James Robertson – Innovative Mobile Intranet Design

Sean Carmichael

March 2nd, 2012

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With mobile, you simply can’t have as much content on your pages as you do on the desktop. Intranet access within enterprises is crucial and accessing it with mobile devices is beneficial. However, the vast amount of pages and content is cumbersome and impractical for a mobile setting.

James Robertson asks, what are the few essential things users need while they are away from their desks? Addressing this question allows you to pare down the experience to fit the mobile context. Providing quick access, through just a couple of taps, to content that may otherwise be buried on the desktop.

Surprising to some, much of the innovation in mobile intranet design is coming from university and government organizations, notes James. They are finding ways to address the fact that users may be accessing the intranet from different devices, making delivery a challenge. This “bring your own device” culture, as James calls it, also offers new opportunities for the richer interfaces of iPhones and Android devices in corporate settings.

James will be teaching a full day workshop, Innovative Mobile Intranet Designs for Your Enterprise, at the UX Immersion Conference April 23-25 in Portland, OR. Learn more about his workshop and the rest of the UX Immersion Conference at UX-Immersion.com.

UX Immersion 2012 - Agile/Mobile

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Recorded: February, 2012
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Full Transcript.


Jared Spool: Welcome everyone. I have with me a real treat today. We have James Robertson, from Step Two Designs, all the way from Sydney, Australia, which sounds far away, but actually I’m much closer because I’m, interestingly enough, in New Zealand today.

But this sort of Southern Pacific exercise here is to talk about some really exciting stuff that’s happening in the mobile intranet design space. James is probably the person on this planet who knows most about what people are doing in that space because he runs a fabulous set of innovation awards for intranets every year. James, welcome.

James Robertson: Good morning, Jared. How are you?

Jared: I’m fine. Now, at the UX Immersion Conference, you’re going to do this whole day event on mobile intranet design and what makes them innovative and stuff. A lot of what you you’re going to be talking about came out of the awards that you put together, right?

James: Yeah, that’s right.

Jared: Tell us a little bit about these awards.

James: Yeah, we’ve been running the awards for, oh, five years now. I guess a few years ago we said, “Look. Mobile, it’s big. Clearly, it’s big. Everyone has an iPhone or an Android now.” and this is a few years ago.

So this year we outlined the themes we’re looking for, the exciting stuff we’re expecting to see, one of them is mobile, and we got nothing. And that was disappointing.

So next year we said, “Right. We didn’t get anything last year, but look, you’ve had a whole year for this now, so this year, this year is surely the year.” and we got… nothing.

But last year, last year I think the enterprises finally caught up with the consumer space, it moves a little bit more slowly, and we’ve started now to see some really interesting stuff.

Jared: So, the types of stuff that you’ve been getting now is coming in and it’s really focused on a bunch of different areas, right? Some of it is productivity related stuff and some of it is looking at taking advantage of things that you can do when you’re not at your desk.

James: Yeah, that’s right. We had a few really remarkable entries: one was from UK Parliament, another one was from Queensland University of Technology, and the third was The Five, which is a big multinational. Certainly for the first two, they’d independently come up with the one critical question, which is, what are the handful of things that staff need when they’re away from their desk?

Because what you don’t need, you don’t need a mobile version of your intranet. You know your 5,000, 10,000, 100,000 page intranet is not the easiest thing to use, even on a big screen, and my goodness, we don’t need that on a mobile.

So I think both these organizations, both Parliament and QUT, both said, “Wait a second. What are the few things, the six or eight things that the people need, that they require when they’re actually wandering about or at meetings?”

And they came up with quite different answers, but, as you say, it’s a lot about productivity, it’s a lot about having access to some of their key tools. I mean some stuff is obvious, things like having access to your staff directory on your mobile.

You think about how many times you might need to look up a phone number when you’re not at your desk. You’re running late to a meeting and you need to give someone a ring, or you’re in a meeting and want to pass across a number, or you’re on the bus, or you’re at a client site.

And yet, I’m amazed at how many organizations don’t yet have this on their mobiles for staff. I mean it is such the killer app. So hopefully, with some examples now of what this looks like — and by the way, it looks incredibly simple — hopefully now we’re going to see a lot more organizations do this kind of stuff.

Jared: Well, I’m intrigued that, of the three organizations that you mentioned, one of them is a government organization, another one is a university organization.

These are not what I typically think of, and maybe it’s just an unfair stereotype on my part, but it’s not what I think of as organizations that invest in leading edge technologies and are out there before the big multinationals and the organizations that are focused on squeaking out profit out of every corner and looking for the technology capabilities to do that. Here you have organizations that in both cases, if I’m not mistaken, are hundreds of years old, right?

