How Rentokil builds mobile applications without the bugs

By Graeme Burton
06 Jun 2014 View Comments
Rentokil operative searching for pests

"Rentokil as a business has been using mobile devices for at least 10, maybe even 15 years," according to Ian Morris, head of design at Rentokil. "We've got a lot of surveyors and technicians working in the field and we need to deliver information to them."

Further reading

Furthermore, the company also has sales and other staff now going out into the field with laptops and tablet computers who also need specialised apps to do their jobs.

The problem was that Rentokil's mobile applications were all based on clunky, ageing technology – Windows CE – that did not compare well with modern mobile operating systems and the devices they run on.

"Our employees were looking at what they had in their hands, comparing it to the mobile device they have got in their other hands and saying, 'What is this? This is not good'," said Morris.

Morris was speaking at a Computing web seminar focusing on mobile app development, sponsored by application platform provider Kony.

However, the technical challenge of developing those modern mobile apps was complicated by the plethora of different enterprise applications that staff needed to be securely connected to, a challenge compounded by the added complexity posed by the variety of systems the company runs due to the various acquisitions it has made over the years.

And making mobile apps for different types of audiences – for the business, consumers, partners etc – is also a very different process, said Morris, while the question of what mobile operating system platform was also complicated by the fact that Rentokil is a global company and whereas Apple iOS is popular in North America, in other markets it trails behind Android, and even Windows Phone.

"We're a global business and we have to cover all of these areas. That's where the challenge really starts to bite because we are trying to deliver globally. We were trying to do a global enterprise application that is responsive to regional demand," said Morris.

Age and infirmity
Because the infirmity of the company's existing mobile infrastructure was recognised at the very top, getting business buy-in was not a problem. Indeed, the board itself was keen for the company to modernise its apps and the project was therefore well funded.

Even so, the business demanded to see results fast, not a year or more later. Mobile app development therefore needs to be done in bite-sized chunks towards an overall end-goal, said Morris, so that results can be quickly demonstrated and improved upon.

"You can have the overall aim, but the key is to take it in bite-sized chunks and deliver a small part of the 'puzzle' at each step," he said.

In other words, he said, organisations need to use agile or agile-like approaches in order to iterate the app regularly so that it becomes the app that the business originally envisaged – not one designed entirely around IT's (mis)understanding of what the app should look like.

"You can't start something and then nine months later pop it out," said Jay Bopa Rai, director of technical services EMEA at app platform provider Kony.

"I think you can take different approaches to it. It's not all or nothing: so you can look at it in terms of what you want to achieve and your goal. Start small, and work in a series of steps. People's experience is that mobile applications get updated frequently... that's the expectation and experience."

Bopa Rai continued: "You need to think around what's the minimal viable 'product' we can deliver that's useful, develop that and deliver it into the hands of the users, get the feedback – because the chances are you won't have got everything right first time – and then use that feedback iteratively to build the application as you go."

It also helps to have an organisation-wide development platform, too, rather than developing ad hoc apps with platform-dependent, proprietary tools. Not only does this speed up development, but it also helps in porting those apps to different operating systems, whether iOS, Android, Windows Phone or BlackBerry, and keeping them up-to-date when those operating systems change.

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