Having a defined purpose and creating a unique mobile experience for the user are two of the top priorities government agencies should keep in mind when developing mobile apps and mobile websites, according to a new study.

The report, Mobile Development Guidelines for Government Agencies, provides several best practices and an analysis tool to determine if a government agency should focus on creating a mobile app or a mobile website. It also evaluates 30 government apps currently available on iTunes and gives recommendations on how to build a successful mobile experience.

Published by White Horse, a digital marketing agency, one of the study’s major findings is that the federal government often focuses too much on putting mobile applications online, but neglects the experience users have when using them.

“We see a similar phenomenon in the private sector, but I hadn’t expected to see it in government,” said Will Reese, author of the study and head of White Horse’s Digital Futures Group, in an e-mail to Government Technology. “Typically, somebody has an idea stemming from their own experience and imagines that it justifies creating an app.”

Reese called it the “wouldn’t it be cool if” factor — acceptable as a source of inspiration, but usually not good enough a reason to put an app into production. Reese added that design teams typically go through hundreds of ideas before identifying a select few that meet a program’s needs.

Jen Modarelli, CEO of White Horse, agreed and said that while it seems like an obvious first step, having a clear purpose outlined before developing an app is uncommon.

“This isn’t something that is just in the public sector; it happens in the private sector too,” she explained. “It’s kind of like [a mentality of] ‘we need to have a mobile presence, so let’s just build something.’ So it’s the contextual relevance and design of an app that were the two main no-brainers here.”

In addition, while Modarelli felt every agency should have a mobile presence, it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of an app.

“The whole concept of user-design is much more complicated when talking about a mobile device,” Modarelli said. “You’re not talking about a use case when someone is sitting at a desk. They are walking around with a need, so you have to take the environment into consideration as you decide what the most appropriate mobile experience is.”

Federal Apps Hit and Miss

The report presents a “mobile experience funnel” diagram that uses the criteria of purpose, medium, mobility and experience to judge app concept ideas. Running it through the four-point check then allows decision-makers to effectively prioritize the development of an app or a mobile website, depending on the situation.

The federal government apps evaluated by White Horse were judged with a “keep/change/toss” rating, based on the mobile experience funnel.

According to the report, the keep-rated apps were those that appeared “to be built with a strategic user and core usage scenarios firmly in mind.” These included the White House app that targets those looking for information about President Barack Obama. The White House app organizes information by most recent news and provides unfiltered video of all things related to the president, so citizens and members of the media can make judgments on their own.

Other spotlighted apps include U.S. Army News, which focuses on connecting the community of Army families and veterans, and the 9/11 Memorial app that assists tourists on visiting the site in New York City.

Those apps in the change rating category simply need a tweak to center the app on a particular scenario. QuitGuide, which aims to be a resource to help people who stopped smoking resist the urge to again pick up the habit, is one example.

The report says while the app has a notable purpose in mind, it isn’t designed around the kinds of scenarios that trigger the urge to continue smoking, instead providing only random text information about the dangers. By redoing the app to focus around specific situations, it may greatly improve its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, apps such as ATF, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, landed in the toss pile. The app promises users the ability to learn about the history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but it remains vague as to why a person using the app would need this information on a mobile device. Among the others entrenched in this category included the Recovery.gov app and the BMI Calculator.

What surprised Reese the most was that while there were nine of 30 federal government apps in the toss category, only seven were in the keep category.

Should state and local government entities jump into the mobile app fray? Modarelli wouldn’t advise it. She encouraged those officials to back off the hype surrounding mobile apps.

“Cities and counties I really think should just look to the mobile Web,” she said. “There are going to be a lot of budgetary pressures, and there is no reason that you want to try and maintain an app for all these different devices if you can just manage things through a couple of browsers.”

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 1998, 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.