The best federal mobile apps (and some that need more work)

Popular federal mobile applications designed for the public could use a few tweaks to make them even more engaging and useful, according to a new report from the White Horse Digital Futures Group marketing agency.

The “Mobile Guidelines for Federal Government Agencies” report on Oct. 20 offered detailed reviews of 30 popular federal mobile applications. Report author Will Reese singled out seven of the 30 mobile applications for praise, including The White House, Smithsonian Channel and 9/11 apps, along with National Science Foundation's Science 360, the General Service Administration's USAJobs, USArmy News and Smithsonian's Leafsnap.


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These seven federal mobile applications have identified successfully their strategic users, are offering a core experience and “compelling benefits” to those users, and take full advantage of mobile platforms, the report said.

For example, the 9/11 Memorial application is designed specifically for visitors to the museum and memorial at the site of the attack in New York, with useful information easily available at their fingertips while they are touring the location.

The Science360 application provides a compelling “coffeetable book experience” of multiple science-related photographs that display in a full color on an iPhone or iPad screen, the review said.

But the remainder of the federal consumer-facing applications could use a bit of improvement, or may need to be overhauled or eliminated, the report suggested.

For example, the Recovery.gov mobile application showing economic stimulus spending on a map is confusing and may give users the wrong impression, the author wrote.

The user sees multiple dots on a map, with each dot signifying a project. But the images on Recovery.gov soon get chaotic, the report suggests.

“On zooming out, the number of dots increases, creating a sense that funded projects exist everywhere. There is little order or priority—$2 million projects appear the same as $20,000 projects—making it hard for a user to know how to sort the information and what to look for in it,” White Horse Digital said in the report. “This confusion creates an impression of random, if not chaotic, expenditure, which is, of course, counter to the government’s aims of appearing effective and accountable.”

Other federal mobile applications that came under criticism in the report included Bureau of Printing and Engraving's EyeNote and Smithsonian's Meanderthal, which authors said were both less sophisticated than commercially-available products; as well as the Smithsonian Collection Guide, which it suggested was too complex and untargeted.

Some of the author’s findings might appear to be based on a casual assessment. For example, the author suggested that the Health and Human Services Department’s My Dietary Supplements (MyDs) mobile application to help individuals track their medical drug intake “seemed irrelevant” and the application should be “tossed.”

However, HHS officials previously have said the MyDs application provides a significant service to individuals who are on multiple drug regimens and need to have their drug information readily at hand at doctors’ appointments.

Reader comments

Mon, Oct 24, 2011 Will Reese Ph.D.

Thanks for this great coverage. To clarify: our assessment is based on first principles of human factors. In the case of the "My Dietary Supplements (MyDs) mobile application," the experience is not an app but, by our analysis, a widget. We judged it irrelevant specifically in relation to more compelling overarching user concerns about supplements--understanding side effects, safety, efficacy, dosage, purity, drug interactions--which could provide stronger benefits stories and drive greater usage than simple list-based memory aids. Many native mobile tools already handle simple list making easily, so expending valuable government resources for something like "MyDs" is unnecessary. Hope this helps.

Mon, Oct 24, 2011 Will Mclaughlin mclaughlinwill1@gmail.com

Nice overview, and headings for the future will make it even better.

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