It’s time to revisit mobile apps as a part of your government CX strategy

It’s time to update our view of native mobile apps to reflect today’s reality for government agencies.

For years, the guidance for government agencies has not changed from recommending responsive, mobile-optimized websites for people using government services on a mobile device, and discouraging agencies from developing native mobile apps. While this guidance is based on best practices from several years ago, technology and mobile usage have changed dramatically in the last several years.

Thanks to the U.S. Web Design System and the growing digital maturity of federal agencies, responsive websites are now a common standard. While that should continue to be a baseline requirement, agencies that ignore the opportunities presented by native mobile apps are leaving improvements in customer experience on the table at a time when people’s use of mobile devices to interact with government agencies is as high as it has ever been. 97% of all Americans have cell phones of some kind, and nine in ten of these devices are smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. It’s time for government agencies to reevaluate how they are serving customers on mobile devices.

Join us on July 31 for a virtual event: Mobile Success: Lessons for improving CX with native mobile apps

Native mobile apps are an untapped opportunity to provide people with a choice in accessing government services. Learn from an ongoing mobile success story at the VA.

Join us

Native applications help agencies deliver on the Administration’s efforts to create digital-first service experiences that build trust, put people first, and are accessible to all. Thanks to tighter integration with a mobile device’s operating system, native applications can offer more secure, timely, convenient, and accessible interactions with government services.

Native apps offer many benefits, including:

  • Features that can provide for richer, more tailored experiences
  • Increased convenience and ease of use compared to similar browser features
  • A choice in how people want to access a service
  • Improved access for people in low bandwidth or offline environments, for certain use cases

In short, agencies looking to fulfill recent Administration priorities on improving customer experience with digital services should explore how native mobile applications can and should be another layer in creating a customer experience on par with consumer technology.

How shifting technology has changed the equation for mobile apps

The conventional wisdom from 6 or so years ago suggested that most agencies probably didn’t need to develop a native mobile app for their services and information unless they had a very limited set of requirements. The need to provide services and information to users on a mobile device, so the thinking went, could almost always be met by using a traditional web application optimized to run on a mobile device. However, in the last few years, a lot has changed in the world of technology and federal priorities. Those changes have reset the equation for balancing the challenge of building a native mobile app and the potential benefits to the public.

Mobile use and access

Mobile devices are now the primary way that people consume content and conduct transactions on the internet, according to the Pew Research Center. Smartphone users also make up the majority of people accessing federal government agency websites and applications. As recently as the last 30 days, over 50% of the users visiting federal government websites and apps did so on a smartphone.

The Pew Research Center data also shows that 15% of all U.S. adults are “smartphone dependent,” meaning that they own a smartphone but do not have home broadband access — their primary means of accessing the internet is through a mobile smartphone. According to Pew, smartphone dependency is “especially common among Americans with lower household incomes and those with lower levels of formal education.” This group tends to be one that has a greater need to access government information and programs online, and also stands to gain the most by improvements to the user experience for these government services.

Development cost

Older guidance suggested that native mobile applications were more expensive to build than responsive web applications because of the need for separate codebases targeting different mobile platforms - iOS and Android. So, instead of one code base for a website that could display on desktops and mobile devices, agencies might need two (or more) separate code bases for each type of mobile OS.

In modern native app development, things have changed. Frameworks like React Native make it more efficient and easier than ever to develop native apps targeting different mobile platforms from a single codebase. Agencies no longer need to maintain separate codebases for each mobile platform. In addition, Adopting strategies like a platform approach to mobile app development, with shared services, reusable components, and robust design systems also shrinks the codebase for a native mobile app, and further mitigates the need to maintain separate code targeting different mobile platforms.

User acquisition

Another older knock on native mobile apps is that it’s harder to engage users and promote take up of your native mobile app. The theory was that getting users to become aware of your app, download that app, and use it regularly was harder and costlier than with a responsive web app which doesn’t require a manual install.

But if we look at agencies that have developed and promoted flagship native mobile apps for their services, we can see that their experience is different from the conventional wisdom. For example, the VA Health & Benefits mobile app, a key part of the VA’s digital services and customer experience improvement efforts, has nearly a million monthly users sending over 300,000 secure messages and refilling more than 250,000 prescriptions monthly. This VA offering, which makes many of the critical services Veterans and their caregivers need available through a native mobile application, has been downloaded 2 million times and received thousands of positive reviews resulting in a 4.8/5 rating on the Apple App Store.

Putting users first

Some of the older guidance on evaluating responsive web applications against native mobile applications was heavily focused on software engineering considerations. Issues like maintaining separate code bases and adhering to the latest web standards tend to resonate with the people that write software, but not the people that use it. If we’re updating the way we think about native mobile applications, we should follow the lead set by the President’s Executive Order on improving customer experience and put the user’s experience at the center of our consideration.

For the VA Health & Benefits mobile app, reviews from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store show the power native mobile apps can have in improving the customer experience of government services:

I like this better than the original way especially with a person recovering from a mini stroke, they made it easier to use it

This app is probably 10xs easier to use and faster than logging onto the VA.Gov website. Extremely efficient for quick access to your medical records, VA documents or even getting in contact with your provider.

This app makes it so easy to see my appointments, order my meds and to keep in touch with the Doctors. Thank you so much for making it easy to navigate and get things done from the comfort of my home. Kudos to you all. A grateful vet.

Native mobile applications can offer users a better experience than responsive web applications, and modern tooling and frameworks have mostly negated the cost difference in developing and maintaining these kinds of applications. The experience of agencies like the VA has demonstrated that much of the concern around user engagement and uptake of mobile apps for agency digital services was unfounded. Simply put, if agencies build great native mobile applications people will use them.

As with any digital experience project, building great native mobile applications should start with user research and a product-thinking approach to determine if a mobile application is the right tool to address the specific needs of real-world users. We’ve seen the tremendous payoff of centering the needs of users and using the unique features of native mobile applications to continually improve how agencies can address those needs.

It’s time for federal agencies to add native mobile applications to their suite of digital solutions to better serve the public, ensure an improved customer experience, and to help rebuild trust in government.

Join us on July 31 for a virtual event: Mobile Success: Lessons for improving CX with native mobile apps

Native mobile apps are an untapped opportunity to provide people with a choice in accessing government services. Learn from an ongoing mobile success story at the VA.

Join us