Mobile Form and Function: A New Way of Getting Things Done

You are enjoying a beautiful summer weekend afternoon relaxing in the park and then the chaos lets loose.  Your cell-phone starts ringing, not the soft timbres of your favorite Sci-Fi show, but the Red-Alert alarms from Star Trek’s Enterprise.  No, the Klingons and Romulans haven’t attacked, it’s the hot line from IT Support center.  There are problems with a critical system that has stopped communicating.  The problem affects the company both internally and externally; orders can’t come in, invoices aren’t going out and manufacturing doesn’t know what it should be building.  Literally, this system failure may have just given everybody the day off, and you the opportunity to start a new career as a Sherpa taking rich adventurers up the face of Mt. Everest.

Ok, we’ve all had those panic calls, usually at around 3:20am, requiring us to perform some magic to get things running again after something goes bump in the night.  We jump on our laptop, log in to the VPN, perform some investigative wizardry and fix the issue.  But what happens when you are travelling and don’t have a connection, such as a cab ride, on a train etc.  It would be so much quicker to have access to systems via a smart-phone than requiring the need to pull out a laptop to resolve the issue.

Our modern Smart-phones (Apple iPhone, Motorola Droid, RIM Blackberry, etc.) have changed the way we can interact with each other leveraging email and social media, but also our interactions with the systems that we are responsible for.  These devices have wonderful interfaces, rich in detail and access capabilities.  Wouldn’t it be grand to have a universal interface to access our systems from our smart-phones?  However, vying for their own dominance, smart-phone manufacturers each have their own idea of the best interface experience for the end user.  This creates a standardization problem in the IT space about which phones to use.  Your company may have standardized on BlackBerrys 2 years ago and now they want to switch to iPhones.  The problem is that your monitoring software has a BlackBerry component, but not an iPhone component.

Let’s consider the notion of sacrificing a bit of sexiness for a wider acceptance base.  Given that we all like fancy interfaces and the freedom that mobiles offer us, we can still have the best of both worlds and mitigate the problem of vendor lock-in to a specific interface.  The very simple answer is staring us in the face; the good ‘ol webpage.  Static html web pages are nice and would be functionally successful, but there is some new promise with HTML 5.  Offering application-like capabilities and adoption by most browsers, H5 could take a webpage and automatically pare it down into the necessary sections supported by the browser.  This extends the portability of html out to smart phone devices by allowing us to create rich interface experiences that adjust to the form-factor they are viewed on.

Thinking about what we are really trying to accomplish with monitoring software, we have the need to receive alerts, drill down into issue details and then possibly perform some corrective action, such as restarting a resource or re-routing a process to another resource.  You could do this with a pretty interface (think: iPhone, Droid or BlackBerry), but you can also do all of those activities with a simple web-page interface.  And, the kicker is that the web-page doesn’t really care what smart-phone you are using (ok, let’s overlook browser incompatibilities; we just want to click things!).

This idea is not limited to IT-types with some cool technology to manage the systems.  There is also application for Line-of-Business managers, field sales reps and other business users accessing information easily in a small form-factor (smart phone).

When a reduced form-factor is used, we need to think about the limited real estate and make the most of it.  The challenge is to provide information in “layers”, allowing the user to drill down into more content, if they need to.   By layering the data presented, (e.g. an operational view of system health) and allowing drill-down by sections (e.g. comms, transactions, history) the reduced form-factor remains usable.  Icons can also be layered with badges and colorations to convey multiple pieces of information.  The reduced form-factor has to leverage information density to be useful and assistive to the end user.  Operations on the mobile form-factor should be quick and concise.  No one is going to ask Microsoft to simulate Word on a mobile phone so they can write a novel, but they would like to get out to a webpage to perform a function quickly.

Back to our crisis du jour…Clicking on a link in the SMS message takes us to our system operations portal.  It seems that a resource monitoring inbound and outbound file traffic has failed.  With a few taps of the finger and some color-code deciphering (looking for anything blinking red), we find the resource that should be active.  A double-tap and the resource is re-started.  Now that it has started, we tap in to look at the logs and see what happened.  It would appear that a network connection failed, causing our monitor to throw an error.  In this case, that was a good action, alerting us to a failure that may have gone unnoticed for a longer period of time.

Overall, we spent less than a minute trouble-shooting the incident on our smart-phone.  If we had to dig out our laptop (if we even had it with us), it certainly would have taken longer to fix.  These little devices are rapidly becoming a part of both our personal and professional lives.

The real challenge to you is:  Are you taking advantage of this form-factor, either with notifications or a portal, to provide better service to your customers/constituents?

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