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Keeping It Simple Is Not Stupid

December 9, 2011
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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The small form factor of increasingly popular mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets is posing new challenges to those developing applications, or apps, for these items.

Gwynne Kostin, director of mobile at the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, General Services Administration (GSA), says those capabilities include voice recognition, digital cameras, accelerometers and GPS that calculate position, and touchscreens. Kostin says in designing software to take advantage of these capabilities, developers at government agencies are encouraged to think of small, focused applications.

What are federal agencies doing with these capabilities?  Kostin suggests several from the dozens of apps currently available at apps.usa.gov:

  • The Treasury Department has a mobile application available that allows a user to take a picture of a piece of paper currency, and immediately identify the denomination of the bill.  “So, people who are blind or have low vision can see if it’s a $5 or a $20 bill they’ve just received in change from a merchant,” she says.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an app which she says comes in handy if you are out fishing, and happen to catch a mako shark.   “You can report the fact that you picked up a shark, and the GPS will allow you to report that location to Fish and Wildlife officials collecting important migration information.”

Several other applications are described in part one of this story, "Think Mobile, Think Simplicity."

Kostin, who oversees GSA’s efforts to help federal agencies integrate mobile devices into their Web/digital resource strategies, offers three pieces of advice to agencies pondering their own app development:

  • “Take  a look at your inventory, what you already have.  There may be Web services that you already have that you can access readily on a mobile device, so the security issues are already taken care of.” It may be possible, she suggests, to easily adapt such a site into a mobile Web app.
  • “Keep it simple. These are small-form devices, applications should do one or two things. They should not be ‘Christmas trees’” because a proper mobile app won’t be viewed on a 24-inch monitor. “Its also important to remember that people are going to that app and that device to do one thing. They’re not generally browsing; they are very task-oriented, and so it’s important to keep it simple so people successfully accomplish that one task. And make sure that the most important task is front and center, and less important tasks are less prominent.”
  • The third thing, she says, is “to get started. The thing we’re seeing in the private sector is that folks are getting mobile tools out there, getting feedback, and making changes and updates. It doesn’t have to be done, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s a great technology for being agile, and that means you’re doing a lot of iterations, you’re making a lot of changes, you’re tweaking it all the time. And its all based on input, you’re getting user feedback. Don’t  cut corners on security. And then find out if people are using it,  what features do they want?” 

Kostin says this advice comes from a “community of practice” composed of a small but growing group of mobile web developers working in agencies throughout the federal government, whose work is represented on apps.usa.gov.