Interacting with constituents online used to be relatively simple. Typically people only accessed e-government services from a computer. Today, however, they access websites and apps not only from computers, but also from tablets, smartphones and other devices.
Federal government agencies know this means that consumers expect 24/7 availability, particularly as mobile devices progressively overshadow computers as a means for accessing the Internet.
In their well-meaning attempts to have a presence on every device where constituents could come looking for them, however, agencies may be tempted to simply “get something out there” rather than undertake a mobile project only after they understand how people will use various devices to access information.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that design requirements differ depending on the device, and operating systems vary within device categories. The available technology offers government agencies increasingly versatile and effective ways to communicate, but navigating the online service design process has become nearly as complex as the devices themselves.
Before beginning the design process, agencies must first consider the audience. Will the agency’s service be directed at businesses, individuals or, possibly, another government entity? Evaluating the audience will help the agency identify the types of devices users may employ to access the service.
It also may be possible to get information from your IT staff about the types of devices being used to access similar information. Insights come from knowing, for example, that people often perform longer-term planning on a PC, access information about activities they are planning that night on a tablet and figure out what to do right now on a smartphone.
By comparing device features with information about how constituents will access and use information, agencies can decide whether they need to design for every available device or for a select few.
If users need to access and fill out complex tax forms, for example, it’s unlikely they’ll complete the forms on a smartphone. In that case, the agency may only need to make the forms available via a traditional Web page. If, on the other hand, constituents will use a federal agency’s website to find a local office, designing for a smartphone is essential.
After the agency has determined which devices constituents will use to access information, the next step in the design process hinges on five key questions:
What, if any, functions will the service provide?
Will it leverage GPS, the camera, audio, motion, etc.?
Is the provided service simple, complex or somewhere in between?
Does the solution require a native app, or can it be delivered solely via a Web service?
Will the service access or transmit sensitive information?
With answers to these questions, the agency can leverage the design process to maximize the features for each service. Electronic services that will use the camera, GPS, accelerometer or other functions built into the device will likely best be served through a native app.
Although user habits are evolving, smartphones typically are best for services that require limited data entry and/or are likely to be used when a person is away from the home or office. People prefer that services on a smartphone be completed quickly.
Tablets work well for data collection and often are a good choice for services – inspection applications, for example – that require more screen space for data capture. In addition, tablets often trump smartphones for services that take more time to perform. Complex forms with lots of data entry usually are best suited for a traditional PC.
Satisfying the Customer
Agencies that neglect to understand user needs and design online services to take full advantage of the devices customers will use risk being viewed as insensitive and hard to work with. But conducting due diligence and getting the project right at the front end will help the agency achieve customer satisfaction, because it meets the growing expectation that a service will work effectively on the device a constituent is using. This measured approach has several other benefits, as well:
First, it brings discipline to the process so that key device features are prioritized.
Second, it helps the agency understand how to best present content. For example, if the service will be consumed primarily on a smartphone, having lots of text probably isn’t a good approach.
Third, it saves the agency money and time, because it minimizes customer service issues and the need to go back and rebuild a service.
Further, planning will provide a more solid foundation for the service to be adapted to new technologies. While today we use computers, tablets and mobile phones, other devices may well come along in the future. Agencies that develop a system of thorough, thoughtful planning will best be positioned to serve their constituents both today and in years to come.
About the author: Nolan Jones is director of eGovernment Innovation for NIC Inc., a provider of official government Web portals, online services and secure payment processing solutions for more than 3,000 local, state and federal agencies across the United States. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image courtesy of Shutterstock
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