Employee-centric super apps are mobile applications that aim to bring together all the tools and resources employees use daily within a single platform.
“A super app is a single application that sits on top of a variety of mini apps... [in a] modular approach that offers users many different functions, all in one single, familiar interface,” said Eric Helmer, senior vice president and chief technology officer at IT support services provider Rimini Street.
Traditionally, organisations have used mega applications, continuing to add functionality after functionality over time, he said. However, those mega apps quickly got out of hand. They had performance issues, and users had difficulty navigating them.
And the mega applications never really had a common design principle or development framework, according to Helmer. Because mini apps — lightweight programs inside super apps — have to adhere to certain standards, they tend to behave similarly. This makes user adoption relatively simple, as there’s no real learning curve.
“Super apps are designed to sit on top of the library of mini apps that have specific functionalities that users can download and use,” Helmer said. “Users can pick and choose and personalise their experiences by enabling some mini apps, which all have a similar user interface, and removing the ones that they don’t really care about.”
The birth of super apps
Super apps arrived on the scene around 2011 or 2012, serving as connection points for consumer services ranging from messaging and social networking to payment solutions, e-commerce, and even public services, said Mickey North Rizza, group vice president, enterprise software at analyst firm IDC. With these apps, users can do everything from calling a taxi to paying their utility bills.
“The quintessential examples include WeChat and Alipay, which have evolved far beyond their original functionalities to become indispensable tools for daily life in China,” she said. “The whole point of the super app is that it will come from a single vendor and that it can be accessed by mobile device or web browser.”
These consumer super apps are all about running a multi-service platform that enables the business to stay focused on just one platform with all services on it, North Rizza said.
“And the business can add or extend services as needed, making it more beneficial to the end clients,” she said. “Most consumer super apps contain a common payment/financial app as the backbone tying together everything from areas such as travel for car/rail/air services to hotels to restaurants. Others include shopping from retail fashion to grocery to courier delivery to ride sharing.”
Although these consumer super apps spread across Asia and into South America and Africa, they never quite caught on in the West. In fact, the few consumer super apps that exist today are mainly available in Asia and other emerging markets, according to Forrester Research.
Are super apps really coming to the enterprise?
But if consumer super apps aren’t being widely adopted worldwide, what are the prospects for super apps in enterprise IT?
“For enterprises, super app development will focus on new digital patterns and experiences, such as value streams and internal services that can be offered to employees and clients, enabling new paths of usability,” said Ilia Shakitko, vice president of technology at digital consultancy Monstarlab.
Enterprise super apps will allow employers to bundle the apps employees use under one umbrella, he said. This will create efficiency and convenience, where different departments can select only the apps they want, much like a marketplace, to customise their working experiences.
Other advantages of super apps for enterprises include providing a more consistent user experience, combating app fatigue and app sprawl, and enhancing security by consolidating functions into one company-managed app.
Gartner analyst Jason Wong said the analyst firm is seeing interest in super apps from organisations, including big box stores and other retailers, that have a lot of frontline workers who rely on their mobile devices to do their jobs.
One company that has adopted a super app to enhance the experience of its frontline workers and other employees is TeamHealth, a leading physician practice in the US. TeamHealth is using an employee super app from MangoApps, which unifies all the tools and resources employees use daily within one central app.
“Our priority is serving our clinicians to the best of our ability so they can best serve patients,” said Thomas Perrine, CIO and CISO at TeamHealth.
TeamHealth’s largest user segment is frontline clinicians who are on the go in partner facilities providing care to patients.
“They do not sit in front of a computer all day,” Perrine said. “Due to the nature of their work environment, the most convenient mode of connectivity for them is their smartphone. We needed to deliver our tools and communications in a secure, efficient, easy-to-use manner for our clinicians. Knowing their primary devices are personal devices, it was important to us to be respectful and reasonable from an app installation perspective.”
Delivering user tools in a single, unified app
The ability for TeamHealth to deliver all the tools its frontline clinicians need in a single, unified, branded app was paramount.
