Desktops aren’t smartphones, and other lessons from the Crowdsource Mobile Testing Program

When it comes to mobile apps, don’t bite off more than your users can chew, say new findings gathered from the Federal CrowdSource Mobile Testing Program, a free service provided to Federal agencies by the General Services Administration (GSA).

The program has been available since 2013 and has tested 14 agencies so far, with about five more wait-listed, according to Jacob Parcell, manager of mobile programs at GSA’s Digital Services Innovation Center.

Normally, the process takes about a month, but it took one agency a year to get through the process. “If a website is not mobile-friendly, or you are not sure what you want to test, it takes longer,” Parcell said, who advises agencies to pre-test their mobile-friendliness on tools from Google or the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Most of the lessons learned so far boil down to this: remember that mobile devices cannot hold the same amount of usable content as other platforms, according to DigitalGov. The problem stems from eagerness to share too much information at once. When app developers try to pack all the information found on a desktop site into a mobile site, users will have a poor experience.

“I think as a government, what this means is that we need to analyze what our mobile users are doing on our sites and optimize those experiences,” Parcell said.

The National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute (NCI) underwent the testing for a mobile app that provides a Cancer Trends Progress Report, a data-heavy nationwide summary of trends across all areas of cancer prevention and control from early detection to end-of-life care.

NCI knew that about 10 percent of the users on its site were going to the mobile app for information, said Laurie Cynkin, public health advisor at NCI, and the agency wanted to make sure things were working for them. “We learned that users will dial up this resource on their mobile devices if properly formatted for viewing and easily accessible,” she said.

Amin Mehr, director of technology at the Department of Commerce, had the BusinessUSA app tested, a one-stop information platform for businesses. “It gave us the opportunity to see how other people interact and use the app in ways we didn’t anticipate, and it gave us viewpoints from others that helped drive future iterations,” he said. The testing also gave Mehr’s team a chance to increase product backlog, and testers suggested other content the agency could include on the app.

“We were surprised that people were enthusiastic about the app and found it to be a good conduit to other agencies for them,” Mehr said of the experience.

Cynkin’s advice to other agencies that plan to test their apps with the program: “Carefully think through exactly what you hope to learn from the experience, and be prepared to make the necessary changes to allow for optimal viewing and performance.”

Mehr said techies should try to resist the urge to be hands-on for the testing process. “Be invisible. Let the testers do their own thing.”

After the testing is complete, “it’s very important to listen to the testers and take their feedback, so you can continue to build a better app,” Mehr added.

Diana Manos is a MeriTalk contributing writer.

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