Risk of mobile for B2B & enterprise orgs

By Rob Gillham

Many people in the B2B space at the moment appear to be scratching their heads and asking themselves the question ‘what does mobile mean to us?’

Whilst businesses may be unsure of what value mobile creates for them or their customers, many seem to be uneasily determining that they require some sort of app or mobile site simply in order to keep stride with the rest of the world.

Following on from my July blog on user experience design in B2B environments, I have been asked by a number of people about the specific challenge of designing B2B or enterprise systems for mobile.

Whilst there are reports in the public domain like our 2012 Going Mobile study to help organisations design compelling mobile experiences for consumers, there simply isn’t as much data out there to support decision making when designing for mobile in B2B and internal business environments.

Everything I said about B2C versus B2B user experience last time still applies in this context. So rather than add any unnecessary complexity here, I’m going to boil down the mobile debate to a simple statement:

If you are in doubt about designing for mobile – then don’t bother.

Now, before the UX and technology worlds combine forces to smite me down for heresy, first allow me to explain.

Beware Dancing Mobile Bears

There are thousands of new apps and sites being developed and launched for mobile daily. Sadly, a large number of these are often little more than dancing bearware. Alan Cooper coined this phrase in his 1999 classic, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, to refer to software that is created when stakeholders become so excited by the possibility of a new technology that they commission some ghastly piece of design that looks fancy, but basically achieves very little. The name refers to the fact that (putting aside the ethical debate) a dancing bear might be a novelty, but judged by any human standards, bears are simply not very good dancers.

There’s something about mobile that seems to lend itself to the creation of bearware. Large corporations are particularly vulnerable to this tendency, rushing headlong into ill-considered mobile app launches without stopping to consider whether anyone actually wants or needs them (consider this highly irreverent catalogue of useless corporate apps).

Now, that’s not to say that designing mobile apps or sites is somehow automatically the wrong thing to be doing. That would be silly. Mobile is nothing more than a technology – one that can be used to delight or frustrate users in equal measure. The danger lies in the fact that businesses are often under pressure – from internal and external sources – to embrace mobile before they have worked out what they might actually need it for. This sort of thinking tends to lead to dancing bearware.

A lack of genuine insight

A cursory scan of industry insight available online is telling. Googling ‘B2B mobile’ produces a deluge of articles citing facts and figures to convince the reader that it is time for B2B organisations to embrace mobile. However on closer inspection, many of these reports use data that simply highlights the obvious fact that more and more people are using mobile phones. But how does this unsurprising insight actually inform a considered mobile strategy?

There are precious few reports that specifically look at B2B and mobile. So I decided to focus on the few I could find which actually quoted figures from research. I wanted to see whether these findings had a common thread or provided some kind of consensus on the state of the industry.

The arguments made for why businesses which create B2B systems should be entering the mobile domain mostly fall into three categories:

1. ‘More people are using more mobiles for more stuff’

There’s no disputing that mobile ownership and usage is on the rise globally, but most reports do not distinguish between B2B and B2C figures – although it is the latter which represents the majority of usage. These numbers are then used to justify some often pretty flimsy arguments intended to convince organisations that they need to be doing ‘something on mobile’.

An example of this would be an online report from Cisco, which states that: Last year’s mobile data traffic was eight times the size of the entire global Internet in 2000. This sounds impressive, but then Asia’s online population is now as large as the entire Internet population was 5 years ago. So is this truly a really meaningful statistic that tells a business whether or not to engage with mobile?

2. ‘Your competitors are throwing tons of money at this’ (e.g. you’re going to get left behind)

It’s true that a lot of businesses are throwing a lot of money at mobile apps and websites currently. However, if I’m correct in my earlier assessment, then an awful lot of this investment is thrown at producing yet more dancing bears. ‘Everyone else is buying X’ has never been a valid investment strategy, so equally why should this argument apply in other business decisions?

For example:
“U.S. and U.K. businesses are embracing mobile technology at an unprecedented rate, more than doubling their investments in the next year and a half” (cioinsight.com)

Well if this headline was about the return on that same investment, then this might become an interesting finding! As it is, this is a descriptive figure that tells us no more than ‘lots of people are spending money on lots of stuff’.

3. ‘B2B customers are ready for mobile’

This is arguably the most contentious of the three points and it’s a shame, because whether or not it’s true of your customers right now could be a most useful piece of knowledge to support decision making. As it is, those B2B-specific studies I have found tend to fall apart under scrutiny. For example, a 2010 Forbes study for Google makes attention-grabbing claims such as: “53% of executives download & run branded B2B mobile apps”.

  • In fact, only 25% of the polled executives answered ‘Yes’ that they downloaded B2B mobile apps regularly, with a greater proportion (28%) saying ‘occasionally’. For me, this rather waters down the impact of this particular finding.


As you can probably tell, I finished my admittedly unscientific literature review feeling somewhat underwhelmed. I could not find a single example in any of these reports for how mobile solved a problem for a business or their customers.

Right now, the readily available evidence making a case for B2B mobile presence appears to be provided by largely vested interests, technology companies and B2B marketers. The strategy seems to be to produce a vague sense of unease in customers that they should be doing ‘something’ in mobile – or get somehow left behind.

For me, the problem with this approach is that these reports and articles seem to make no distinction between simple brochureware sites, and the more complex systems which one tends to find in B2B and enterprise environments. I’ve already highlighted the dangers of ‘dumbing down’ B2B sites or treating applications as nothing more than a ‘website on steroids’. This is what tends to happen when you oversimplify a complex problem or hand it to the wrong people to solve.

So, marketeers talking excitedly to executives about the importance of being in ‘mobile’ make me uneasy. Getting C-level people excited by the potential for mobile is one thing. However, design strategy driven by nothing more than executive enthusiasm for a technology trend is doomed to failure.

An example of the complexity added by business applications on mobile is the phenomenon ‘bring your own device’ – where users of previously closed systems can suddenly access privileged company data on their personal devices. Imagine your organisation’s confidential data being held on thousands of unsecure, personal devices in the pockets of users scattered around the globe – devices over which you have little or no control. They are stolen, left in cabs and taken with the user when they move jobs. How does this make you feel? Is that something you fancy leaping into blindly?

I’m not pretending for an instant that mobile is not a hugely important consideration for any business nowadays. Nonetheless, a large degree of uncertainty clearly surrounds the opportunities for mobile currently, as far as enterprise and B2B organisations are concerned. High-profile, public design experiments bearing your company’s logo is not the way to resolve this.

What do you think?