Any Port Is a Storm…Potentially

multiplatformIf you are looking at extending an existing application to mobile or from one platform to another, you probably have a lot of competing pressures. Time and cost are high on the list and you can’t be faulted for trying to be quicker and more efficient. But there are other considerations that are critically important to the success of your mobile products. I would encourage you to examine all of your options before doing a straightforward port, which for purposes of this discussion means taking an existing application and converting it, essentially as is, for use on another platform or device type.

In my experience, porting is never as clean, easy or successful as people tend to think it will be. Oftentimes, it’s a mess that requires a lot of rework and pulling people back into a project later to fix things that weren’t done correctly the first time. The result of poor or simple translations? Consumers will delete and socially trash apps that fail to meet their expectations. Employees will resist using apps that were intended to make their lives easier. And perhaps even bigger, missed opportunities.

Before pulling the trigger on platform or device extension, here are three things you might want to consider:

  1. Respect the platform: each mobile platform has specific capabilities, interaction models and conventions that its users expect. Not to mention the extensive developer toolkits and support infrastructure that guide teams on how to build appropriately for the platform. Wholesale ports from one OS to another tend to annoy users on the receiving end, whether they can precisely articulate the issues or not. And then there are the things that just don’t translate well from a development standpoint. Transitions or interactions that were lovingly conceived when making your iPhone app might be a challenge for Android or may not feel right to users. If you are unfamiliar with the new platform, get a device and start using it. Download and use popular apps, paying attention to the way they look, feel and react. Read user reviews to learn what people love and hate about various mobile apps. Look at sites, such as lovely UI, that collect screen shots from a number of apps and look for patterns or solutions that might work for your application or that lead to other directions entirely. If you need some inspiration for motion and transitions, you should look at Alli Dryer’s, CAAPTIVATE, a site that curates animations and transitions for a growing list of iOS apps.
  2. Recognize the opportunity: if you are building a mobile app, you are already committed to some level of effort for creative, UX and development work. This is the perfect time to step back and look at strategic opportunities to improve the end result. How can you better enable your business objectives? Are there opportunities to grow the brand in a fresh way? Can you add another level of value and convenience for your users? If you have an enterprise application that works pretty well for your team when they are in the office and you just want to get it out in the field on a tablet, you could simply create an app with the same features and functionality. But, since your people likely use tablets differently than they do their laptop or desktop computer and they probably have other unmet needs, it might be smarter to look at a broader spectrum of tasks and see if there is a way to smartly package an improved workflow or feature set into the new experience. Or are there other pain points that you could solve by adding a relatively simple feature to the product? The idea is that even incremental effort can result in substantial productivity or satisfaction gains for your business, brand and customers.
  3. Embrace the future: iOS, Android and Windows Phone are continuously evolving. And the speed of change in mobile is constantly accelerating. Think you can’t afford to design and build for the specific OS? You can’t afford not to. The cost of catching up will likely be greater the longer you delay. If not in the UI effort (the major platforms are working to make sophisticated and custom front end development easier), perhaps in the changes you’ll need to support on the backend or eventual refactoring of patchwork code at a time when your focus should be on something else, such as growth or enhanced functionality. And getting reliable data out of a poorly translated app is tricky as the results will likely be tainted by user frustration with an awkward or poorly designed experience. The best way to prepare for tomorrow is to do the right thing today. Learn from any feedback and constantly improve.

The idea that ignoring platform- and device-specific design is what you do to get to market or release sooner/cheaper ignores many potential perils. Your app or mobile product doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be thoughtful, even if you defer some functionality until a later release in order to get it right. Strategists, designers, developers and project managers working together can evaluate the opportunities and costs to help product owners make informed decisions. You may even find that the accommodations you need to make for subsequent platforms and devices is minimal. Just make sure you understand the tradeoffs and the implications for each decision, and what you may be giving up by not looking at fresh opportunities to connect more meaningfully with your users.

And if you plunge headlong into a potential storm, at least you’ll be ready.