3 Steps for Resurrecting Your Useless Zombie Apps


Over time, many of those early agency apps became “zombies” skulking in the dark corners of the app stores, purposeless and all but dead

Nolan Jones is director of innovation at NIC Inc.

Remember Snake? The game let players create a growing line of dots – which, with a heavy dose of imagination, might be perceived as a snake – by “eating” electronic squares on a tiny, monochrome screen.

The player lost the game when his or her snake ran into an obstacle, which sometimes was the lengthening line of dots itself. Arguably the first mobile app, Snake came pre-loaded on Nokia mobile phones in 1998.

Most of us haven’t played a game of Snake in well over a decade.

Why did we lose interest in that once-addictive native mobile app? In 1998, we couldn’t do much with our mobile phones besides make calls, so Snake was a fun, new technology.

But the mobile marketplace matured, and people came to expect that whatever they could do on their desktop or laptop computers could be done on their mobile devices, as well. Apps proliferated like those little dots in the Snake game. Apple launched its store in 2008 with 500 downloadable apps. Today, consumers can choose from 1.5 million apps in the Apple store and 1.6 million in the Android marketplace.

Have My Agency’s Apps Turned Into Zombies?

Like Snake, early federal government apps were one-trick ponies. Agencies commonly created and offered their constituents native apps that each solved a certain problem or met a need, such as a Body Mass Index calculator or fall foliage tracker.

But as app technology became more sophisticated, single-function apps lost their appeal, supplanted by offerings that let users complete several relevant tasks in one place. Responsive websites, which adapt to whatever device a constituent uses to access a government website, further reduced the need for native apps.

» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.

Over time, many of those early apps became “zombies” skulking in the dark corners of the app stores, purposeless and all but dead. Although they’re silent, zombie mobile apps can be troublesome. They typically have broken functionality, reflecting poorly on the originating agency, and may pose security concerns.

If your agency has lurking zombie apps, you can – and should – deal with them. Options include:

  • Making another, more-popular app even more valuable to your constituents by augmenting it with the zombie app’s functionality.
  • Investing in bringing the zombie app back to life by adding features and functions that are meaningful to your audience.
  • Taking the app out once and for all by removing it from the app stores.

Note that, if you decide to kill off a zombie app and your agency hired an outside developer to create your apps and set up your initial app store accounts, getting the app eliminated may be challenging. If you don’t have access to your app store accounts, exhaust all available avenues to contact the original developer. If that effort is unsuccessful, you can reach out directly to Apple and Android or get the zombie app removed with help from a company experienced in working with the app stores.

Rethink Mobile App Use

Zombie apps may be the walking dead, but apps overall are alive and well. A Flurry study released in September 2015 showed that 90 percent of the time U.S. residents spend on the mobile Internet is spent in apps. This means apps remain a viable and important way of interacting with constituents, especially if federal agencies follow these best practices:

  1. Continually reevaluate which constituent services are best delivered through apps. Native apps make sense for government when the citizen interaction requires functionality that can be provided only by a native app, such as robust access to the camera on a mobile device; for services people use multiple times in a single year; or for one-stop access to a broad range of agency services.
  1. Never assume that because your agency built an app, your constituents will flock to it. Unless you maintain it, consistently upgrade and evolve the content and relentlessly promote the app, it will shrink into the shadows and go zombie on you.
  1. Establish a process for administering your app store accounts, making sure you know the passwords, who has access to the accounts and who’s receiving the customer feedback and complaints the app stores provide. If this information goes into a generic email account that isn’t actively reviewed, you’re missing out on customer insights that will offer direction for app enhancements.

Nearly two decades after Snake debuted on Nokia mobile phones, this simple game could be classified as a zombie because there’s so little interest in playing it. But your agency’s apps need not follow that path.

Rethinking how constituents want to interact with your agency and regularly refreshing your apps’ functionality to respond to users’ needs will keep your audience engaged and ensure your apps enjoy a long and healthy life.