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Mobile Decisions | To App or Not to App, That is the Question

I will get some of this wrong. I am undoubtedly leaving much out. I am oversimplifying.

However, as mobile development in the federal government continues to ramp up, tools to help agencies and individuals assess how (and when) to intelligently proceed are increasingly important. Recognizing that every situation is unique, an understanding of a few critical questions should provide some clarity for those making the decision on how best to proceed with mobile development.

As with other communication activities, understanding your target audience and their behavior is critical when attempting to fully assess mobile development needs. Overall mobile consumption is clearly on the rise but a trend for any given demographic group does not necessarily imply that this group is using mobile in ways that match the objectives of your project or agency. Moreover, the effort needed to understand consumption patterns across different devices and platforms may require significant investment in this landscape that changes by the day.

Given these audience-related challenges, I’d like to propose some rules of thumb as guidance for those evaluating the choice between a smart phone app vs other approaches to mobile development. In this approach, the more “Yes’s” that you can assign, the more certain that app development is a reasonable choice.

  • Is the content already optimized for the web? The first (and often the only needed) step in mobile will be to ensure that the content is easily available via a mobile browser. Although optimization can itself be a challenge (i.e. full site vs. selected content), the ROI of this approach may be much higher as costs will frequently be lower and reach greater.
  • Is the content, “mobile” content? Mobile phones are very personal devices and the intimacy we have with them make them very effective channels for reaching individuals with contextually relevant information. This includes content that is either time-sensitive or location-relevant. In all honesty, content that fits this criteria may be rare in the federal government OR SMS messaging might be the more effective approach to consider in scenarios with a high degree of urgency (e.g. emergencies). Local government, on the other hand, may be in a very good position to develop content that is particularly relevant in the mobile context.
  • Is mobile functionality being leveraged to promote behavior change? As noted above, the fact that we are rarely without our mobile devices make them excellent candidates for recording, sharing and/or receiving prompts related to behavior change.
  • Is the app storing data (even locally) that improves functionality? Privacy issues certainly need to be investigated but apps that help facilitate and speed up transactions can be very useful.
  • Is the content accessed on a (very) frequent basis? Frequent access by many users supports the argument for an app that can essentially function as a bookmark for high-value content.
  • Are there adequate resources for maintain the app? The best apps continue to evolve and improve. It is VERY unlikely that you will completely nail an app the first time out. Building in time and resources for continued development is critical. This includes ensuring that there is an “owner” for the app and its content (just as every web page should have an owner).
  • Are there adequate resources for promoting the app? An app without adequate promotion is a lonely app indeed.

Finally, while researching this issue, I came across a clever tweet from @roprice | “Mobile decision tree: if it requires a login, make it a mobile app, if not, make it a mobile site.” Hard to beat the wisdom of 140 sometimes.

I hope this post stimulates some discussion, I am always happy to be proven wrong and, as always, these thoughts are mine and mine alone.

Mobile Gov Resources

USA.gov Mobile Apps
GobiernoUSA.gov Aplicaciones (apps) móviles

Related Resources
Better for Business: Mobile Web or App?
Why You May Not Need a Mobile App
So You Want to Build a Mobile App? 8 Things to Consider

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Stephanie Slade

I’ve chatted about this with my classmates, and something else we think is important to consider is the question of whether you foresee a use for QR codes in your future. If so, the mobile website becomes significantly more important than the app. People who spot your code and scan it with their smartphones need to be taken to a site that is mobile ready. Offering a great app is great, of course, but it’s only helpful to people who already have it downloaded.

Sandra Fernandez

I keep sitting in on discussions about the “need for an app” when the most basic thing hasn’t been done yet — ensuring that the site is visible for mobile devices. I think that you really need that step before you look at customizing platform specific applications.


Great post and decision tree.

I really like ”
mobile functionality being leveraged to promote behavior change” – to me a lot of the best apps aren’t about consuming information but changing your experience. Think like a fitness app which uses mobile to update your activities.

Could be some cool mobile applications that help enforce healthy behaviors (check-in if you’ve eaten fruits, or breastfed, etc)

Other item I might add is – is building the app the role of government or should private sector build if we just release our data/info? Not an easy answer always but good to think about

Jeff Ribeira

I completely agree with Sandra. An app shouldn’t even be on the table if you haven’t already created a mobile version of your website. That should at least be the minimum. I think Stephanie also has a great point with the QR codes which are definitely on the rise. At that point, as you said, you can decide if there is a more unique or user-friendly functionality/experience that would warrant the development of an app. With all that said however, I personally think the answer will almost always be yes, an app would enhance the user’s experience when developed with purpose and creativity. Mobile web browsing is the worst (IMO)!

Here’s another great recent blog post along these same lines: https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/are-new-apps-like-getting

Andrew Krzmarzick

Nice post, Andrew. There’s another one that was posted shortly after you that ties nicely with it:

Are New Apps Like “Getting Another Flier in the Mail”?


Wondering your opinion on the value of investing time in delivering messages via texts vs. apps as a better starting point given only 40-50% of Americans have a smart phone and (per the Pew research you cited above) only 11% are using apps. Is there a decision tree that comes before this one? Can we get citizens to give us phone numbers such that they will receive text alerts…and: Is that more cost effective than an app? Would text alerts reach more people? What’s the cost-benefit analysis of doing one or the other…or both?

Andrew Wilson

Thanks for all the comments. I probably wasn’t explicit enough in the post but the first part of a decision tree around mobile really should be “is the site mobile friendly/ optimized?”. It seems clear from just about everything that I have looked at that the ROI and reach from this will be far greater than an app. This may (and probably will) change but seems a safe bet for now.

As far as text messaging, my sense is that we need to tread lightly here. There are some situations where text messages are probably a good fit but if the messages are not 1) timely 2) actionable and 3) relevant then they risk being ignored. My sense is, given adequate resources, local governments might be better able to hit all three of these criteria. This does not mean that the federal government could not provide a valuable role or provide an important service (e.g. the development of a text “library” of tested messages) but it may need to partner to have maximum impact.

Eric Pecinovsky

The app needs to perform a unique function (ie location-based or just an additional feature) that the user currently cannot do on your website. Give the user a reason to download it.