James: Mm-hmm, yeah, that’s right.

Jared: And so, these organizations predate technology, let alone mobile technology, and yet, they are doing some of the work on the forefront.

James: Yeah it’s funny. I think, to a certain extent, they’ve become innovative because they had no money, they certainly had no budget. Let me take the UK Parliament example, that was delivered in a hurry, because, you may have heard, there was a small change of government in the UK and a few new Parliamentarians came in.

So there was this small window of opportunity to deliver some new capability for all these fresh faces. They basically had a guy in a Metallica T-shirt, I’m reliably informed, sitting in a corner for a couple of months, who just wrote the mobile interface with a budget of nothing.

Likewise with the university, on the central team there was a couple of guys working on the side as a hobby, and again, they cranked it out in a couple of months. That was I think the thing that really jumped out to me, was that the really elegant solution is the simplest. It’s one of those solutions you look at and you go, “Gee whiz, why didn’t I think of that?”

But by simplifying down, rather than going, you know, “Hey, we need this massive enterprise strategy. We need to spend millions of dollars going off deploying new tools and buying stuff from vendors.” these organizations went, “Well wait a second. It’s just the web, right? It’s HTML, mobile-friendly HTML, but we know how to do HTML. And it’s a handful of pages, really great pages, but this can’t be that hard.” And it isn’t.

Jared: So is that what much of the stuff you’re seeing is these days is web based mobile versus native apps?

James: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, talking with the award winners in my travels, they were confronted by the fact that there are a pile of different devices floating around organizations, obviously Blackberrys originally, particularly in bigger corporates.

But if you look at, say, UK Parliament, they told this really funny story, at least it’s funny to the English. But they talk about, well, each of the Parliamentary parties was given a mobile device, as a standard thing. And so the question was, I guess, what did people get?

The Tories, which is a kind of conservative party, what did they get? They got a Blackberry. OK. So then Labour, which is, in theory, the more left wing party, or central party I guess, what did they get? Well, they got iPhones. Then the liberal democrats, the Lib Dems, who are definitely the left wing group, who are definitively not the two other parties, what did they get? Well, not what the other two parties got, so they all got Androids.

Jared: Wow.

James: So now you’ve got three groups, three stereotypical purchases. There’s now three groups with three different phone technologies, so you cannot deliver an app. So to get cross-platform compatibility, really, web’s the way to go, and that is, of course, you can do more and more with HTML5 as time goes on. And as you see organizations, I guess, noticeably, like IBM and Cisco and people like this starting to do BYOD, bring your own device.

Jared: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. A lot of folks are for their corporate enterprise, this is a really different strategy than what they had on the desktop. A lot of people can’t use their home computer on the desktop except VPN-ing in, and even then they’re not guaranteed it’s going to work.

Because IT controls all the systems and as a result lots of folks run on technology that is now dated by years, big and bulky and slow, because it’s too costly to replace all that hardware. But, in mobile, it sounds like now you use whatever you’re bringing with you, right?

You use the phone in your pocket, or the iPad Tablet, so that means less control over the final delivery device by the IT folks, right?

James: That’s the theory. There have been a small number of high profile organizations that have gone down this route. I think the primary driver for this is not the millennials that I’ve heard written about in various articles, but it’s actually the senior executives.

The senior executives have all said, “I want an iPad.” or, “I’ve already bought an iPad and I’ve bought my iPhone and I want this to work on the network.”

That’s great in the sense that, as you say, it starts to close the gap between the incredible consumer technology and the pitiful enterprise technology. I feel like desktops in enterprises are still running Windows XP, in many cases.

So it may be great, right? We’re going to finally get the enterprise into the modern age, but it’s a hell of a challenge. I mean it puts immense pressure on IT. It puts immense pressure on web teams and intranet teams who are suddenly told, “Well, the CEO has got his iPad and next week he wants to be able to not just read his emails, but get his briefing notes for the executive retreat. Can you please deliver something?”

But there’s also a lot of very valid questions about security, about what happens if phones are stolen, or even just support and compatibility. So I think, as a minimum, we’re going to have to deliver enterprise functionality via HTML, because if BYOD isn’t in place it is certainly threatened.

But there’s a big learning curve I think for organizations to work out really what this means and how to actually deliver it in some practical way.

Jared: In addition to the contact address book app that you talked about, what are some of the other interesting things you were seeing in the award submissions?

