Housing providers have long been at the forefront of mobile working and have faced many issues regarding their operatives working in the field. Coronavirus restrictions and a switch to more flexible ways of working mean that many more of the workforce will be spending more time working remotely, which poses different and, sometimes, greater challenges.
It is therefore imperative that line-of-business applications can support both user and business needs from a functionality perspective. With larger mobile estates and more users working remotely, the challenge for IT departments to manage the applications is just as important.
Added to this, the need for applications to have access to mobile device functions, such as cameras and GPS, as well as offline capabilities, has usually meant that the use of native applications has been necessary. Native applications are those which are developed for a specific device or platform. They can demand a considerable amount of management to accommodate their use by different users on various devices, multiple OS versions and varying application versions, plus native apps need to be regularly updated for the users to receive the latest functionality. This is difficult enough to manage for an IT department in the office, but when all of these devices and users are either mobile or working remotely, it becomes an enormous challenge.
The housing sector tends to be progressive and has a continuous improvement mindset regarding technology. This often leads to numerous updates and enhancements of processes and applications and therefore the deployment of several different app versions. The challenge here is obvious – keeping users on the same version with the same capabilities and latest functionality.
Browser-based applications are a mature, but ever-evolving technology. Everyone is familiar with browser-based apps and their two greatest benefits – user acceptance and the ability to access the application from any mobile-enabled device. Perhaps, more importantly, any changes to the application are available to all users instantly, so they are easy to manage from an IT perspective.
Browser-based applications can now access device functions such as cameras, microphones and GPS, all previously the realm of native apps. They offer benefits for the users and IT departments but are still overlooked in favour of native apps because of one key feature – offline working.
Online first & offline back-up
A recent change in thinking about the design of line-of-business applications has been the adoption of the ‘online first/offline as a backup’ paradigm. The premise of the ‘online first’ paradigm is optimistic; it relies on users having suitable connectivity so they can access information in real-time from the server. If effective connectivity isn’t available, the application will have a small cache of data so that the user can continue to work offline (the data will have been cached by the application automatically when the connectivity was available).
This is in stark contrast to the ‘offline first/offline only’ paradigm which relies on the application or user caching all required data when they have connectivity, through working with and updating the data, then resyncing when connectivity is available. For example, a device might download and cache an operative’s job list for an entire day’s work or even a whole week of tasks.
The benefit of real-time data from the ‘online first’ paradigm vs. cached data from the ‘offline first’ paradigm is clear. Operatives will always see their most current job list with the most up-to-date information. For example, if an appointment time at a property changes, the user is instantly aware of the change, whereas with cached data, any changes might not be made available to the user.
Of course, a missed appointment is inefficient and a poor experience for the customer but not the end of the world. However, having changes to a key piece of information, such as a notification about a team member testing positive for coronavirus or a requirement to self-isolate is more important.
The single biggest problem for mobile operatives continues to be offline working. While network coverage has greatly improved and wifi hotspots are becoming increasingly available, a lack of connectivity must be accounted for in any application used in the field, particularly for more rural housing providers.
Progressive web apps
Progressive web apps (PWA) are browser-based applications that have native app-like functionality and offline capabilities. Changes to a PWA only need to be made on the server and are then accessible to all users, increasing efficiency and productivity.
They bridge the gap between native apps and browser-based apps, offering the best of both worlds. While PWAs are still relatively immature, they are becoming more popular and are used by many leading technology companies.
And although PWAs are capable of offering native app-like functionality, the challenge continues to be offline working. They are not suitable for the ‘offline first/offline only’ paradigm because these require caching all data on the device and periodic resyncing.
However, PWAs are a perfect fit for the ‘online first/offline backup’ paradigm. Because they are browser-based, PWAs can have live access to the data when the connectivity is there but can also cache critical data (e.g. a jobs list for a maintenance engineer), allowing users to continue working offline. PWAs automatically detect connectivity issues and can handle outages and resync changes made on the device and from the server.
Native apps still have a place and are the best choice when the application needs to be ‘offline first’. PWAs have several benefits, with the three main advantages being easy management, no dependency on device/OS versions, and all users using the same and latest version.
If your application can use the ‘online first/offline as a backup’ paradigm, PWAs offer a great choice for both IT departments and end-users.
At Elite Group, we have been producing line-of-business applications for housing providers for over a decade. We’ve developed several apps, including a complete job management system, and also produced a Xamarin-based native app suite for iOS and Android which allows operatives to create gas and electrical certificates for jobs, save them back to the system, update the next certification due-date and trigger other back-end processes.
James Dawson is head of software development at Elite Group.