“We knew the alternatives that require multiple installed apps for feeds, chats, files, and back-office tools were nonstarters,” he said. “Now, instead of our users opening multiple generic third-party apps, they open our one company-branded super app. We free clinicians from distractions so they can focus on patient care.”
After evaluating 40 other mobile employee engagement and communication products, TeamHealth selected MangoApps’ super app because it enables the company to deliver the capabilities of its back-office systems directly in the app, Perrine said.
“Once our users download and log into our app, they have access to everything they need, and we have control over the security of everything inside,” he said. “Different user groups have different priorities, utilise different features, and have various usage scenarios, but our app connects us all together.”
With deep integrations to the platform, TeamHealth can deliver notification updates to associates about timely activities, requirements, and deadlines, Perrine explained. With a tap they can respond, submit requests, or access their schedules, paystubs, and more, all inside the company’s super app, called Zenith.
When TeamHealth adopted MangoApps’ super app more than five years ago, this concept really was “bleeding edge,” according to Perrine.
“We’ve been partnering with MangoApps for over five years. Everything our clinicians need is inside our app,” he said. “It is a way of life now. The super app model both simplifies the technology delivery for enterprise information technology and also the user experience for our associates.”
When TeamHealth deployed the super app, the company planned and successfully executed a phased rollout by region. The company launched the Zenith app to its leaders at its annual leadership conference with live demos of its capabilities and allowed regional leaders to sign up to be first to onboard their teams.
“This strategy allowed us to harness the excitement for the platform and capabilities to ensure successful adoption,” he said. “At this point, I can’t imagine us not having it. I can’t speak for other companies’ use cases, but the capabilities we deliver to our users every day prove that it is providing tremendous value for us.”
Challenges of developing and deploying employee super apps
Still, there are some challenges organisations may face developing their own super apps or deploying vendors’ super apps for their employees.
For one thing, there will have to be a cultural and development shift for companies that opt to build their own super apps, Helmer said. “That’s because there is a completely different way of development that’s based on very strict standards and frameworks that everyone in the ecosystem must agree to and adhere to,” he said.
Additionally, it can be very costly for companies to develop their own super apps, because they require continuous development and support, Helmer said.
“And if you start going all in on this and now you have 20,000 employees all using this one, single platform, you’ve become dependent on that platform, and it becomes a single point of failure for a particular single system for all your users,” he said. “So resiliency and redundancy have to be implemented from the very, very beginning as well, because now the [super app] can never go down. And that, of course, adds to the cost and complexity.”
Organisations that decide to work with vendors should be wary of vendor lock-in, said Craig Shue, professor of computer science and head of the Department of Computer Science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “Once an organisation licenses an app and begins using it, they may grow dependent upon it,” he said. “This puts them at a disadvantage should they ever want to leave that application’s ecosystem.”
However, Helmer said it really doesn’t matter if companies build super apps or buy them from vendors, as long as those apps adhere to the required standards and frameworks.
The verdict is still out
When it comes to enterprise dynamics, super apps have the potential to replace multiple conventional enterprise applications, according to Monstarlab’s Shakitko.
“They echo emerging digital trends and can serve as one-stop hubs for teams and clients,” he said. “By enabling departments to handpick features, similar to shopping in a digital market, workflows could be more fluid. Yet it’s worth noting that certain highly specialised enterprise applications might resist being absorbed into a super app and will remain standalone.”
Forrester senior analyst Andrew Cornwall said it’s unlikely that super apps will replace other kinds of enterprise apps.
“A lot of organisations prefer a single employee app and aren’t significantly hindered by the integration step,” he said. “When there’s more than one app, developers can get consistent user interface and logic by sharing libraries and frameworks, rather than building mini apps. A traditional portal-based web app is more familiar to developers than a super app.”
And while super apps come with their array of advantages, organisations need to factor in the development and deployment challenges, Shakitko said. It’s crucial for businesses to weigh the merits against the drawbacks and determine whether their futures lie in pioneering super apps or refining their standalone mobile and enterprise strategies, he said.