Automating Your Field Force : Form Factor

Posted May 3, 2012

Form Factor

Once you’ve concluded that a rugged device is a better fit for your mobile deployment than a consumer-grade device, the next step is to choose the right form factor to fit your needs, whether a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

The key in doing so is to strike the right balance to support all required functionality. The first step as an enterprise is to evaluate all business processes on a task by task basis to understand how your workers do their jobs on a daily basis. It is critical to also insure that your workers provide direct feedback as part of this process.

Consider, for example, a police officer who needs a rugged device in their squad car – they’ll likely need a rugged laptop with a full keyboard, larger than the one available on most handhelds, in order to be able to type out extended reports while on the move.

FINDING THE PERFECT FIT

The point is, you have to examine specifically how your workers do their jobs – what do you need them to be doing every day? – before you try to select the best form factor for their needs. In the case of the police officer, the key requirement is the ability to fill out myriad reports – and so a full keyboard is crucial.

Imagine, instead, a worker doing HVAC repair, who needs to be able to view detailed diagrams on a screen – typically in a limited space where a laptop would be difficult to use. A smartphone-style handheld device isn’t going to provide the screen size required, and will instead force employees to waste enormous amounts of time scrolling back and forth to find the information they need.

On the other hand, a tablet or a similar device will provide those field service workers with the screen real estate required to find what they’re looking for. A laptop, despite its larger screen, wouldn’t be a good fit for these workers, because they’ll typically be crawling around customers’ attics or crawl spaces to get to the equipment they need to repair. Give them a large device such as a laptop, and they’ll just leave it behind in the truck.

Or consider a driver delivering lumber to a construction site – the driver may well arrive on the scene before any workers are present to sign for the delivery. In that case, he’ll need a digital camera to take a proof-ofdelivery photo of the drop-off, so he can proceed to his next destination without having to wait for someone to arrive.

In cases like these, it’s crucial to keep in mind that a single form factor can perform the work of multiple devices. If you’re just considering technology without first evaluating workflow, you might overlook the need for a digital camera, a consumergrade phone, or a handheld scanner – or you might miss an opportunity to deploy a solution that combines all three into a single device.

BALANCING THE FULL RANGE OF FACTORS

For every organization it’s a matter of balancing out all relevant considerations on a very specific level in order to determine where the efficiencies are. Start with the business process and then map out the functions of the technology required. Take a single typical call that your workers go on, and map out each discrete step of that call:

  • Do they need to get (and track) parts off the truck for repair?
  • Do they need to order parts?
  • Do they need to go online to look up diagnostics and schematics?
  • Do they need to be able to accept payment?
  • Does a signature have to be captured on site?
  • Does a receipt have to be printed on site?

Walking through each step, and mapping it out individually, makes it much easier to compare your options on a spec-by-spec basis. Say you determine that you need a large enough screen to be able to comfortably view a diagnostic diagram – by evaluating each step and set of tasks individually you significantly reduce the complexity of the planning process.

If you try to look at the entire process instead, or if you just evaluate the technology without first looking at a day in your employee’s life, you will make a far less informed decision – you’ll be making the too common mistake of letting the technology drive your process, not the other way around.

EXAMINE THE RETURN ON INVESTMENT

Look for things that can save mobile field service workers a minute here and there by doing things differently and more efficiently – and, at the same time, to be aware of changes that wouldn’t be likely to result in any time savings.

The result is a solid sense of how quickly you can achieve ROI – and how quickly your workers will embrace the new mobile device, no matter which form factor you select. You will end up with a strong measure of productivity improvement and cost savings – and bottom line improvement.

Still, there are, admittedly, limitations to this type of ROI calculation — it assumes that every minute saved will be used productively — if you save enough time to fit in another call, the model assumes that worker will immediately be able to do so.

In reality, even when you select the right form factor and your workers get significantly more productive as a result, you may choose instead to reduce costs by reducing staff – for example, eliminating low performance employees, eliminating overtime, or any of several other options from an efficiency standpoint.

CONSIDER THE MOBILE OPERATING SYSTEM

Finally, there’s one other key consideration to keep in mind, beyond physical dimensions, screen size, keyboard, and so on – most different form factors will tend to have different operating systems. A rugged device with a smaller form factor is likely to run a mobile OS such as Windows Mobile or Android, while a rugged tablet or laptop is likely to be running a full Windows operating system.

And that leads to another key consideration when evaluating different form factors – what applications will you need to be running on the device? If there’s a specific software package that you need to run, or if the apps on your device need to tie into a back end ERP system, then that will inevitably have an effect on your choice of form factor.

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