Mobile Gov community pioneers federal approach to mobility

Mobile is the current technological frontier, and every frontier needs pioneers. Jacob Parcell and his Mobile Gov Community of Practice have taken up that mantle on behalf of the federal government.

Made up of 1,200 federal employees scattered across the country, the Mobile Gov community helps the federal government make decisions regarding mobility best practices.

“We work on sharing knowledge, mainly how to build a native app, how to design good user experience, and how to make that decision on whether or not to make a native app or mobile website,” Jacob Parcell, mobile programs manager for the General Services Administration, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

The Mobile Gov community helps agencies test mobile apps and websites on various devices, promotes code sharing, and informs policy when the Government Accountability Office is looking at mobile and how agencies are implementing it. According to Parcell, 30 percent to 40 percent of people currently using any federal website are doing so from mobile devices.

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When agencies move toward accommodating mobile users, they have two choices. They can build an app, which can be useful for agencies offering recurring services, like Social Security. Parcell said it’s important to know that most people use apps for one specific thing, and nothing else. It’s actually preferable for one agency to have multiple apps, with each one performing a specific function, rather than have one more complicated multi-functional app.

Organizations can also offer mobile versions of their website, which is more likely to be the more beneficial choice for most agencies. One thing Parcell is working on is responsive web design, a system that determines what kind of screen you’re viewing a page on, and optimizes the website for your device.

“If I go on a website with my smartphone, it knows I have a smartphone, and it gives me an experience based on the size of the phone,” Parcell said. The question is what to put on the small, medium and large screens? “When you get into those smaller sizes, you have to start making decisions about what is the most important data? What is the most mobile friendly data? What is the data or information that people are looking for on the go? And this can change.”

Parcell used the example of the Transportation Security Administration’s website. Although they have a great deal of information on their website, the majority of mobile users were accessing the “What can I bring?” function, so that becomes the most important information to ensure the TSA includes on the small-screen version of the site.

“I think we have a lot of work to do on performance analysis and measuring what our actual users are doing on mobile, because you can’t really enhance your mobile experience without knowing what your users are doing on your mobile website,” Parcell said. “So if you have a mobile website designed for two or three tasks, and you find that they’re doing one task predominantly, how do you actually enhance that design?”

He said this is a key concept for any government agency making a move toward mobile to understand. One of the approaches he uses whenever he discusses strategy with an agency’s leadership is to ask, “What is it that your agency does really well?” Knowledge of coding isn’t nearly as important to an agency as knowing what their customers need and want.

“The responsibility of the government is to really know what they want to develop for mobile and how they should engage the user,” Parcell said.

Parcell also said agencies need to know that mobile development is not a one-time cost.

“One of the biggest things we tell folks is that when you build an application, you need to have some operation and maintenance costs built in,” he said. “You can’t just develop an app and leave it alone, it has to be updated.”

Parcell said that as the Mobile Gov community grows, and federal agencies move more assertively towards mobile, he wants to start being more proactive in helping agencies develop mobile strategies.

“We need to start focusing on making sure that the agencies that are not mobile friendly are mobile-friendly,” he said. “That’s something we always do, but I think now we have more practices and approaches in developing mobile -friendly that we can help out. So I’d like to be a lot more active in helping these agencies become mobile friendly.”

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