Design firm recommends revamping many government mobile apps

Software developers too often lack a clear vision of apps' primary users.

Federal agencies have built a few standout mobile software applications, but too often they perform inconsequential tasks, rely on outdated technology, or fail to address the needs of their primary users, according to an industry report released Thursday.

The U.S. Postal Service's Tools app, for example, targets only a small number of users with enough foresight to download a mobile app to track their packages, while a mobile website could deliver all the same services and reach a much wider audience, according to the report from White Horse, a Portland, Ore.-based design company.

The Treasury Department's EyeNote app, designed to read dollar denominations to blind people, uses old photo technology to read bills rather than newer video technology, which makes it much more difficult for the app to get a clear reading. A private sector alternative called MoneyReader costs only $2 and does the job much better, the report said.

White Horse's report looked at the 15 most popular government-built apps and the 15 least popular in the iTunes app store and recommended keeping, tossing or changing them based on an extensive slate of criteria. As with an earlier Nextgov review of government apps, the company found that most apps were on the right track but could use significant improvements.

The General Services Administration is leading a govenmentwide push to deliver more services and information through mobile apps and mobile-enabled websites, spurred by a drive to keep up with the times and to improve customer service by meeting citizens where they are.

The number of government-developed mobile applications has risen from just 15 in July 2010 to 85 this month, with most federal agencies sponsoring at least one app.

The company's favorite apps were ones that know precisely who their user is and offer that user something that makes sense on a mobile platform. The Smithsonian Institution's Leafsnap, for example, uses the smartphone's camera to help a user identify foreign plants on a walk or hike. The White House and U.S. Army News and Information apps offer a steady stream of mobile information to specific audiences: Obama news junkies and military families.

Many of the apps White Horse reviewed would be keepers if they were relaunched with better technology, expanded functions or more user-app interaction. The National Cancer Institute's Quit Guide, for instance, could send smokers text messages during the first few days after they quit, reminding them why they want to stop smoking and what to do when they experience triggers such as a friend smoking or stress at work, the report said. Instead, the app is mostly a collection of static information about smoking's harmful effects.

In addition, the National Library of Medicine's Embryo app could be renamed so its core audience, pregnant women and families interested in tracking their fetus' growth, are more likely to find it in the app store.

Some apps ought to be tossed entirely, the report said, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive's app, which is really just a trimmed down version of the agency's website.

"It's not clear what user would be interested, or under what circumstances they would wish to learn the ATF history," the report said. "Nor is it evident why this information should be made available on a mobile device."