You have a budget and marching orders to design your agency’s first mobile app. Building it shouldn’t be difficult, but how do you ensure the app is a success? According to experts, the first priority is to keep it simple.

Developers and company executives agree that governments should tailor an app to serve a specific function, instead of forcing it to handle multiple issues. An app that is tightly focused is likelier to see widespread adoption among both internal and external users.

Agencies typically design two types of mobile apps: productivity apps for use by employees and engagement apps for use by citizens. But many of the same best practices apply to both.

Maury Blackman, CEO of Accela Inc., said that just because an app works great for city building inspectors doesn’t mean it will work effectively for an entire public works department. So developers shouldn’t try to force one app to do multiple jobs.

Westminster, Colo., for example, has a group that inspects manholes. Accela worked with the city to create a Manhole Inspection App that is designed to make inspectors’ jobs easier. But the app wouldn’t necessarily work in a more general sense for other departments in the city. Focusing on a specific task, Blackman said, is a key to developing a popular app.

Reed Pangborn, area vice president of industry and mobility application solutions for AT&T, agreed. When it comes to citizen engagement, he said successful apps provide easy access to information that users need every day — like real-time parking availability and subway schedules.

Engage Your Users

Popular apps engage users, and simplicity is a critical component here. If you make users work too hard, they probably won’t return.

“If you have designed a mobile app that requires users to walk through five or 10 steps just to find out where a bus is or to remove graffiti, then people are unlikely to use it,” said Chris Osgood, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, which created the city’s award-winning Citizens Connect mobile app. “The design needs to be well thought through so people can actually get the service that they want done quickly.”

4 Steps to App Success

Whether a government agency is creating a productivity app for employees or a citizen-facing engagement app, keeping the following steps in mind will increase the chances of developing a successful product.

1. Keep it Simple

Design an app with a clear focus and make the interface easy to use. Users don’t want to have to search for information. Instead of creating one app for many needs — that may require users to complete multiple steps to find information — develop the app to fill a specific purpose.

2. Engage the User

An app should include feedback mechanisms and gamification elements where appropriate to make the experience interactive. Including the ability for users to comment or vote on app features like service requests can help engage them in the process and increase the chances that they will use the app again.

3. Solve a Problem

Find a specific issue people are frustrated with, and use the app to address it. Don’t make an app just to make an app. Some of the most successful government-run apps have clearly focused on a citizen need, such as real-time parking space availability.

4. Embrace Flexibility

The design of an app should be done with re-use and sharing in mind. Agencies also should make sure they have the resources to continually update the app to work on existing and future operating systems.

Osgood said feedback mechanisms are an essential feature too. The idea behind Citizens Connect is to make residents the city’s “eyes and ears” in neighborhoods, he said. But along with the ability to report problems such as potholes, the app lets users send comments and suggestions to the development team.

Philadelphia’s 311 app is another good example of a mobile program designed with the user in mind. Philly 311 allows citizens to submit pictures of graffiti or abandoned vehicles that they want the city to remove. Users get an immediate acknowledgement that the city has received their request, and they can track progress on resolving the issue.

In addition, gamification can help spur engagement. For instance, Philadelphia 311 lets citizens vote existing requests up or down, which helps the city prioritize which issues to work on first.

Adel Ebeid, chief innovation officer of Philadelphia, said a successful app is essentially a community engagement platform and should be built with interactivity in mind. “Don’t take a mobile app and try to mirror the bureaucracy of government because it’ll be doomed to fail from its first release,” Ebeid said. “You have to use the mobile app to kind of demystify mobile government and show them a friendlier, intuitive face.”

Solve a Problem

Ultimately an app must deliver value. If an app is full of interesting features but doesn’t actually accomplish a tangible task or solve a problem, it likely won’t attract regular users.

Blackman pointed to an app created by El Paso, Texas, that helps give citizens a quicker explanation for missed garbage pickups. Previously, garbage truck drivers wrote out a paper ticket when they couldn’t pick up a can that was overflowing, contained hazardous waste or had some other problem. The ticket was returned to the office at the end of the driver’s route and entered into the city computer system, but it could take several days for that information to be available to residents.

Now when drivers spot a garbage can that can’t be emptied, they use the app to take a picture of it and upload a report to the city’s central database in real time.

Osgood said the apps with the highest adoption rates are typically those that are really responsive to something the public needs or is acutely feeling. Ebeid concurred and stressed the need for an app to solve a “neighborhood pain point” in order to be successful.

“In the excitement to build, we sometimes forget the most basic tenet, which is we are here to help people,” Osgood said. “It is incredibly important to anchor a lot of the development work around helping our residents and constituents with the basic challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.”

Be Flexible

While it’s important for an app to be specific in its function and scope, experts also believe the app’s back-end support and design must remain flexible. Agility will only help agencies roll with societal and technological changes in years to come.

Pangborn said ongoing life cycle management is paramount for governments. He encouraged agencies to devise a strategy to ensure that the app will continue to run on the different operating systems currently on the market, and be able to quickly adapt to new ones as they appear.

Blackman is a proponent of making apps repeatable. He said apps need to be built on platforms that allow them to be duplicated across multiple cities. So instead of making things proprietary, developers should make sure the software can be adapted for use by anyone with a similar need.

“If we’re having to build a manhole inspection or garbage pickup app for every city in America, it’s going to be pretty difficult,” Blackman said.

Some cities are already moving toward that model. Ebeid noted that Philadelphia and CIOs from “five to seven” other cities are interested in the idea of a public-sector app store, where local governments can make their work available to all municipalities in one place. Although talks are still informal, he expects to see some movement on the idea in 2014.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.