There’s an App for That!

Mobile applications are proving to be a benefit for training of all types.

By Gail Dutton

Working the floor of the busy Nebraska Furniture Market, American Leather brand ambassador Tom Phelan used the mobile apps on his iPad to show potential customers schematics of the furniture line, showcase available fabrics and leathers, and help customers make on-the-spot decisions while they were in town for the weeklong Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting. For those who said, “I’ll be back,” e-mailing their furniture choices caused them to return, order in hand, in greater numbers than before. In fact, sales from this year’s event were 70 percent higher than those of either of the previous two years.

Although Jill Shambo, Marketing manager, says the increase wasn’t solely due to the use of mobile apps, they were a huge benefit. They’re proving to be a big benefit in training retail salespeople, too, she says.

American Leather first began using mobile apps in April 2011. So far, “mobile apps are used mostly in the field,” Shambo says, replacing many of the materials the brand ambassadors typically use. Apps provide information to retailers so they may help their customers select and care for the various leathers and fabrics. Apps also detail the 130 different collections, 89 leathers, and 320 fabric options available, their pricing and configurations, as well as differences in frame constructions. The apps are segmented for brand ambassadors, retailers, and consumers, providing just the information each group needs.

Now, “our brand ambassadors go into a retail store before it opens for training and always have the most up-to-date information. And,” Shambo says, “They don’t have to cart a lot of samples.” The catalogs are transmitted easily to retail sales associates on the spot, just by hitting “Send.” Alternatively, sales associates can download the password-protected apps from iTunes. Because the apps reside in the iPad, they are always available regardless of WiFi access.

Beyond Sales Training

Important as training the sales force is, mobile training apps are being used for much more. Visual Eyes Inc., for example, has developed training apps for the U.S. military’s combat medical teams that detail specific medical procedures, such as controlling hemorrhaging. Other apps, developed for corporations and government agencies, pass along core values, institutional knowledge, and best practices. “With rapid turnover (and Baby Boomer retirements beginning), institutional knowledge is being lost,” observes Gerard Gibbons, O.D., CEO of Visual Eyes Inc. Apps may capture part of that knowledge and disseminate it through short interviews, analyses of failures, interactive games, or best practices applied to certain situations, and he says, “…served up in a way employees can use.”

The American Ophthalmological Society (AOS) is using apps in its continuing medical education (CME) courses to supplement training, Dr. Gibbons says. In that instance, the full course is on the Web, and derivatives—including tips, techniques, and insights—are developed as mobile apps.

Visual Eyes also is developing a Website,, for returning military personnel that trains them and their families to deal more effectively with the health issues that are specific to them. Dr. Gibbons says the site includes apps that veterans and their families may download to assess issues; chart their progress or moods; or help them cope with specific issues, such as post-traumatic stress or sleep disorders.

Tracking Training

Organizations also are using mobile apps to manage the path or sequence of training, to verify that training occurred, and to help users maintain training records throughout their careers, notes Alan Knitowski, chairman and CEO of Phunware.

Phunware, which develops apps to train employees at Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. government, creates “a broad mobile experience, not just bite-sized chunks of information,” Knitowski says. That means “anytime, anywhere training” that typically is downloaded to a mobile device. The experience may include a logbook of activity, training schedules, and (for the military) physical performance, as well as courses for such things as cultural awareness, new products and services, competitive threats, and talking points.

In the corporate world, “once you have a mobile sales experience, for example, we send out talking points. But just because they were sent doesn’t mean they were read or internalized,” Knitowski points out. “Therefore, we have automated methodology that indicates whether the work was read and whether it was understood.” In that regard, this is similar to online training in which reading material is followed by quizzes. “This approach eliminates doubts about proficiency,” he says, and gives instant compliance statistics.


One of the major trends in apps development, Knitowski and Dr. Gibbons both say, is the recent emphasis on making apps more entertaining as they move from supplementary training to primary training. “Training happens where people are ready,” Dr. Gibbons emphasizes. Therefore, “training opportunities are all equal today.”

Visual Eyes, for example, uses strategic storytelling in its apps. That combines cinematic techniques and interactive design with perception and cognitive learning approaches to make each app logical, multi-layered, easily retained, and easily consumable. People remember compelling stories better than dry facts. So “it’s not enough to get the information in a timely way,” Dr. Gibbons says. “Today, learning is about ease of understanding.”

Coca-Cola knows this and uses multi-player gaming over electronic devices to train many of its executives. As Janet Clarey, senior analyst at Bersin & Associates, recounts, “Coca-Cola partnered with Kelley Executive Partners to develop an executive education alternate reality game combining social and mobile technologies for competitive and collaborative team problem solving.” One version involved 16 senior executives from Coca-Cola’s North African division and ran for four days to help teams learn to better divide their skills and resources. According to Clarey, Coca-Cola used this exercise to learn about how Millennial consumers use Web 2.0 technologies and thereby develop a more effective marketing campaign.

Looking Ahead

“There’s been a huge explosion of consumer apps, and business apps are increasing incrementally,” Clarey says. A recent Bersin & Associates study shows mobile training increasing from 9 percent of respondents in 2007 to 20 percent in 2010. “In five years’ time,” Knitowski predicts, “the dollar value of enterprise apps will exceed those of consumer apps.”

The message for trainers is to design information for mobile audiences. Resistance to use is rarely an issue, says Steve Christensen, CEO, Babbleware, Inc. “Consumers have more technology than their employers,” he notes, so they tend to be familiar with consumer apps already.

“The key features are agility and ease of use,” according to Christensen. Ease of use is assumed in an app. Today’s graphic trends include using minimalist designs, thin sans-serif fonts, bolder colors, background textures, and cinematics. At the enterprise level, apps may be more sophisticated. To be effective, they “… must be able to respond to changing conditions, including new regulations, new products or services, new markets, and new customers,” Christensen says.

“Apps are moving from supplementary training to primary training,” Knitowski notes. “Traditional training won’t go away,” he says, but will have remote options that are freed from the constraints of time zones and Internet access, making training truly an anytime, anywhere activity.

Mobile Apps Trends

  • Minimalist designs
  • Thin sans-serif fonts
  • Bolder colors
  • Background textures
  • Cinematics and storytelling
  • Ability to respond to changing conditions
Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.