Mobile is reinventing how people work by moving previously complex tasks to smaller portable devices. This work process reinvention is one of my bets on where to place your development resources in the next few years. Lets review the facts illustrating the changes we’ve seen recently.  

* Smartphones outsold PC’s in 2011 and PC sales stagnate while mindshare moves to other devices. Users are getting used to attaining “most of what they need” from a small portable device and reserving complex work for the desktop.  

TV advertising is trending down. The tube can no longer hold our attention when competing with the other 2 or 3 devices we have in our life.  

* Traditional software vendors are pivoting to cloud-based subscription strategies to cater to the changing needs of their customers across devices.  Microsoft and Adobe are two big examples. 

Changes coming in complex tasks.

Smartphone market penetration is past the 50% mark in the United states with a ways to go in emerging markets, tablets are on an aggressive growth path as well.  However, in terms of using tablets and smartphones for our work, users still haven’t adopted much of what’s possible. There’s also a stigma slowing usage in the workplace; “If my boss sees me on a phone or tablet, they assume I’m not working.” Users have adopted the basics - social, location based services and games, but still reserve elaborate chores for the desktop. Walk around any office and observe people working with traditional desktop software packages.  You’re getting a glimpse at an arena ripe for change. Here are two ways I see this changing.

1. Compartmentalizing complexity - save time by pushing some tasks within a complex workflow to the train-ride to work, or while you are watching the game.

2. Collaboration - simplify collaboration across groups of people at any time of the day.

What are people doing differently?

Last year we conducted qualitative research at Shutterstock while building the iPad app.   Users’ mental mode on tablets displayed an aptitude for leisurely discovery and browsing. Also, they felt less constrained by time than other devices.  Recently, Google released research that highlights some of the big changes in the device world. Here are three concepts I found particularly relevant:

1. Mental Mode on different devices. 

* PC - productivity, focus, work, business.

* Smartphone - on the go, short bursts of time, quick information

* Tablet - entertainment, browsing, less constrained by time. 

2. People are using devices simultaneously and in succession.  No single device is holding our attention for long periods of time, people are shifting between devices based on which is better for the task. People work while they watch TV or they start a search on a mobile device and then make the purchase decision later on the PC. 

3. Found Time. This is my favorite concept from the Google research and relevant to using mobile devices at the office.  User’s experience a sense of “found time” when they can use a device simultaneously with a question they have.  I would extend this to complex workflows where a user may outsource a particular step in a workflow to a mobile device to make them more efficient at the desktop. Music producers can perform editing tasks on a tablet or smartphone. As a graphic designer, can you select color palettes and fonts on a device prior to sitting at your desk to work in photoshop? Outlining a presentation on a tablet is more intuitive than the creating it on the desktop, the tablet forces the user to summarize. 

How to take advantage of these opportunities.

From a reductionist point of view, a complex task is simply a large set of simple tasks that must take place in some order.  If you add “found time” to this, user’s will divide complex tasks on a PC and tasks that can be moved to other portable devices for efficiency.  Each one of these outsourced tasks will represent an opportunity for creating user value and a disruption to software on desktops. Some areas I see potential change are finance software, design, music production, photo editing and presentation making just because they are closest to me, but I’m sure the list is much longer than that.  In opportunity areas ask yourself “could we do part of this workflow on a smartphone? on a tablet?” I’m betting you can.