Agency apps must be regularly updated or face obsolescence

Strong design is a critical element of successful mobile applications, developers say.

Mobile applications are like websites -- they're either regularly updated or rapidly outdated, government app experts said Wednesday.

But agencies also should be wary of packing their apps with so much content they confuse or overwhelm users, government IT officials said at a webinar hosted by Government Executive Media Group, which includes Nextgov.

"Folks that access mobile applications are really looking for a well-designed application, particularly from a visual standpoint and a layout standpoint," said Neil Bonner, branch chief for applications development at the Transportation Security Administration who helped develop the My TSA app. "If you don't have a designer on your [mobile] project, you need to get one."

The My TSA app pulls together Federal Aviation Administration data about flight delays and crowd sourced data about how long it's taking app users to get through security checkpoints at specific airports.

The app also includes a list of more than 3,000 items fliers can and cannot carry onto their flights or put in checked baggage. That list started at about 900 items but grew rapidly as travelers used a response feature on the app to ask TSA about unlisted items.

Similar direct user feedback and computer analysis of how travelers are using the app has helped TSA to home in on precisely what their app audience wants, Bonner said.

"At a minimum, you should provide some opportunity for users to provide feedback," he said. "Maybe there's a function you think will be a real knockout feature, but if you have a feedback mechanism, you may find out people don't understand it or aren't using it."

The Internal Revenue Service began developing its IRS2Go app with just a few in-house officials using analytics gathered from the IRS website to put together a Web-based prototype, said Michael Silvia, director of the agency's portal business management division.

When it came time to develop the actual app, the IRS went to a small vendor that had a long history of working specifically with mobile apps, he said.

The IRS initially conceived of its app as simply a tool for individual filers to check the status of their refunds, Silvia said.

The agency soon realized, though, it could add features such as contact numbers for regional offices and links to its social media sites, which have helped to roughly double the IRS' Twitter followers without making the interface too crowded.

The IRS focused on using small blocks of text on the app and saving lengthy explanations of the federal tax code for its website, he said.

While the IRS2Go app will not include as much information as the agency's website, Silvia said, building up a single app rather than launching new ones, allows the agency to leverage an existing brand.

"We wanted to approach it as a scalable tool," Silvia said. "What we didn't want to do is have a 'where's my refund app,' a 'get your transcript app,' and a 'sign up for your tax updates' app because I think it would be confusing and it would also be more difficult for the taxpayer."