How Cisco picks and builds apps for its employees

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Cisco's enterprise app store, which launched at the end of last year, has just 100 apps in it. The number has been kept deliberately low and the apps have been carefully chosen for their utility, simplicity, and security.

Cisco is a huge organization with approximately 70,000 employees. About 43,000 of those employees carry 67,000 mobile devices, all of them under a BYOD program in place since 2009. Two thirds of the mobile phones are iPhones. The rest are a combination of Android, Blackberry, and a few Windows Phones.

When you have a BYOD program of this magnitude you want to provide a simple mechanism for your users to download sanctioned apps. That's why Cisco opened the eStore, their corporate app store --and you could learn quite a bit from their process.

Brett Belding, senior IT manager for Cisco says it's about providing a simple set of choices for users. "What we don't want to do is hand you 1,000 choices and force you to choose," Belding told me. "What we put into eStore is a curated set of applications -- curated, paid for, and supported by IT -- that provide a great user experience."

Cisco has a defined process to determine what apps go in the store. First, Belding says, they look at a business process they want to mobilize. Then they check if something off-the-shelf exists already -- there's no point in building an app in-house if a good alternative already exists. Belding says about 70% of the apps in eStore are off the shelf.

If it doesn't exist, they opt to build it. At that point, they need to decide if they are going native or hybrid, which is an HTML5 app in a native container. If the app doesn't need to take advantage of device features such as GPS, gyroscope, or camera, then they go with the hybrid approach because it simplifies delivery across multiple platforms.

The number one priority for their curated apps is security, followed closely by user experience. Security must be transparent and can't get in the way. "You need to know it's secure, but security cannot be an impediment to user experience," he explained.

As for usability, it comes down to simplicity. That's often easier said than done. "Simplicity is the hardest thing to do," Belding said. "Security we've defined. Simplicity is difficult. The challenge is developers want to add more functions."

On smartphones in particular, it's important to keep apps as basic as possible to fit all necessary functions into limited screen size without overloading users with choices. That requires a certain discipline on the developer's part that is absolutely crucial. "If user experience isn't good, nobody is going to use it and return it investment is zero and I don't want to stand up in meeting and say ROI was zero," he said.

He uses the example of an Approvals app they developed. All it needed to do was display the document related to the approval, such as a vacation request or hiring decision, and a green "Yes" or red "No" button, along with a space for brief comments. Since it didn't need to use the phone's features, they went with an hybrid delivery model.

If the app makes it past all of these hurdles, it still has to pass usability testing. Belding says the group that suggested the app is the Stakeholder's Group and the app typically gets tested there first. If they try it and it doesn't make their lives easier, it has to go back to development and the iteration continues. Over time as the app is more fully baked, Belding says they expand the group of users, and if all goes well, only then do they add it to the app store.

The ultimate goal of the eStore is to develop a set of great apps for Cisco employees. "We have to create a marketplace internally with our enterprise store that is a curated set of applications that we will makes [employees] productive internally with a good user experience." 

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