Government apps: Learning from industry

Private sector experts weigh in on how agencies can build successful software applications for mobile devices.

A successful mobile app -- whether it aims to educate, aid or entertain -- has about 30 seconds to sell users on its utility and to make a solid case for why it should live on your phone rather than on a website or some other place, app designers and experts told Nextgov.

Making that sale, they said, calls for a simple design that doesn't crowd a 3.5-inch screen, a no-nonsense interface that is both more and less than a mobile website, and, most important, compelling content people will want to return to again and again.

See how the experts rate 12 government apps. Government agencies have had mixed success in the mobile app arena. We asked three private sector app developers to rate the overall effectiveness of a dozen federal agency apps, and developed this interactive graphic to describe their findings. Their ratings offer insight into what agencies are doing well and where they need to improve.

The Social Security Administration's Baby Name Playroom app, for instance, has all the ingredients of a solid 30-second sale.

The app, which collects more than a century of Social Security data on U.S. baby names, has only three buttons on its home page: Most Popular, Browse Names and Surprise Me. But, with just four taps and swipes you can be scrolling through the 100 most popular girls' names of 1964 and thus confirm your hunch that there are an awful lot of fortysomething Lisas and Marys out there.

The app leverages interesting data that the Social Security Administration has good reason to be expert in. Using it is simple enough that it makes sense to pull it up while riding the bus or waiting in a doctor's office, said Yaron Oren, chief marketing officer at iSpeech, a developer of text-to-voice conversion technology that's used in numerous mobile apps.

Some other government apps fall short of the mark.

The Small Business Administration's SBA app, for example, fails the mobility test by offering users a complex calculator to tabulate their business' startup costs -- something any serious businessperson should be doing at home on a spreadsheet, not while waiting in line for the restroom, said Ted Chan, a technology consultant and app developer.

The General Services Administration's app fails the simplicity test by asking users to type names of specific products into a search bar -- no easy task on an iPhone or Android with a tiny keyboard that's trying to autocorrect your every move.

"I see a surprising number of mobile apps that ask you to input text; for me, that's generally a deal breaker," Chan said.

Chan, who developed a presentation on the economics of mobile apps for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also leads a small development company that specializes in test preparation apps. The key, he said, has been to make his apps navigable without entering text and condensing text to the point that it fits comfortably on a smartphone screen but still conveys important information.

A Governmentwide Trend

The number of government-developed mobile apps has risen from just 15 in July of 2010 to more than 80 this month, with most federal agencies sponsoring at least one app.

The push toward mobile was spurred by a drive to keep up with the times and to improve government customer service by meeting citizens where they are, officials have said. It also was spurred by recognition that many low-income people are purchasing smartphones in lieu of computers, so information posted to a nonmobile-enabled website is less likely to reach them.

Ideally, apps should respond to a need that is as mobile as the app itself, experts said. The Veterans Affairs Department's PTSD Coach, for example -- the experts favorite -- can be on hand for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder whenever and wherever they suffer an attack. Key to the app's success was that developers involved potential users -- PTSD sufferers -- in designing it. For more on how they did that, click here.

The app model has limitations too, though.

Even free downloadable apps represent a greater investment in time and screen space than a simple Google search -- one people are unlikely to make if they don't plan to use the app repeatedly, Oren said.

At this point, the Internal Revenue Service's IRS2Go app, for instance, is focused mostly on telling filers whether their refunds are on the way. That's a burning question to be sure, but one that only troubles the average e-filer for a few weeks and one that can be answered nearly as quickly by looking at your checking account balance, which is also typically available through a smartphone app.

IRS2Go app developers have said they plan to gradually add new services.

Many of the best apps tap into a smartphone's geo-location features or use pictures, music, social media and other elements already on the smartphone, expert said.

Vets can outfit VA's PTSD app, for instance, with personalized photos and music they know will calm them.

The mobile-enabled website GoSmithsonian, on the other hand, has a wealth of information about Smithsonian museum exhibits and floor plans, but would have greater value for Washington-bound tourists if it was a pared down GPS-enabled app, experts said.

"I'd prefer a simple interface highlighting a few things you'd actually want to do on your phone," Oren said. "I think it would make sense to highlight a [mobile-optimized] floor plan you can use once you're inside a museum, so you can use your phone as a guide."

The Smithsonian has developed some native apps for specific museums and exhibitions.

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