Do you need an App ..?
Updated: Apr 17
If you’re ever responsible for procuring some new software for your company, you’ll probably find yourself asking your potential vendors this question:
“Do you have an app?”
I work as a Totara partner, and I’ve been asked this question many times. And I’m proud to answer that “No, you don’t need an app.”
I think this question comes from the right place. What you really want to establish is ‘can our staff easily access this software using any mobile device or tablet?’ In response to this question, the answer with regards to Totara LMS is a resounding “Yes”. When you look at the requirement as ‘easy mobile access’, suddenly an app doesn’t necessarily seem like the best option.
I used to work with a big name closed-source LMS provider that offers an iOS and Android app. Setting it up was really awkward – you had to go to your profile on the website and find a unique (and really long) code. Then on the app, you set up the site domain and add your special code. Once you’re signed in, you get a weird, restricted version of the LMS, where most of the functionality you’d actually want isn’t available. It really wasn’t a good experience, and in my role at the time of LMS administrator for the company that used this LMS, I deemed it completely useless and not worth trying to get our staff using it.
Especially with regards to enterprise software, the app solution poses all sorts of interesting challenges. Let’s look at a few of them.
Getting the App
Are all your staff comfortable with using an App store?
Even getting the app onto devices can be difficult! In my old job, we didn’t call our LMS by the name of the software – we had our own branded name for the organisation’s LMS. Similarly, our Totara clients generally don’t refer to their LMS as ‘Totara’ – they like to call it ‘Learning Hub’ or ‘My Learning’ or similar branded names. So getting their staff to search on the app store for ‘Totara’ would be a bit confusing.
A few nights ago, my Dad phoned me and asked if I’d help him sell some furniture on Gumtree. He was using his iPad, and he’d been able to create a listing and write the description – he was just having trouble attaching photos.
“Are you on the website, or the app?” I asked.
“Well, maybe you should try and do it in the app?”
“Oh… no. I don’t do apps.”
“What do you mean? You know how to install an app!”
“Well, I don’t know… no, I don’t really do apps. It’ll tell me my software is out of date, and I don’t want to update it because it will make everything slow… no, I can’t do that.”
I offered to update his listing if he emailed me his photos, which he was grateful for. (What can I say, I do tech support. I’m good at that sort of thing.)
His resistance to go to the app store, search for an app, install the app, sign in to the app… it’s understandable. I’d never really thought about the app store as a barrier to entry, but for some people, it is.
Many mobile apps offer stripped-down functionality compared to their full desktop equivalent. This is partly due to the nature of the devices – to give a Totara example, completing some old eLearning that was designed for a 13” desktop monitor on a mobile phone with a 4.5” display isn’t much fun. But quickly logging some CPD in your online journal, that’s easy, and being able to do that from anywhere is super useful.
Sometimes though, this seems like it’s just to simplify the development of an app. Picking the key 10% of functionality that users will want on mobile devices and building app that enables this is obviously much simpler than building an app that offers 100% of the functionality.
But as an administrator, I love having access to all of the functionality of Totara on my mobile phone. I’ve built audiences, run reports, and even changed the logo and CSS code on a site before a demo all from my phone. And your users out there – trainers, managers, even learners – will all have something that they want to use from mobile that wouldn’t get included in a stripped-down app. Why restrict them?
Above: 1 of Facebook's 60 testing racks, holding 32 smartphones.
An interesting story caught my attention recently. Salesforce have announced that starting from their Winter ’17 release, their Android app is only going to be officially supported on recent Samsung Galaxy and Google Nexus phones. Anyone with one of the many alternative Android phones available is out of luck!
Why would they do this? Salesforce’s support article on the subject says,
"Due to the wide array of available Android devices, we are targeting our support to a select number of Android devices to continue improving our overall Salesforce1 for Android user experience"
What they’re talking about here is often called fragmentation. Due to the many different variants of Android, and the many different devices on which it runs, making a well-supported app can be really difficult. Salesforce is a huge company (19,000+ employees and a market capitlisation of more than $50bn), so it’s interesting to see them make quite a bold decision in the future direction of their Android app.
Speaking of huge companies, Facebook recently shared their approach to testing their software on the many different mobile devices that are out there, and the result is really fascinating, but gives an insight into what is really required to make properly tested mobile apps.
And what about windows phone users? Or blackberry? Surely they need mobile access too, but you’re probably not going to find a dedicated app for these platforms. Unfortunately developing from the ground-up for a platform with such small market share just isn’t worth it.
Above: Totara is built for the web
All things considered, for many uses the web remains the best software platform. Using the web means so long as your staff have a device with a web browser, they can access your service. You don’t need to worry about deploying the software and configuring it on a fleet of company devices and also a diverse spectrum of ‘bring your own’ devices. Compatibility is a non-issue. And you know that everyone will be able to access the part of the system that is important to them.
For a Learning Management System, a mobile and tablet-ready website is just a better option than an app.
I’m arguing a potentially unpopular – or at least uncool - idea. The app ecosystem is booming. Apple has now paid $50 billion to developers through the App Store. Apple gets a 30% cut of app store sales, so this is big business for them, hence we continue to see them market apps as the trendy way to deploy your software. (This started with 2009’s ‘There’s an App for that’ and continues on to 2015’s ‘Amazing Apps’)
But a lot has changed since 2009. Modern web standards mean that a great website can now really work well across platforms from desktop to smartphone. Yet the ‘app’ remains a buzzword, and sometimes having an app feels like validation of a cool modern company. ‘Hey, look at us, we’re really cool and modern – we have an app!’
I’m asking you to be a bit smarter than that. The ‘app’ shouldn’t be a checkbox requirement on your desired feature list. Instead you need to look for excellent mobile functionality which is easy for your staff to access, and often an app just isn’t going to give you that.
The Totara Approach
Totara is built using responsive design techniques that means it looks and works great on any device. As part of your deployment, we’ll build you a great theme that represents your organisation and brand identity – even for your mobile users.
Learners, trainers and managers can easily access your system from anywhere, on any device, allowing them to easily keep on top of their training, mark attendance at a session or check their team’s compliance rating.
All this, from any device, and they never have to even install an app.
The author works as a Learning Systems Consultant for Chambury Learning Solutions, mainly supporting the Totara LMS – an amazing, affordable and open source Learning Management System. If you’re looking for a better LMS, contact firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about how Totara LMS can help your business. Better still come along to a showcase seminar to find out more - dates available here.
Learning Management. Solved.