James: It’s a few things. At Parliament it’s about the Enunciator, which is a strangely named thing that does have several hundred years worth of history. It’s the announcement of what is happening at this moment in the Houses of Parliament, so what bill is being debated in the houses or what question is being covered in committees.

It’s up on the screens all over the place, including in a pub down the road apparently. But the MPs absolutely need to know this, because the bells ring, and there are actual bells and they ring, and then they’ve got a certain number of minutes to get into the chambers before they close the doors and they vote, so you need to know exactly what’s happening.

So this is their killer app on the phone, is that they might be out in a restaurant or in a meeting room, almost certainly not at their desk, having secret meetings and back door negotiations and [laughs] all the rest of the…

Jared: Like you do.

James: Yeah, as one does. So in their phone then they’re able to say at any given point what’s happening. That’s a republishing of content that already exists on the intranet, so it’s not a duplication. In the university example I think that’s even more compelling. There’s a couple of screens that has things like exam results. See it just says “exam results,” and you go in. There’s a list of the subjects, and you click on the subject and you find that there is your exam result.

That’s interesting for two reasons. First off, it’s not “My Exam Results”, all that ghastly stuff you get on intranets you know, “My Favorites,” “My Tools,” which of course are not my tools. They’re set corporately. There’s a kind of fake personalization. Well, you don’t get that on the phone. It’s just “Exam Results” because of course our phones are personal devices.

Of course it’s my exam results. It’s my phone. It’s in my pocket or in my handbag. So it starts to really recognize that these are absolutely personal devices now, and we need to treat them as such. So that really starts to transform the way we deliver information compared to the clunky way we do on the desktop.

And it also means, the other exciting thing about that is, say you look at it and OK, there’s the exam results, something that students probably care a fair bit about. There’s two clicks to get there, and it’s just presented. Now if you look at what you get in the desktop, then, well, there’s your e-learning system, your LRMS. And you go into that and no doubt there’s a click from the intranet home page, and then you hopefully don’t have to put in a new username and password.

Then you’re in this whole system, and it’s going to be either Blackboard or Moodle and the cast of universities. Much clicking later you will eventually find your way to the area of courses and course information. Much more clicking later you eventually get to the exam results. If you look at what intranet teams have been asking for, it’s like, “Well, can we on our ‘student portals’ have that stuff on the home page?”

“Oh, no. No, no, no,” says IT. “That would be way too costly. It’s complex. Look. If we do that kind of integration, there will be problems with upgrading. Oh, no. Look. Look. No. All we can do is link to it.” Yet it’s on the mobile. It is, in fact, integrated off the back end. It has just quietly drawn stuff out via APIs. It’s easy.

Now, I think, I wonder whether there’s going to be a reverse takeover from mobile to desktop, where people go, “Well, wait a second. If it’s this simple on my mobile, because it has to be that simple, why is it so awful on the desktop?”

Jared: Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that because that’s a question that’s come up before. Luke Wroblewski has been talking about that, too. His thinking is that if you design mobile first, then suddenly it changes the way you design your other experiences like your desktop experience. I think that there really is something to this.

I mean we’ve seen it so much that Apple has changed the way you scroll on the desktop to match what was going on on their IOS devices, which that was not an easy decision to make.

James: Yeah, that’s awful. I’ve just upgraded, and can I just say…

[laughter]

James: …I’m complaining. So I think where done properly, yes, and that example I think is horrendous. But you’re right. I think Luke’s spot on because you can’t waffle on a mobile device. You can’t deliver 500 pages of stuff where five would suffice. I think it forces a focus on simplicity and also I think productivity.

That mindset, if applied to the desktop, would transform a lot of what we do particularly in enterprises where there is a lot of very clunky user experience.

Jared: It seems to me that in the intranet world where budgets are often very constrained and projects have to be turned around very quickly that taking this idea of looking at that mobile experience first, figuring out what those essentials are, that would pay off really well. Particularly because you’re doing it in HTML, transferring that back into what you use on the bigger-screen devices, that’s got to pay off pretty fast I would think.

James: Yeah. The 80/20 rule applies here. There’s absolutely no question that 20 percent of tasks generate 80 percent of the usage within organizations. Yet the funny thing is most intranets spend their majority of time on the 80 percent and not the 20 percent. So huge amounts of time are spent sort of structuring or restructuring corporate services areas, HR policies, finance documentation, and stuff like this.

But that’s not the stuff that people need to do frequently. Often it’s actually out at the front line and in operational areas where people are out doing tasks dozens or hundreds of times a day. If we take that principle from the mobile as you say of focusing on a few key things and designing them well, then I think we could generate immense productivity gains within organizations.

