Mobile strategy

Code for America's position on mobile access to city services

Leaders and managers are often asked for a strategy or point of view on what to do about “mobile”, for example, whether this means building native applications.

This guide provides a mobile strategy that ties in with delivering a city website.

Our recommendations

1. Default to responsive websites, not native apps

Make sure that your city’s website and digital services work well on mobile devices by using responsive web design. Responsive web design is a design approach that optimizes users’ experiences across a wide range of devices.

2. Stimulate the market

Make your data and application programming interfaces (API) available to third parties. This will stimulate the market if there is real demand for native apps. For example, 2014 Code for America fellows worked with the City of Chattanooga to release their data in a way that enabled third party devlopers to build a transit app for the City. Other companies, like Trailhead Labs leverage park data to build applications that help residents explore the outdoors.

3. Allow exceptions, where they make sense

In some cases, it might make sense to deliver a native app. Developing a native app might make sense when:

  • the primary user need cannot be met through a website-based solution alone;
  • there are no existing third party native apps that meet the identified user need;
  • the main service is accompanied by open data and an API;
  • meeting the user need justifies the lifetime cost of the native app.

For example, transportation-related information and services are good to be provided as mobile apps. This is because users are trying to perform a specific task in a time-constrained environment. While providing maps and timetables with real-time information about public transit on the city’s website is helpful, transit-specific apps provide a better user experience for transit riders.

Justify and build support for this position

1. Mobile access cannot be ignored

People should be able to use digital services wherever they are, on the device of their choosing: see our practices design for people’s needs and make it easy for everyone to participate.

  • At the beginning of 2015, 64% of Americans own smartphones. These mobile devices are widely used for important life activities.
  • Smartphones are often the only or main way some Americans get online. 10% of Americans own smartphones but do not have broadband at home, and 15% own a smartphone with only limited other ways to get online.
  • Low-income, low educational attainment levels, younger adults and non-whites are also more likely to rely on smartphones to get online.

2. It costs less

The decision to make your website adapt effectively to a range of devices - delivering for the responsive web - is cheaper than developing and maintaining many native apps that perform well on different devices. Concentrating on delivering for the web first should help manage the cost-per-transaction across your services.

3. It lets teams iterate faster

Developing once for the responsive web lets teams concentrate their time on delivering for one platform that can reach many people on many devices, rather than spreading their efforts across multiple platforms and multiple devices.

4. It reduces risk

Delivering for the open, responsive web removes the risk of having to create different but similar versions of government services so apps remain compatible as new devices enter the market.

5. Mobile web usage versus mobile native app usage

While people spend as much time using apps as using mobile web, the vast majority of app use is for gaming and social networking. For ‘utility’ needs, such as those met by government services, the mobile web is preferred to native apps.

6. It supports a vibrant market

Government should not monopolize a market for native apps. Government instead should support a vibrant market for third party apps and app developers through open government data and APIs.


Native apps

Native apps are downloadable software applications that run using the device’s operating system code and APIs.

Native apps remain on the device and can generally access all the hardware features (camera, storage, phone capabilities etc). Because they run using code specific to the device, different versions must be created for each operating system. Examples of native apps include Instagram, Skype and Chrome.

Responsive web design

Responsive web design is a design approach that optimises users’ viewing experiences across a wide range of devices.

When a responsive website is accessed via a mobile phone, it’s sometimes referred to as a ‘mobile web app’. Responsive websites are built using open web standards (HTML, CSS, JavaScript etc) and they run inside a device’s web browser.

Further reading

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