Mobile development is no cakewalk, but accessible user-centered apps that allow individuals to solve their own problems can improve government services delivery and spark digital transformation.

Mobile banking. Social media. Health-care access. Online shopping. Whatever it is, there’s an app for it -- unless it's government services.

There are exceptions, of course, like Outdoor Florida, which is an app that connects Floridians with their state’s outdoor recreation options. Other government technology solutions include inspection applications that allow agency field personnel to conduct inspections using mobile devices and tablets. By and large, though, the government lags in mobile development, and one in three Americans reports still has difficulty getting services and information from agencies. Clearly, there’s room for improving customer service in government.

A mobile government application can be a groundbreaking innovation for an agency, but building one is not without challenges. Development costs are the first hurdle, and it may be difficult to amass the financial and human resources necessary to undertake the project. Even after an app is built and launched, security protocols and network restrictions must be continuously updated and maintained, meaning there’s really no such thing as a “completed” application.

Add compatibility issues with existing government technology systems, the necessary change in business processes and the need to integrate disparate sources of data, and it’s clear that mobile development is no cakewalk. To help overcome these obstacles and maximize chances of success, agencies should ground their mobile development strategy in these six principles.

1. Keep users at the center

When agencies create a mobile application, it’s imperative developers put themselves in the shoes of the constituents. Informed personas can help the development team visualize who the users are, what they’re trying to do with the mobile services and what features are most important given the limited bandwidth of the team.

Creating personas is, in many ways, a prioritization exercise. Smartphones can only display a limited amount of information at a time, so a complex user journey that attempts to cater to hundreds or thousands of personas will end up failing all of them. Armed with a sense of who the users are, agencies can find common themes, allowing them to develop an app with broader appeal.

2. Get help from experts

Many government agencies aren’t equipped with the expert personnel necessary to create and maintain high-performing mobile applications. In such cases, outsourcing to a third-party expert team can help them achieve their goal much faster.

Outside specialists also bring advanced skills to take a project to the next level. A usability expert, for example, can help a team design and test for simplicity and ease of use, while a cybersecurity professional can conduct penetration testing to spot security gaps before they become an issue.

3. Use platform-based, out-of-the-box mobile functionality

Strongly consider using a platform-based, low-code approach for mobile app development instead of building apps from scratch. Secure cloud platforms like Salesforce are capable of creating ready-to-test mobile apps in a matter of hours. This approach allows developers to try out various options for the app -- whether it be user experience, features and functionalities, performance or maintenance -- virtually in real-time without any risks.

4. Prioritize accessibility

Accessibility isn’t just about convenience -- it’s a legal requirement for all federal agencies, and it won’t find its way into a mobile government application on its own. As teams create a mobile strategy, they should be mindful of the full range of abilities across their constituent base.

Using the appropriate testing tools will ensure an app conforms with the Revised 508 Standards for Accessibility. Accessibility is a complex matter that requires diligent attention and care, and team members can take relevant training courses to arm them with the knowledge they need. Working with a UX professional with proven accessibility experience in government technology will ensure the app is built right the first time.

5. Plan for connectivity issues

It’s a common mistake for development teams to assume users have constant connectivity. When cell service is sparse or Wi-Fi is unavailable, users should still have a suite of other ways to interact with the government.

Although many of an app’s core functionalities will inevitably require online capabilities, it should also offer instructions for offline users. Include an offline mode that offers a phone number, traditional mailing address or instructions for in-person interactions to ensure that the agency remains as accessible and user-friendly as possible.

6. Get input from users

Mobile development is a continuous process, so agencies shouldn't expect to complete a project and put it on a shelf for any extended period. Mobile applications require design and maintenance across evolving mobile operating systems and device capabilities.

Teams should get feedback from users at each stage in the development journey and use data capture techniques such as session replay to see how users navigate the app. Usage data will provide valuable insights that help refine and improve the app, ensuring it only gets better with age.

There’s a reason that mobile applications have become ubiquitous: They’re easy to use, they can be accessed from virtually anywhere at any time and they allow users to solve their own problems or connect with the right resources if they can’t. As mobile apps become integrated in daily life, it’s time for a similar digital transformation in government. With a clearly defined strategy, local government technology solutions can empower forward-thinking agencies to catch up.

Prashant Mehta is vice president of the corporate collaboration center at Kyra Solutions.

Originally published on January 13, 2022 in GCN.

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