Industry innovations: A mobile applications interview with Bob Evans


Editor: So to begin, what are mobile applications?

Bob Evans: There are two styles of mobile applications: native and mobile Web. A native application provides easy access to a mobile device’s sensing, capturing and storing capabilities. Much like stand-alone desktop applications, they run within the operating environment of the mobile phone unencumbered by the sandbox placed around Web content served from a mobile browser. Thus they can directly manipulate and exploit the features of the mobile device. This provides the application easy access to geographic information such as the handset’s GPS, compass and cell tower triangulation and can integrate with sources that help interpret that information. Local Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) provide easy access to cameras, microphones, storage, accelerometers and a growing collection of information sources on handsets.

Through application code, the designer and developer can focus the user experience for rich user engagement and rapid response. As one of my colleagues says, mobile responses need to be judged by the application’s ability to satisfy user requests in the span of a stoplight. So, the application needs to be easy to use, responsive and satisfy user objectives in a short window of time.

Editor: What is the difference between a mobile application and a mobile website?

Evans: A mobile website is a collection of Web pages designed specifically for use from the browsers contained on mobile devices. It is worth noting that with the continued elaboration and enrichment of HTML, like that seen in HTML 5.0, and the continued evolution of webkits, a mobile website need not be considered old and stodgy. Many modern handsets such as the iPhone, BlackBerry Torch, and Android are exposing capabilities via a webkit, a webpage rendering engine. While not as rich as access via the local API, the webkit enables mobile sites to do more than just serve HTML. Like the support for advanced browsers, capabilities continue to evolve and advance on mobile browsers including support for well-known JavaScript libraries, cascading stylesheet support, AJAX and more.

One can create hybrid applications as well. A hybrid application can incorporate mobile Web content directly in a style that blends the advantages of the local access and responsiveness of the native app with centrally authored and managed Web content. An insurer, for example, could use this capability to provide step-by-step directions or a roadside emergency checklist, which could be stored on the carrier’s server and accessed through the mobile device as HTML. Mobile users could also decide where to receive continually updated syndicated content such as company notices or insurance news using RSS feeds. The advantage of using this approach is that developers can simply make updates on a central server and not worry about having to write code specific to all types of mobile devices.

Editor: What can businesses accomplish with mobile applications that they could not accomplish with mobile websites?

Evans: We view the value an insurer can achieve from mobile in four basic categories: growth, efficiency, stickiness and loss control. For growth, native applications can offer core transactions with data collected via enriched application forms. The forms can draw upon the data sources and sensing capabilities of the phone to ease the human interaction with the process and to satisfy the appetite of those that might well prefer the use of a mobile device to more traditional e-commerce, telecommerce or face-to-face interactions. For those audiences who gravitate to a supplier that offers anytime, anywhere service, the mobile channel can offer just the vehicle to entice new demographics. Native applications also offer the opportunity to respond to alert mobile users at predefined milestones in a fashion that enables instant notification and rapid response to system and process-related events. So, for example, the carrier’s policyholder gets notified when a policy is about to expire with an option to make a payment to prevent cancellation. Or a claimant is notified when the status of a claim has changed with details on what’s going to happen next.

Insurers can dramatically reduce the processing steps and calendar time required to complete business workflows and enable responses to IT events in near real-time. The rich user-interface/user-experience capabilities for self-service and self-advocacy also increase the opportunities to improve client satisfaction while maintaining a collaborative relationship with the client.

Last, but not least, insurers can take advantage of mobile device capabilities including presence information, long-life batteries and rich presentation to ensure that insureds have easy access to information and applications that reinforce or shape behaviors. Ironically, mobile apps may hold the key to helping drivers stay safe and keep their attention on traffic and road conditions. In addition to supporting company campaigns to reduce driving while distracted, these apps can support drivers in the wake of a catastrophe with emergency checklists, contacts for emergency services and proactive weather or traffic warnings.

Editor: Why should insurers consider entering the mobile space?

Evans:  Mobile devices are reaching a point where they are outselling and innovatively outpacing their PC counterparts. Clever insurers are already taking advantage of opportunities that mobile devices and social changes are placing on society to deliver value and capture attention of insurance customers. Much like e-commerce presence in the mid-to-late ’90s, mobile is quickly approaching table stakes for offering services to consumers and enabling insurance value chain participants to deliver rich and efficient service to consumers. Remember, a growing number of the people who do business with insurance companies – and come to work for insurance companies – have never known a time without digital devices.

