Four Ways to Create True Offline Capability
By Mary Brittain-White
Over the last few decades the phrase ‘we will resolve this offline’ has evolved. Originally, it meant a one-on-one follow-up meeting would take place to resolve the issue at hand. Today, offline is more commonly used as a term when discussing mobile apps, as in “Does your app work offline?” In the arena of industrial mobility the answer is important, and it needs to be yes.
End user acceptance remains the Holy Grail of field force automation. One example of this is a project where the ability to work outside of mobile coverage is removed because of IT work avoidance. After all, offline capabilities are hard to implement, and mobile coverage is essentially everywhere, right?
There are many things that determine a good end user experience for field technicians, including:
• Speed of the application
• Consistent and simple design
• Ability to support varying levels of literacy
• Using a device that is “fit for purpose”
Specifically, online models are slow in looking up referential data like parts inventory, or worse, unable to function fully if the technician is outside of good mobile coverage. The assumption by many IT departments is that their mobile experience in a central business district office is similar to a technician’s in a remote location, lift shaft or when standing beside a stack of wet pallets. It’s a misconception upon which many failed mobile projects are built. In reality, the mobile app, like any other tool, needs to be robust. To have an effective offline experience the field worker needs the following:
1. All referential data should be local to a mobile device and kept current. For example, a parts list should be on the device and technology should be automatically updating the parts list to keep it as current as possible. Then when someone goes to look up a part of the answer in the app, it is fast. There is no delay, regardless of the size of that parts list.
2. Communications of the data that technicians are to receive or send back to the office should be done without intervention. All communications should be automated so that technicians don’t care if they are in or out of coverage.
3. Supporting documentation for the job a technician is doing should be readable on a device. It has been demonstrated that if supporting documents or diagrams are easy to see then the technician will look. On the other hand, if he or she has to struggle with coverage, wait for downloads, search lists, then most likely he or she will just guess at what the next action should be without further investigation.
4. In-field recovery should be easy. Accidents happen, and if a tech drops a device and needs a new one, he should be able to recover back to the last job that was completed or be put into a work-in-progress state. This recovery should be painless and take just minutes. The challenge with in-field recovery is that the capability can’t be just bolted on, it needs to be an intrinsic part of the app’s design where key business activities are mirrored back to the cloud so that work can be recreated on the fly if a device is driven over, dropped in a hole or left at home.
A robust offline capability for an app may seem like an unnecessary expense through the lens of IT executives; however, in the field environment, unreliable access to mobile coverage can significantly impact the availability of an application and the continuous updates being made. In fact, inconsistent access to applications can hamper the overall success of a project.
Field technicians are critical to customers’ perceptions of a company and, thus, its success. As such, this is where companies need to place their best efforts and invest, rather than allowing the introduction of sub-standard tools. And remember, you can always take it offline with the CIO. UP
The Author: Mary Brittain-White is CEO of Retriever Communications, a company that specializes in improving the productivity of mobile workers by designing industrial strength mobility solutions. To learn more, visit www.retrievercommunications.com.