Build or buy? What kind of workplace app offers the best ROI?

by: | Mar 2, 2017

The market for workplace apps is large and growing quickly. However, according to our recently released research, “Functional but Unfriendly: A Study of Enterprise Mobile App User Experience,” despite expected rapid growth of the digital workplace, the penetration of workplace apps is still in the nascent stages: Only 12 percent of U.S. full-time employees use enterprise mobile apps for their job.

As the industry matures and more companies adopt BYOD policies and come to recognize the power of workplace apps, IT executives and company management will be faced with the choice of either buying a pre-existing, off-the-shelf (OTS) app or developing a custom one from the ground up.

Custom or off the shelf?

There are pros and cons of using an OTS app available through the App Store or Google Play, and building custom apps that are specifically created for one company. OTS apps will likely have a lower upfront cost and are also faster to implement, because it’s fully functional when delivered.

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That said, no two businesses are alike. Relying on an OTS app without company and job-specific features is limiting, and can be frustrating. Ultimately, custom apps that are designed from the ground up for the very specific needs of a company’s users are more likely to maximize efficiency and satisfaction.

For example, imagine you need an application that puts your sales teams digital assets — one-sheets, video demos, slide decks — in one place that would allow them to share easily while on the go. As Apple’s early iPhone tagline suggested, “there’s an app for that.” Box and Dropbox are great cloud storage solutions. But, are there additional features you could include that would greatly benefit your team as well? Maybe a custom front-end that better represents the brand and makes presenting the content more engaging? Maybe product configurators or an integration with your CRM software so your sales team can input notes without leaving the app?

Business leaders and IT departments need to ask themselves and their target users: What are we missing by using an OTS app? What could we gain by building a custom solution?

So, which one is right for my company?

Different sizes of companies and different industries have different needs. According to our survey, smaller companies are nearly twice as likely to use OTS apps compared to their larger brethren. Makes sense: the larger the company, the larger a potential audience of users the more potential ROI for a more expensive custom app.

As for industry, tech company employees are 80 percent more likely to be heavy users of mobile apps for work (use more than one app) compared to other industries. This higher usage might, again, steer a company to building custom apps. Although we expect this picture to change soon; all companies are on a course to become tech companies to one degree or another. Expect other industries to follow.

Comparing UX: OTS vs. custom mobile apps

Overall, our survey results found that off-the-shelf and custom workplace apps perform surprisingly similarly on nearly all user experience metrics. The two types are equally likely to save users time and increase productivity, and overall drive nearly equal levels of satisfaction. And, this is actually one of the most significant takeaways from our research: User experience for custom apps built specifically for one business is on par with more polished, commercial-grade apps created by teams whose sole focus is on widely selling those apps.

Companies should feel empowered to create custom apps to improve the productivity and satisfaction of their employees. If companies can match the user experience and polish that their employees could have with OTS apps — but ultimately offer apps that are more useful and custom to their specific needs — than the future for custom mobile applications in the enterprise (as many analysts predict) is enormous.

That said, there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to workplace apps and user experience. More than one in three (36%) custom app users said they wouldn’t use the app if their company didn’t require them to use it, and one in four (27%) said they could design a better version of the app.

Building a great internal company app starts with treating employees like customers and answering these questions:

  • What customer problem does the app solve?
  • What will get my customers inspired to use this application?
  • How do I keep them engaged while in the app?
  • How do I get them to consistently use it and fully take advantage of its functionalities?
  • How can I turn my customers into evangelists to encourage others to try this app?

Answer those questions, and you’ve taken the first step to creating an excellent user experience.

Learn more about our research

To better understand the current state of workplace apps, employee perceptions and opportunities, download the full research report for “Functional but Unfriendly: A Study of Enterprise Mobile App User Experience.”

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