Usability engineering for mobile business software

Steinbeis experts establish competence center

Mobile devices are very popular among mainstream consumers and businesses. And the applications for these devices – better known as apps – are judged heavily in terms of usability. If an app isn’t user-friendly it won’t be used, minimizing its chance to meet the demand for increasing efficiency and effectiveness in a business setting. But the development of applications can be difficult, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) because existing systematic approaches are “oversized”. A new development method is now being engineered within the scope of a research project sponsored by BMWi. The “Competence Network Usability Engineering for Mobile Business Software – by SMEs for SMEs (KMUsability)” is aimed at offering a suitable development method to SMEs, one that doesn’t approach mobile software development as a purely technical discipline, but rather integrates usability engineering into the process. Within the scope of the project, the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Usability and Innovative Interactive Systems for Information Flow (UIIS) is establishing a competence center in the area of usability engineering for mobile business software in Karlsruhe. Through its experts, the center brings 15 years of experience in the field to the project.

Neither current software engineering methods nor current approaches to usability engineering are sufficient to SMEs for implementing useable mobile solutions. What SMEs need are suitable processes based on practical templates and useful information services. This would effectively support usability engineering. Mobile business software systems are increasingly showing themselves as viable, even for small and mediumsized companies, as a great way to integrate branch office staff into the organizational information chain.

Implementing the method developed through the project “KMUsability” should lead to the development of competitive, user-friendly mobile products that prove financially beneficial to both the manufacturers and the SMEs using the product. The KMUsability project is a key sponsorship area of “SME Digital” (German: Mittelstand-Digital), an initiative of the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology to promote the development and broad-based utility of ICT applications in SMEs and skilled trade.

In terms of usability, peculiarities of mobile software systems have ultimately led to project failures in the past. To achieve optimal “ease of use”, the developed mobile software must be optimized to “minimal deviations”, and this can only be achieved in real-life situations through active users and early adoption of the software solution or its prototypes. To bridge the knowledge gap between the developer (who knows the technical possibilities) and the user (who knows the specific requirements), only iterative processes are considered. Initial prototypes are used to give even non-technical users an overview of the technical potential and stimulate their creativity. At the same time, existing interaction concepts need to be adopted from the user domain, to show ways in which the mobile solution can be used. Basing the interaction concept of the app on existing platforms means users have a lower learning curve and platform-independent “user experience”. To achieve a maximum of expected conformity, the developers of mobile systems have to have access to this user experience themselves, and they must be able to make comparisons to other, similar platforms. If this is not the case, development projects result in applications that are technically functional, but which do not exploit the full potential of a given platform or offer a recognizable look and feel of the software product. Ultimately, the locations in which the mobile systems are to be used need to be structured, comprehensively analyzed, and documented in order to derive important usability criteria for the development of the solution. Possible security breaches by third-party users of the system must be anticipated and blocked by the application.

The consortium of the KMUsability project is made up of research partners (FH Aachen), industry partners (CAS AG, cluetec, GRÜN Software AG, Yellowmap) and supporting players (German Association of Small and Medium-sized IT enterprises). The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Usability and Innovative Interactive Systems for Information Flow in Karlsruhe bundles methodological competence and also develops target-grouporiented training courses and services related to all aspects of usability engineering for mobile information systems. Key areas for training courses and workshops in the area of mobile business software include usability methods, integration of prototypes and multiplatform development.

The KMUsability project is part of the sponsorship program “Simply Intuitive – Usability for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises”. The program is sponsored within the framework of the initiative “SME Digital – ICT Applications in Business”, a program funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. The aim of this sponsorship is to promote the use of modern information and communication technologies (ICT) in small companies and skilled trade businesses. “SME Digital” is an amalgam of several sponsorship initiatives. This includes the “eCompetence Network for Business” along with its nearly 40 eBusiness guides, “eStandards: Standardizing Business Processes, Guaranteeing Success” and its eleven sponsorship projects, and “Simply Intuitive – Usability for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises” and its ten current sponsorship projects.

Criteria for the development of mobile business software systems

  1. Compared to software for stationary systems, mobile solutions require a lot less attention.
  2. You reach user groups that haven’t previously been reached or have only been minimally affected by office automation (i.e., tradesmen, nursing staff, etc.). Their user domains are generally foreign to software developers who are prototypical office workers.
  3. There are a number of mobile platforms, all with their own approach to user interaction.
  4. The systems are implemented in changeable locations with varying user contexts (light, noise, networks, etc.).
  5. Mobile applications are usually implemented in a third-party infrastructure (such as UMTS networks).
  6. Mobile end devices are often fitted with sensors (camera, GPS, etc.) or with actuated sensors

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