Think mobile

The application may work flawlessly; the wireless infrastructure may be in place; the back office systems may be capable of supporting thousands of users; the devices may be optimised for the work environment. But mobile application rollouts will still fail dramatically if not enough attention is paid to one critical element: end-user acceptance.

In situations where the end users of mobile applications – field service operatives, salesforces, logistics workers, warehouse staff – are being exposed to IT often for the


In practice: NG Transco

As the operators of the UK’s national gas pipeline network, employees at National Grid Transco are aware that a serious failure anywhere in the system could literally lead to disaster.

So when the company was planning a rollout of mobile devices, staff had to be brought onside from the start to ensure they had full confidence in the systems and the instructions they would receive on their PDAs.

As part of that effort, Brian Popplestone, programme director of NG Transco’s ‘Quarterback’ mobile workforce automation project, decided to run in a ‘proof of concept’ over the first half of 2002 to demonstrate to staff how the system would work. “Not only did field teams involved in the pilot rapidly overcome their initial fears about using the technology, but they just as quickly realised this was a palatable answer to their long-standing dissatisfaction with cumbersome paper processes,” he says.

End user input was sought at every stage of the implementation – not just device selection, but also throughout the analysis, design and development of the system. For those field force workers not involved in those projects, there was a road show campaign involving 220 events across the UK, which demonstrated the benefits of the system to about half of NG Transco’s estimated 9,000 field force workers. NG Transco involved trade union representatives at an early stage.

Staff also had an input into the design of the user interface front end. “It should be remembered that many end users had little or no experience of computer technology, so a screen design that was intuitive was essential for gaining field acceptance,” says Popplestone.



first time, and who are aware that its use will change their working practices and the level of visibility data managers have into these, resistance can be dangerously high. It can even scupper the project.

When NG Transco, the operator of the UK’s gas pipeline network, introduced a system to track its fleet of vehicles (see box), a few disgruntled members of staff placed foil over the mobile device’s transmitter in an attempt to block the sending of location data. “They really did feel as if it was ‘Big Brother’ watching them,” says Doug Clark, IBM’s wireless ebusiness leader for northern Europe.

That resistance was overcome when an emergency workers were able to save the life of one worker who suffered a suffered a heart attack by knowing his exact location, but the low level opposition to the project “should never have got that far,” says Clark.

At another company, the intrusive nature of mobile technologies was brought home to one worker who would use his company vehicle to make regular morning visits to his mistress. By parking his car some distance from her house, he had assumed that the GPS (global positioning system) the company used was located in his car. In fact, it was built into the handheld computer that he carried around. “He was in the office one day and people were showing him online maps of his route to work and asking why he was doing this every day. He was very embarrassed,” says Keith New, vice president of m-business professional services and operations at Aspective.

The tracking capability of mobile technologies is just one aspect that causes worker disquiet. For example, field service engineers may be uncomfortable with the mere act of inputting work reports or other data into a handheld device; salesforces are notorious for not wanting to share their prospect lists, as many mobile sales applications require; and many others may simply suffer from techno-phobia.

Fully engaged

Whatever the reason, there are a variety of approaches that organisations are taking to convince their workforces of the merits of a mobile rollout.

The first and most important is the one that consultants have advocated for years on all projects, but one which is often overlooked: engaging end-users in those elements of the implementation that directly affect them. In the case of mobile IT, that typically means giving users a meaningful input into client device selection and the design of the user interface.

The user interface design is particularly important. “For the big software houses, such as SAP, their idea of field force automation involves screens and screens of data, of which only 10 to 15 transactions are really relevant for the engineer or sales rep,” says IBM’s Clark. At an early stage of the project, end users can therefore help design interfaces that minimise the number of clicks and screens needed to support their job and, in the process, reduce the amount of data that needs to be sent over the network.

Device selection is also a critical area in which end-users can most easily be engaged. “The people working with these devices can make or break the project,” says Forrester Research’s Michelle de Lussanet.

One large communications operator spent a week briefing its field service staff on the new applications, letting them ‘play’ with half a dozen devices and score these on easy of use, applicability to the job, and so on. The company did not choose the most popular device – for technical reasons – but selected the engineers’ second favourite. “A week was overkill,” says a consultant who worked on the project. “But it helped engineers bond with the device.”

Unlike in office environments, different parts of the workforce have very different requirements from client devices. For example, the staff at the television licence evasion teams, run by outsourcing company Capita, wanted a device that was robust, but which looked particularly unimpressive and low-tech: Robust, because of the wear and tear of their every day jobs; and unimpressive, because a high-profile mobile device would have increased the risk of them being mugged.


While involving the workforce in choosing the devices and the interface design is important, the benefits of the new system will still need to be sold. And the benefits must appear to be two-way. While any mobile deployment aims to increase efficiency and cut costs, there has to be a payback there for the user – and that has to be made very clear. “In designing the solution there must be something in it for the user, something that makes his or her life get better,” says New. “If not, you may as well not do the project at all.”

Those benefits can be a reduction in administration tasks such as the filing of timesheets – in the case of field service applications, these are sent back to managers at the end of the day with the mere push of a key. At soft drinks company Britvic, the prospect of eliminating 40 minutes paperwork every day was a key part of the acceptance plan when it rolled out PDAs to the 200 engineers who service its vending machines.

More radical lures have been tried. In one pilot project, electrical goods maker Whirlpool asked its call-out service engineers to input data into their PDAs of all the major appliances they encountered in a customer’s kitchen, and to record which of these were reaching their life expectancy. The company would then send the customer a discount coupon for replacement of the older items, giving the service engineer a cut of each sale that resulted.

Aside from incentives, staff also need to be reassured that the sought efficiencies do not have the effect of eliminating their roles. “Where the cost reductions quite often come in is in the ratio of field workers to schedulers,” says Clark. Quite simply, with much of the scheduling being computerised and related customer data being electronically sent to end-users, organisations need far fewer people at the dispatch centre to take calls from sales staff and engineers in the field.

But persuasion works at both ends of the corporate ladder. Networking products giant Cisco has been marketing its WiFi capabilities with an initiative in which it gives away wireless access base stations to CEOs. Rob Redford, Cisco Systems’ vice president of product and technology marketing, says that there is always a buzz of excitement in the boardroom as other managers look over their CEO’s shoulder to watch him at work with his WiFi-enabled laptop or PDA. “A key factor [behind wireless adoption] is word of mouth,” he says. “Before long, people are wondering how they ever got by without it.”

Avatar photo

Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

Related Topics