Building Better Apps

As agencies roll out more public-facing mobile applications, three developers provide some unvarnished feedback.

Solve the Outbreak

AGGREGATE SCORE: 4.5 out of 5

CDC’s iPad gaming app enlists players as “disease detectives,” making tough decisions to control an outbreak and learning about diseases, data and epidemiology along the way.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Strong educational content
  2. Engaging for kids and adults
  3. Clean design
  4. Intuitive to play
  1. Only available on iPad. An iPhone version could significantly broaden the game’s reach.

This is the type of learning I love for kids to have because it teaches that a lot of the math, biology, science and statistics concepts they are learning have meaningful applications.
—Ted Chan

Comet Quest

AGGREGATE SCORE: 2.17 out of 5

NASA’s iPhone and iPad game simulates dodging meteors on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Clean execution
  2. Solid graphics
  1. Educational content isn’t integrated into the game
  2. Game play is confusing and not very fun

This misses the mark for me both as a game and as an educational experience.
—Yaron Oren

DOS Careers

AGGREGATE SCORE: 4.3 out of 5

This app teaches prospective employees about the Foreign Service and offers sample questions from the Foreign Service Officers Test.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Engaging, interactive and fun
  2. Well designed
  3. Lots of information
  4. Doesn’t link to external websites
  1. Very large, rivaling the size of many online games
  2. Doesn’t explain opt-in usage tracking
  3. Not yet available on iPads

It's the best designed government app I've seen. It's chock full of useful information, great engaging content, and it flows logically so you can find anything you are looking for.
—Ted Chan

Smart Traveler

AGGREGATE SCORE: 1.5 out of 5

Smart Traveler offers information to international travelers, including country data, travel alerts and warnings, maps and U.S. embassy locations. Users can also create travel itineraries inside the app.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Good potential to aid travelers
  2. Includes some useful information
  1. Slow downloads and
    frequent errors
  2. Links to some websites aren’t optimized to work with the app
  3. Not all content is updated
  4. Design doesn’t tap phone capabilities

With better design this app could be a must-have tool for foreign travelers. Unfortunately its poor design and execution do not match its potential.
—Adam Borut

U.S. Postal Service Tools

U.S. Postal Service

AGGREGATE SCORE: 3.8 out of 5

This app helps mobile users find nearby post offices and mailboxes, track packages and look up ZIP Codes.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Includes useful information
  2. Makes sense for mobile
  3. Well-organized interface with clear attention to detail
  1. Sometimes buggy
  2. Much of what the app did could be done on Google

Fix some of the bugs and this could be a four or a five-star app.
—Yaron Oren

CDC Influenza

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

AGGREGATE SCORE: 1.7 out of 5

This app offers doctors and other health
care professionals the latest flu recommendations and updates about outbreaks.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Some data seemed useful
  1. Very buggy
  2. Took too long to load and update
  3. Information wasn't visualized in a helpful way
  4. The information seemed like a better fit for a mobile-optimized website

It took more than two minutes for me to update the content on a fast connection. That's not a good development practice. You want to break updates into small, digestible pieces so you don't significantly impact the user experience, especially on the first use.
—Ted Chan

NASA Space Weather Media Viewer


AGGREGATE SCORE: 3.8 out of 5

NASA's Space Weather Media Viewer features near-real-time images of space phenomena plus interviews with prominent scientists and educational graphics.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Solid content
  2. Intuitive design
  3. A good opportunity to educate
  1. Not enough explanation of images
  2. Didn't put most popular content on top
  3. Some images took too long to load
  4. Not optimized for iPads
  5. Missed opportunity to highlight rare space events

This app is full of great images and content but the design of the app could be much more user friendly. The best and most updated content needs to be quicker to access and browse.
—Yaron Oren

Satellite Insight


AGGREGATE SCORE: 1.7 out of 5

A game developed to simulate the process of gathering and organizing data from NASA's Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, R series. Players must organize colored blocks representing like data then process that data before the grid overflows.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Good idea to combine education and gaming
  2. Decent concept for a game
  1. The game itself isn't very educational (most of the learning comes from reading the instructions)
  2. The app isn't engaging enough to compete in the crowded game marketplace

This is the type of game that three years ago people might have considered playing. It is decently executed in terms of game mechanics. But it doesn't draw the user in that much compared to other games available and it doesn't have much education value. To get any engagement in the gaming space today, the bar is very high.
—Ted Chan

America's Economy

Census Bureau


The America's Economy app provides real-time updates for 16 key economic indicators released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Useful information
  2. Well organized
  1. Not enough information to justify its own app
  2. Information could be presented more clearly
  3. App takes too long to load

There's a nice design and good information. But in today's crowded mobile app marketplace, I'm not sure if it's enough information to justify its own app. It feels more like a feature of another app.
—Yaron Oren

Education Department

AGGREGATE SCORE: 3.7 out of 5 provides information about planning and paying for college in an interactive format.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Good choice to design a mobile website rather than a native app
  2. Easy to navigate
  3. Good information for pre-college students in a variety of age groups
  1. Not enough information on the homepage; doesn't invite readers to click in
  2. Images slowed down loading and didn't add much to the site

Generally I like applications and services that leverage the mobile Web and the browser. From a development perspective, it's nice to have the build once, run all environment.
—Ted Chan

FBI Child ID

Federal Bureau of Investigation

AGGREGATE SCORE: 3.5 out of 5

This app provides a convenient place to electronically store photos and vital information about your child so that it's at hand if your child goes missing.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Provides clear value
  2. Makes sense for mobile
  1. Data entry is difficult
  2. Doesn't allow storing multiple pictures of a child

It's not something you'd use regularly, but it makes sense for mobile. It's like an insurance card in the back of your pocket that you rarely pull out.
—Yaron Oren

Smokey Bear

U.S. Forest Service

AGGREGATE SCORE: 2.3 out of 5

Smokey Bear's official mobile app offers a step-by-step guide and safety tips for how to properly build and put out a campfire.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Good potential; useful information
  1. Requires Internet access, so not very useful for camping
  2. Not kid friendly enough
  3. Would have benefited from more visuals

Pages that are step by steps like 'Dig a Pit,' could really use some illustrations to make them more fun and kid friendly.
—Matt Thazhmon

Per Diem for Continental U.S.

General Services Administration


This app allows travelers to look up federal government per diem rates by city and ZIP code in locations throughout the United States and its territories.

Pros and Cons:
  1. Useful information
  1. Only does one thing
  2. Isn't necessarily better than Google
  3. Doesn't include features to store or submit expenses

It would be nice if this was just one feature of an app. If your target demographic is government employees who travel a fair amount there are probably a lot of key things they'd be interested in. It could include information on risk management or travel guidelines. It could even be integrated with an app that captures and stores those expenses.
—Ted Chan