Applying native mobile capabilities to government service delivery

At a keynote speech in 2007, Steve Jobs made the case that third-party software development on the iPhone should be accomplished by using the best of what we already have: the Web.

Apple’s vision was that web apps were the solution, built using HTML, CSS, Javascript, and deployed using the Safari web browser.

Just one year later, Apple changed course, and the App store was launched. With it came one of the most robust tech booms we’ve seen since the advent of the internet itself. In parallel, responsive design, spurred in part by Ethan Marcotte’s redesign of, brought new flexible ways of tailoring website layout and design for all sorts of screen sizes large and small. Often conversations about designing for these new small-screen devices resulted in a binary conversation: web vs native, or mobile app vs responsive website. In some respects, this was a fair framing in that if you had limited resources to build your digital presence, building an online presence for iOS, Android, and the web was a daunting prospect.

The role of native mobile in CX

As people’s preferences and behaviors have evolved in the last 15 years, native apps are increasingly one part of a larger customer experience, rather than the only way people interact with a service or product. Users are increasingly comfortable interacting with a service via the web on a laptop one day and on their phone the next, often choosing the device based on a specific task. We can see a concrete example of this with activities like online banking. Signing on to your bank’s website to check a balance or pay a bill is a task well suited to a responsive website, whereas scanning a check for deposit is better handled through an online banking app, using fast access to a mobile device’s camera and OCR capabilities.

Most importantly, native phone hardware has continued to add new sensors, capabilities, and tools that provide new features best suited to native mobile app development. Much like depositing a check with your banking app, these features provide meaningful, ongoing engagement with services in ways significantly enhanced by targeting these new features of mobile devices.

We believe that native mobile applications are currently a missed opportunity for federal agencies looking to improve the customer experience of their services. Native mobile apps can and should be be a valuable part of a larger customer experience strategy, and agencies should examine how to best apply the benefits of mobile to the needs of their customers.

Native mobile capabilities

To provide additional inspiration about ways native apps can improve CX in government, here’s a list of native features and their potential applications in a public sector context. Some or all of these features can be used by government agencies as they develop new digital experiences to improve the quality of that experience and foster greater trust in government.


Biometric authentication provides perhaps the most meaningful way to reduce the friction of signing in to a government service. In isolation, this can be seen as a nice convenience, but when used in conjunction with digital services that can result in high-stress situations, reducing friction to gain access is a very big deal.’s plans to incorporate facial recognition, while not targeted at native mobile apps, does provide an interesting example of how this kind of approach can provide alignment with security standards and accepted private-sector approaches to signing in to a service.

Location services

Location services can provide a meaningful bridge between informational content online and finding access to a physical location near you without the cumbersome data entry of manually entering an address. In addition, location services can provide additional enhancements to an in-person check-in experience. Private sector curbside check-in services provide this kind of contextual awareness every day. Imagine what it might look like to proactively ask a user if they’d like to check in for their appointment as they arrive on site at the agency office?


Notifications are perhaps the most prevalent feature of native app development today. Ongoing relationships between people and the native apps they use are often spurred through notifications. While private sector metrics for engagement or time spent on an app do not apply in a government context (rather quite the opposite), notifications do provide meaningful, timely updates to service delivery — something that can greatly improve customer experience, particularly when there might be a step that involves action taken by a government entity for approval. Notifications enable proactive updates, rather than relying on a user to check their email or sign back into a service to check for updates.

Camera / OCR

For scanning documents, optical character recognition, and portrait uploads, native camera support provides a wealth of opportunities from an interaction perspective. Instead of uploading or mailing documents, people can now send documents digitally without the hassle and expense of breaking out a scanner and desktop computer. In addition, since these cameras are always with us, they provide opportunities for on-the-go photo documentation for reporting onsite issues or field reports. From potholes to graffiti or simply a location in need of repair — the possibilities are endless.

Offline use

An unheralded UX capability, offline access provided by local storage within an app can be vital for users in rural settings or for people with less reliable internet access in general. Providing the ability for people to save progress, then continue seamlessly when access is restored can be a meaningful improvement in improving trust, reliability, and access to government services.

Native accessibility features

While native application accessibility standards might be lacking, the competitive nature of iOS and Android development has resulted in some significant accessibility wins for consumers. There is now meaningful access to applications for users with all forms of accessibility needs, including motor skills, cognitive impairments, color blindness, and vestibular issues. Native mobile operating systems provide powerful solutions that developers can take advantage of to improve the customer experience of all users.


Native phone wallet applications provide another way to reduce friction between people and the services they rely on. From authentication, payment, and service delivery, native wallet functionality can provide an easy way for people to gain access to a service without having to even open your agency app at all, in much the same way they might every day with their roadside assistance wallet card or their favorite coffee shop.

Bridging the gap

These native features provide a meaningful, diverse array of potential options for improving customer experience, especially when employed in specific use cases relevant to user needs.

The best mobile apps don’t attempt to be Swiss Army Knives or replicate the broad functionality of an entire website or suite of services. Rather, they provide specific value, often for a subset of a service delivery — a piece of the puzzle, rather than the whole. That does not diminish their value, as many of these services and apps provide an ease of use that is difficult to replicate with any other technology.

In much the same way that the mobile web compelled us to consider responsive web design to meet the needs of people surfing the web on a phone, the native app ecosystem of today compels us to consider how we can add these tools to government service delivery to close the gap between expectations and our current digital infrastructure.

Closing this gap is critical to improving the experience of using government digital services, and realizing the fundamental goal of the Administration’s Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience — enhancing people’s trust in government.