GigaOm Case Studies Show Enterprise App Design Can Exhibit Creativity

NEWS ANALYSIS: Case studies presented at the GigaOm Structure Data conference show enterprise apps can be designed with some consumer-like flair and imagination.

Enterprise applications used to be the poor cousin of consumer applications. Consumer apps got the fancy user interfaces, were designed to be mobile from the start and generally were more intuitive to use.

Enterprise applications were secure, locked into a legacy interface and, frankly, boring. This is changing, and several of the applications displayed at this week's GigaOm Structure Data conference highlighted those changes.

First up was MetLife. MetLife, a worldwide operation that has 90 million customers, operates in the realm of insurance, which probably is not the first industry that comes to mind when you are thinking about rapid change and new application development.

Gary Hoberman, CIO and SVP of regional application development at MetLife, outlined a 90-day app development cycle involving 90 developers that used MongoDB as an underlying document database to change the way customer reps interact with customers. The end result was a Facebook-type wall where sales reps could see the full range of customer interaction and start the conversation with customer knowledge instead of customer questions.

For any customer of any large institution who has been frustrated with calling into customer service, the value of the MetLife app is immediately apparent. Of equal interest is while MongoDB provided some of the consumerlike feel, the application also relied on legacy apps for data and utilized the security capabilities of the legacy environment to enable the new app. Bottom line: The new enterprise app engine will leverage—rather than replace—the legacy environment.

Next up was Geoff McGrath, managing director of McLaren Applied Technologies. I never considered McLaren as anything more than the company that makes some of the fastest racing cars in the world. I've seen a couple of McLaren presentations at other events, and they usually center around the massive amount of data the racing cars produce and require to win on the tracks.

McGrath's presentation was something else in that he described how the data-driven methodology developed by McLaren for the racing world can be transferred to other areas, including bicycle design and the creation of those Olympic skeleton sleds where the United Kingdom has transformed itself into an Olympic powerhouse.

The design process utilizes "the convergence of data management, analytics and simulation to create high-performance design value at a fast pace," said McGrath. McGrath's presentation was a relief and a welcome note in an era when the value of process is often overshadowed by companies trying to produce products quickly but without a whole lot of thought. Bottom line: The new enterprise app engine will work best when tuned by a repeatable process developed from the starting line.

There were other interesting applications presented, including Ford's use of social media to help in making design decisions for new vehicles. That little foot swipe sensor to open the lift gate when you are burdened by a couple of armfuls of grocery bags? That decision was spurred through aggregating social media and additional data sources to confirm that the foot swipe was the method that consumers wanted.

While the technology used was important in these case studies, it was the thinking that went into how to define the problem, how to develop a process to solve the problem and how to do it all in a much shorter time period than the typical lengthy and convoluted enterprise app process that is the truly decisive factor in the new era of enterprise app development.

The developers in these examples selected the technology based on what best solved the problem at hand, rather than bringing in tech for tech's sake and then trying to figure out what problem they were trying to solve.

Enterprise applications don't have to be boring, but they do have to be secure, compliant and solid in performance. The difference today is that traditional corporate requirements no longer mean that you aren't able to also create an app that is consumerlike and developed ahead of the competition.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008, authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.