The number of companies using mobile applications for their internal communications (IC) is noticeably growing. Among the main advantages is the opportunity to reach mobile knowledge workers, field workers, and staff on the shop floor. The ability to publish real-time information and push out notifications to people’s devices is very valuable to the comms team, and employees like to connect with their colleagues and digest multimedia content in bitesize chunks.
But building an employee app is not an easy task. “Aside from the technical and budgetary hurdles, there is the wider question of what will engage people. Your IC app will compete with plenty of others. When employees pick up their smartphones, what will entice them to open your app rather than Facebook or Twitter?” asks Amy Hegarty, Communications Consultant at AB.
In July, the UK-based internal communications agency invested in a research study on mobile apps. The online survey explored the views of more than 400 people to discover what types of apps they use in daily life. The research results draw valuable lessons from people’s behaviours and preferences, that should direct the development, launch, and use of any employee app.
“Knowing how, when, and why people use their preferred applications provides valuable insight we can bring to the table when considering the deployment of workplace apps,” explains Hegarty, who led the research.
In this interview, Hegarty shares the key findings from the study as well as the insights that are intended to both inform and inspire internal communicators, “particularly those keen to explore the potential of an enterprise app used on a personal device”.
Gloria Lombardi: What types of devices do people own?
Amy Hegarty: Our research suggests that it’s vital that an employee app is compatible with both Apple and Android devices. If not, you run the risk of marginalising a significant percentage of your workforce. Just over half of the respondents (54%) own an Apple phone and 41% have an Apple iPad. But ownership of alternative devices is significant. Just over 40% own an Android phone.
Older respondents were less likely to have an iPhone than younger employees. Apple phones are most popular with those aged 32-41 (78%), while only 28% of those aged 62 and over have an iPhone. Android phones are the preference for this older age group (45%), and also for those aged 42-51 (48%) and 52-61 (53%).
GL: What are the most popular apps among the respondents? And what can we learn from that?
AH: The top three apps all have a strong social element: Facebook (62%), messaging apps – Whatsapp and Facebook messenger (56%) – and Apple Mail and Microsoft Outlook (38%).
Again, there is a clear generational split. Those aged 41 and under have a preference for messaging apps. Those aged 42 and over are much more likely to use Facebook.
When asked why, by far the most popular answer (50%) is for social reasons. ‘Because they’re the most social and I have different groups of friends for different interests.’ A successful app is likely to need social features that build and maintain a sense of community.
The second and third reasons people use those apps relate to their ease of use and entertainment value. ‘Easy to use, it loads quickly and I can find the info I’m after instantly.’
GL: When are people most likely to access their apps?
AH: This is massively important. We can all relate to notifications going off at awkward times or too many notifications being annoying.
According to our research, the most popular times to use apps is after work (56%), closely followed by during breaks (44%) and ‘as soon as I get up’ (43%).
This is useful data when considering when to publish content updates, notifications and alerts. Scheduling notifications and updates for the start or the end of a shift, or for breaks, could be essential to an app’s success. We suggest doing some research yourself. HR will probably know when people take set breaks and what time people start, especially if there are different shifts. There’s no point pushing out notifications when people don’t have the time and space to use their smartphone!
It’s also important to know which roles may not be allowed access to personal devices during work time, like customer service representatives in some industries.
GL: Beyond the ease of use and entertainment value, are other features important in an app?
AH: Doing something useful and the ability to personalise content ranked highly (7.8 and 6.3 respectively).
Incentives ranked lowest but still above five (5.4), suggesting that they are worthy of consideration – employees may need extra encouragement to download an app and open it regularly. Incentives can come in various guises, such as a ‘top user’ leaderboard, weekly offers, discounts, and competitions.
GL: What makes people switch off? Why do people delete an app?
AH: When the app fails to deliver! Almost 60% of users delete an app because it falls short of their expectations. This suggests that the features of your employee app must be clear and genuine. Over promising is dangerous. If you promise people benefits that the app can’t actually deliver, then they are going to delete it.
Storage is a concern for nearly half of all respondents. So, an app should be designed to use as little storage space as possible. As useful as your app may be, you do not want it to be bumped to make space for the latest version of Candy Crush!
More than half of people delete an app because it is no longer relevant. They use an app when a specific need arises. People don’t keep an app in the hope that it will become useful later. Therefore, once you have successfully encouraged employees to download your internal communications app, you have only a short window of opportunity to ensure it is used.
GL: The blurring line between personal and work life is much discussed nowadays. Are people actually happy to download a workplace app on their personal mobile phone?
AH: Well, 44% of respondents said ‘yes’ and 32% said ‘no’. The remaining 23% answered ‘maybe’. We were not surprised to see answers vary dramatically across the age groups. Generally, older generations are far more likely to answer ‘no’.
Among those answering ‘yes’, they like the idea of having a work-related app on their own device, for a variety of practical reasons. “I carry my personal phone more than work phone. If the app is useful, I would want access to it as frequently as possible.”
They also want to keep up-to-date when away from work. “A work app is a good idea. It would be beneficial on my way to the office – to hook in for general communication and info.”
Mainstream news is updated constantly; it’s perhaps unsurprising that we want work-related news to operate in a similar fashion – keeping us informed throughout the day, wherever we are.
Others respondents envisage using an app for a specific task related to their day-to-day work. “I use image editing apps to edit my work”, for example; someone else mentioned training and holiday tracking.
GL: What about those answering ‘maybe’ and ‘no’?
AH: The 23% who answered ‘maybe’ gave a variety of reasons why they we’re sure about having work related apps on their personal phone. They mentioned limited storage capacity, concerns that the app would not be genuinely beneficial, concerns over privacy, and notifications in ‘personal time’ that could become intrusive. This is the group that you may be able to engage if you design and launch your app in the right way.
Of those who answered ‘no’, 41% have concerns about work-life balance. They said things such as, “My personal phone is just that – personal” or “I don’t mix work and personal content on my devices”.
For others, there are technical limitations; not everyone has a smartphone, some have a regular feature phone, just for calls and texting.
Those who answered ‘no’ ranked nearly every feature lower in terms of importance than those that answered ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’. However, they ranked incentives slightly higher than those who said they would download an app. This is something to consider if you have a wary workforce.
But, it would be wrong to mandate the use of personal devices for work purposes. Respecting people’s work-life balance is essential. Further, we must not discriminate against those who cannot access information for technical reasons. Essential employee services must be available to everyone.
GL: What final suggestions would you like to offer to organisations that are building or thinking to build an employee app?
AH: According to our study, over half of all respondents hear about a new app through recommendation and word of mouth. For internal communicators, this suggests that an effective launch campaign, coupled with a network of champions or advocates, can spread the word about the new app across the organisation.
Ideally, a company should engage their internal champions early in the process by asking them to test a prototype. Involving a group of employees in the design, build and testing of the app is an ideal way to create ambassadors for the final product.