Mobile usability: Targeting the tool to the audience

Smartphone in hand

Employees and customers are an increasingly mobile lot, so developing apps and websites that deliver the goods on the go has become a pressing issue for agencies.

Mobile technology calls for research and planning, preferably in an iterative process that involves early user feedback and testing at key points during the design phase. The goal is to enhance the user experience, which makes adoption and productive use more likely and justifies the cost of development.

In the quest for a better user experience, designers and developers grapple with a number of issues, starting with determining which mobile platform is best suited to the job. Answering that question and those that follow requires a certain amount of homework. But the extra effort could be the difference between a mobile outreach effort and one that stalls.

Why it matters

In an Appcelerator survey of corporate C-level executives and technology managers released earlier this year, 72 percent of respondents said it was likely or very likely that mobile development would outpace traditional Web and desktop development in 2013.

That shift in development, of course, is driven by user adoption of mobile devices. The Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project reported in June that the percentage of American adults who own cell phones passed the 90 percent mark for the first time. The organization noted that 91 percent of American adults own a cell phone (including 56 percent equipped with smart phones), and 34 percent have a tablet computer.

Keys to Success

No. 1: Keep an eye on content. Getting the interface design and user experience just right is important, but mobile content deserves its own focus. Nicole Dingess, director of user experience at NavigationArts, suggested that organizations audit their content inventory to find common themes and objects. The content strategy should also take social media channels into account.

And if general software development trends were not enough, government directives have made paying attention to the mobile experience increasingly important for agencies. In May 2012, the Office of Management and Budget issued the Digital Government Strategy, which instructs agencies to mobile-enable at least two customer-facing services and identify best practices for cultivating a mobile-tailored experience.

Agencies can attest to the uptick in mobile activity. In May 2011, the National Cancer Institute's Cancer.gov site reported a little less than 600,000 page views via mobile devices, but by year's end, the mobile tally had surpassed 1 million. That spike in traffic led the agency to create a mobile strategy.

"We've placed a greater priority on the mobilization of our content," said Jonathan Cho, chief of NCI's Communications Technology Branch.

NCI launched its mobile website, m.cancer.gov, last year.

The fundamentals

Organizations seeking to boost the mobile user's experience need to figure out which delivery platform — or platforms — will do the trick. The main options boil down to optimizing a website for mobile users, developing mobile apps or pursuing both paths. In the mobile apps category, further choices include developing an app that is native to a particular mobile operating system (such as Android, iOS or Windows Phone 8) or building a cross-platform app using HTML5.

"Doing everything can be challenging," especially in light of agencies' resource limitations, said John Landwehr, vice president of digital government solutions at Adobe Systems.

Accordingly, an agency might need to consider feasibility before taking on usability.

Keys to Success

No. 2: Don't sacrifice testing for the sake of speed. Gavin Lew, executive vice president of GfK User Centric, said agile development's focus on quick code iterations, called sprints, can cut research out of the design picture. "I think that's completely wrong," said Lew, who recommends inserting a usability test every four or five sprints.

Nicole Dingess, director of user experience at NavigationArts, said organizations need to determine what level of commitment they are willing to make when it comes to the maintenance of mobile apps and associated content. For example, apps need to be updated as new versions of mobile operating systems emerge, which is all the more challenging for organizations with apps running on multiple platforms.

"That is a commitment in time and budget that they have to consider," Dingess said.

An agency with limited mobile expertise might be better off focusing on the familiar, at least initially. Doug Brashear, mobile practice director at NavigationArts, said that for most of his clients, a mobile website is the best place to start because website design is something they already know how to do.

Science.gov opted for a mobile website strategy. The online gateway to government science information is governed by an alliance of 19 scientific and technical organizations at 15 federal agencies. The mobile version of the site, m.science.gov, debuted in September 2011.

The alliance chose a mobile website because it did want to limit "the dissemination of the science information to a certain user group or operating system," said Valerie Allen, senior technical information specialist at the Energy Department's Office of Scientific and Technical Information. The office is one of the organizations contributing to the development and management of Science.gov.

The website uses the Wireless Universal Resource File and a set of application programming interfaces to ensure accessibility across platforms and devices, Allen said.

Although Brashear said a stand-alone mobile website is a great way to accommodate on-the-go users, the downside is that the agency ends up with separate Web products serving different users. The approach bifurcates mobile analytics and search engine optimization, he added.

Brashear cited responsive design as the way around the issue and a method for improving the experience for a range of users. The approach provides a single code base that displays an optimized representation of a website based on the type of device accessing it.

"Responsive design is a big area we are going to be looking at," Cho said.


Get the Pew Research Center report on mobile device ownership.

NCI is considering how the approach might fit into the next generation of the organization's Web presence. A review of website analytics prompted NCI's interest in responsive design. Even after developing a mobile website, the agency discovered that a great deal of mobile traffic was still coming to its desktop-oriented website, said Lakshmi Grama, senior digital content strategist at NCI's Office of Communications and Education. Responsive design could improve the experience for those users.

"Every organization should...look at the analytics surrounding the types of devices coming to the primary Web channel," Cho said.

Some situations call for mobile apps rather than mobile websites. Examining frequency of use can help agencies make that decision. Agencies should consider how often the intended users are likely to look for information or perform a certain task. Occasional use might dictate a mobile website strategy, while higher user demand could make a mobile app the better choice.

Landwehr said users might prefer an installable app for sites they interact with on a weekly or daily basis. A mobile app also allows integration with other mobile apps and content, and the ability to interact with calendars, contacts and other mobile device features, he added.

The hurdles

Failure to test a mobile website or app ranks among the top pitfalls of mobilization. Experts recommend testing as a key component of an iterative design process. The idea is to put something in front of users quickly to uncover problems early in the design and development cycle.

"When we design things, we want to make mistakes faster," said Gavin Lew, executive vice president of consulting firm GfK User Centric, citing an observation previously made by former Intel CEO Andrew Grove.

Lew emphasized the importance of testing a design with naive users who fit the target market and are asked to accomplish a particular task. Lew said he believes an effective approach is a moderated, one-on-one usability test where the moderator can observe the user and look for signs of frustration.

Keys to Success

No. 3: Plan for the future. Doug Brashear, mobile practice director at NavigationArts, said organizations should not focus their mobile efforts exclusively on the present, but should instead create a plan for the next three years. An agency relatively new to mobile could envision its ideal future state and create a road map for getting there while identifying technical shortcomings to overcome along the way. A strategy, for example, might start with a mobile website and eventually move on to complementary mobile apps.

He said the initial mockup can be quite rough, noting that "fit and finish" should wait for later stages of development. The objective of early testing is to discover which design elements users find perplexing and make the necessary changes in a new iteration.

Projects fail when the coding starts too soon, he added. Listen to what users are saying "so when you start coding, you are coding something that has been iterated a couple of times."

Dingess also cited the importance of predevelopment testing. She said an organization can use a low-fidelity prototype to test a new navigation scheme, labels or feature set with users. Later, the organization can produce a more high-fidelity user interface design for multivariate testing.

Allen said the development of Science.gov's mobile website included a regimen of testing and feedback. "The first step was to provide a review of our audiences and primary user tasks — a 'who' and 'what' exercise with the focus on keeping it simple," she added.

The early testing involved wireframes, which are rudimentary website designs that developers use to spark discussion and initial feedback. Colors, images, font choices, placement, and other navigational and content-driven elements were tested within the bounds of Section 508 compliancy for users with disabilities, Allen said.

The feedback from those early tests was crucial. "Based on the responses, adjustments were made and the design was finalized," she added.


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