To remain competitive in this environment, insurers should keep abreast of innovations that offer opportunities to improve service, satisfaction and help manage risks for themselves and their clients. Mobile devices offer the coordination of information from the enterprise, partners, employees and customers and exploit that information anytime and anywhere. Careful analysis and consideration of where enriched data from the integrated sensing and capturing capabilities of mobile devices and their immediate connectivity and presence for individuals, enable enrichment of day-to-day interactions with clients and partners. This enrichment offers the opportunity to add efficiency, increase satisfaction and reduce losses.

Editor: What types of mobile applications are insurers currently providing?

Evans: Insurers today are offering applications that help their brand recognition and market their products. They are also offering applications that enable their customers to complete transactions that are well served in a mobile context. For example, customers of some of the larger insurers can make premium payments, see their policy information and start a claim. Nearly every application includes some amenities as well. From pure white screens that serve as flashlights, videos on how to change a tire, to loss managing information like how to prepare for or respond in an emergency, the app user gets an arsenal of related and useful access to information. Recent innovations include applications that help users manage their texting behaviors.

Editor: What areas of insurance operations benefit most from mobile application development?

Evans: Claims. Mobile applications can notify participants in the claims process of event and status changes associated with processing a claim. Participants are able to act on those alerts in real time regardless of location. More significantly, perhaps, the phone offers enriched once-and-done data capture and processing direct from the device to the enterprise. At CSC, we’re introducing a mobile adjuster manager app that addresses the needs of the claims personnel in the field, providing a central place for managing assignments and performing tasks such as uploading images, tracking time and location along with documenting the investigation and estimating the damage.

Editor: What considerations must insurers make when developing a mobile insurance strategy?

Evans: What are your business objectives? Are you seeking growth, cost containment or a new way to serve certain demographics? Insurers must consider how mobile programs will support overriding goals. Growth ambitions may translate to applications that focus on marketing, brand awareness and product placements, such as an entertaining video. Cost containment will likely lead to a careful consideration of existing processes and identification of opportunities to use mobile technology to reduce the time, steps and labor required to complete them.

Editor: What primary challenges will insurers face in mobile application development?

Evans: Mobile technology is the hotbed of innovation these days. This is a two-edged sword. On one edge, this means lots of exciting and useful innovations ready to be exploited. On the other edge, mobile technology is changing rapidly and its various participants are battling hard for competitive advantage. For the insurer, this means developing applications in the face of a diverse ecosystem that is in frequent change. This is the browser wars on steroids. So, you have a fairly wide range of devices in the market (e.g., iPhones, BlackBerrys, Android and Microsoft) and innovative new platforms like Apple’s iPad, RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook and Android-based tablets.

It’s interesting to note that tablet computers weren’t really even part of the wireless buzz late last year; now we’re seeing an explosion in competition for consumer tablet devices and growing interest from the insurance industry. This business is changing just that quickly, and each device has its own operating system, range of browsers, and range of development paradigms and environments. For internal endeavors, the insurer may find it easier to focus on a smaller subset of these devices. But in the consumer space, maximum reach is likely going to require work spread across these devices. Finally, cool apps on cool phones are just the front part of the operation. Insurers need good service-oriented architectures in place to coordinate and integrate the data to and from the enterprise and these mobile fronts.

Editor: What steps should insurers take to help ensure a successful development effort?

Evans: Insurers should share much of the core processing for management of interactions with mobile audiences while shaping content and enriching data based on the unique and innovative capabilities of the devices connecting to the enterprise. Don’t code to the lowest common denominator, but gracefully degrade to less powerful devices. Insurers should also ensure that they have an adaptive framework for managing interactions from the mobile environment to the enterprise capabilities. This will serve them well for mobile and for other innovations as well.

Editor: Can the insurance industry take any cues from successful mobile applications developed for other industries?

Evans: Yes, banking is frequently credited with having taken a pretty strong step forward for mobile enablement, including mobile payments.

Editor: Where is the greatest potential for innovation in the mobile space?

Evans: Process transformation. The smartphone’s data capture capabilities (GPS, orientation, picture, video, audio, etc.), notification, presence and connectivity of the mobile space open opportunities to fundamentally transform time-intensive tasks such as field work for claims adjusters. Using omnilocation technology, the home office can orchestrate assignments and routes to cut driving time, lower costs and reduce vehicle emissions. Omnilocation is already used widely in the transportation industry, and we’ve worked with a major healthcare organization to manage a workforce of field healthcare providers. As the insurance industry adopts this technology, not only will the mobile device support the process of completing work, it will be an integral part of it.

Bob Evans leads CSC’s strategy and application development of mobile insurance solutions. With 21 years of computer science experience, he holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Eastern New Mexico University.  During his 18-year tenure at CSC, Bob has served in various software architect and project management roles. He also served in the U.S. Air Force, working in avionics. His interests include mobile, architecture, social networking, general technology topics and competing in triathlons and marathons.