeed."

Delaney says it's important to have a good beta programme. His team works with trusted technicians who test new features before they're rolled out.

"The first time we made an application, the technicians tore it to bits, but that was great because we fixed all those bits, The second time we made the application, they still tore it to bits. By the fourth or fifth iteration, we were getting there - and the best feedback is when you roll something out and no one was says anything, which means you've pretty much nailed it," he says.

Delaney's team expected it would take a year to build the Java-based app from scratch, but the final tool was ready in six months. Innserve now has 400-plus technicians using the app every day, supported by one in-house specialist developer. New features ship monthly.

"The response has been positive for the most part – but we've learnt from the issues, too," says Delaney. "When we rolled out the final application, the best feedback was that it's easy to use – and that was very deliberate, not accidental. Trying to make it easy and have technicians in mind when developing is key – you have to feel the pain of the people you're developing for. My team spent a lot of time with technicians in the field."

Delaney says this close relationship with the firm's engineers is crucial to success. While CIOs or their line-of-business peers might be responsible for making device and app selections in some organisations, many of the decisions on mobility at Innserve have been made in conjunction with the firm's field service technicians.

"The engineers must have a say in the devices we select – they have to use them every day," says Delaney. "We did a field test with a range of devices, form factors and operating systems. Everything's a compromise, but I feel like we've got our approach right. Using Android means we can accommodate all their demands."

Delaney's focus on user requirements is on trend. Research from Harvey Nash and KPMG suggests almost two-thirds (64%) of organisations now allow technology to be managed outside the IT department. While some CIOs might be reticent about allowing shadow IT to become a fully blown business tactic, Delaney suggests IT chiefs should embrace the move toward business-led technology procurement.

"Consumerisation brings expectations that you should be adaptable and flexible," he says. "People see updates to technology happening very quickly. We don't want to have to say 'no' as an IT team. It can be a challenge, so flexibility is important. It's often about people coming to my team with technology they've found and might even be using in the business."

Some IT directors might question whether Android is enterprise-ready. Gartner says firms increasingly look at Android as an alternative to Apple iOS, but concerns about security and support often act as roadblocks. However, Delaney believes Android has matured during the past few years.

"We can be secure and up to date with new features, and we have commodity hardware that's rugged – the technology comes from Panasonic and is ready to go in the field. Our engineers don't have to wait when new devices arrive, they can just use them and get on with their jobs. And that's key because our engineers are not computer administrators."

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Innserve's relationship with Panasonic provides further backup. The firm uses the provider's Compass enterprise management tools for handheld devices, which provide security and configuration support. Panasonic provides Innserve with a 24-hour device-replacement service for damaged or stolen devices from its service centre in Cardiff.

"Downtime is a massive productivity killer, so anything that can be done to help us deal with that is key," says Delaney. "We have next-day fixes, so we can get workers with broken kit up and working again by 9AM. That's huge for us."

Delaney is also aware of the quickening pace of digital change. While mobile device strategies might once have lasted five years, technology is now often good for just three years or even less, especially for engineers who use cameras and video calling as part of the daily working process.

"Technology evolves quickly – there's still a long way to go for devices in the field in terms of general improvements, particularly once 5G comes online. That will open up new avenues and even potentially areas like augmented reality. We're keenly aware of mobile innovation," he says.

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