If there’s one message I think from this year’s award-winners, is that great design, great solutions, doesn’t cost much. In fact often the less you spend the better the [laughs] solution. That’s I guess been a key thing for all five of the years of the innovation awards, not just on mobiles more generally, is to get people to realized they don’t have to do big solutions, that actually a collection of small well-focused solutions often gets a much better result.

Jared: I wonder if this is how it plays out, right? When you do a small solution, typically first you don’t have the whole eyes of the organization on you every moment because you’re not spending a billion, gazillion dollar budget, right?

You’re doing some sort of thing, and you get a chance to put it out there. Because it was small, it didn’t take a long time to get out, which means that you get feedback pretty quick. And because it’s small you probably get feedback just from a handful of folks, but it’s really good feedback. And you can then change it because it’s small. It doesn’t take much effort to change.

And then you’re iterating a lot more instead of having to get it right the first time type mentality. As a result, the end product after all that iteration and after all that really quick change involves you learning so much about what works and what doesn’t that it makes it easy to do other small projects. Do you think all of that becomes true?

James: Oh, absolutely, and Parliament provides a great example of that I think. I mean they talked about one of their expected killer apps was maps of the Houses of Parliament because it’s four or 500 year-old building. Actually they’ve got multiple buildings, and they would get lost a lot. So they thought, “Right. Maps. Maps on the mobile device. Brilliant! Now they can possibly even tell you where you are.”

So they worked at this, and then fairly soon though, the security people popped up and had a quiet word and said, “Well, look. Actually, maps. You are aware that the Houses of Parliament are the number one terrorist target in the UK and that it’s actually a state crime to release accurate maps to people who are not staff?”

Jared: Really?

James: So it’s like, “Ah.”

Jared: [laughs]

James: So they talked with security, and I added extra security on the devices. Frankly, I ended up having to reduce the level of detail of the maps. So what they actually delivered were crap maps.

Jared: [laughs]

James: And look. As it turns out, crap maps aren’t that useful. In practice some new MPs discovered there’s a, you know, policeman or a security person practically inside of anywhere they go. They can just ask directions. But they didn’t spend a lot of money on this, and to your point, they launched it. Version two, well, they’re going to take it out, and they’re actually asking them to allow them to simplify the security access to the mobile device.

And you know, had they done more research, had they had more time for more research, they may have uncovered that. But even without that, they’ve learned valuable lessons. They can make improvements. They’ve already got a pile of new opportunities on the horizon including giving iPads to all MPs, which has got a bit of news coverage. So yeah, that success has bred more success, and I think that’s absolutely the point that you’re making.

Jared: Well, I’m very excited about the workshop that you’re going to be teaching at the UX Immersion Conference in Portland in April because it’s really the first time that I know where any major user experience conference has looked at mobile intranet design in any detail. And because I think there’s so much opportunity in this space, I think it’s going to be great that it’s on the program.

More importantly, I think it’s great that you’re the one who’s leading the workshop because all the experience that you have in this and all the folks you’ve talked to I think will really help people create really great designs and do it in a way that meets budget and gets productivity out there without having to, like you said, put in these billion-dollar vendor contracts.

James: Yeah, and I think I’m looking forward to making the participants work hard because I have high expectations about the brilliant folks that will be attending. We’re going to collectively work hard. We’re going to be as a room scribbling designs and looking at what the future of enterprise mobility looks like. I know I’m going to learn an awful lot as well.

Jared: I think that’s really exciting. I love when we have a chance to do a full-day workshop on a topic like this because you really do get to the areas of this that are filled with subtlety and nuance that you really can’t cover in a half an hour or a 45-minute talk. My sense is that what separates these award-winners from folks who just do a meager job is really that sort of nuanced design element that takes something from being crap as you put it and make it into something really useful.

James: Yeah. I think it’s design, and I think it’s value. It’s business value that they deliver, and that’s definitely what we’ll be exploring in the workshop.

Jared: Well, fabulous. Fabulous. So everybody, if you want to hear more from James, you definitely want to sign up for his workshop at the UX Immersion Conference, which is going to be at Portland on April 23-25. You can find out more information at Uxim.co. James, thanks for taking this time to talk with me from all the way in Sydney.

James: My pleasure. Thank you for interviewing me all the way from Wellington, New Zealand.

Jared: Yes, yes. [laughs] I came just to do this interview. It was easier than trying to do it from home.

James: I’m honored.

Jared: [laughs] And I want to thank our audience for spending another bit of time with us, and I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you for encouraging our behavior. Talk to you soon. Take care.

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