Is There an App for That?

There are plenty of companies trying to convince agencies and organizations that they need an app. By “app,” we mean a native application that needs to be downloaded from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store and runs on our phones. This is no different than how applications run on our computers. An app needs to be designed and developed for phones and tablets as per that device's operating system. These apps are referred to as native apps since they are native to the phone and the operating system. Mobile app development is a hot market right now as the skill sets required are sophisticated (either Java or Objective-C programming experience) and the target platforms are changing rapidly; many companies are seeking outside help to build mobile applications.

There are also a lot of reasons to target mobile devices. On Georgia.gov, we currently see about 25% of all of our traffic coming in on mobile devices — either phones, or tablets. And for certain customers within Georgia.gov, mobile traffic can be as high as 50%. But there are a few factors you need to take into consideration before you decide a native app is going to help your organization's offerings:

  1. Is there a use case or reason for a mobile app?

    A mobile app always offers focused specific advantages. Mobile apps give users the benefit of always being logged in and easy access to the information they seek. This information is dynamic and relational. There are various instances where mobile apps offer content that is already available on the agency's website. Every agency needs to evaluate their mobile web traffic and understand the responsibility of owning and supporting a mobile native app.

  2. What proportion of the site traffic is coming in on mobile today?

    A mobile app is only successful when there is a specific function or a use case. Just converting a website into a mobile app is not a solid reason to build an app. Track your web traffic and check your mobile visitors. There is no magic number to evaluate the need for a mobile app, but if you see traffic coming from mobile devices, make sure your website is responsive to mobile devices. Learn more about responsive web design.

  3. Are there some things that can only be done with a native app?

    Yes. Some possibilities include working offline (where there won't be a cellular signal), accessing the phone's camera, accessing the phone's GPS to get location information, or using any of the phone's hardware (such as the accelerometer). A good example is the cattle brand ID application developed State of California's Department of Agriculture. Cattle ranching is a big industry in California, and livestock often wander onto roads and have to be identified by their brand. With about 50,000 unique brands on file, state personnel used to have to carry around a phone book sized catalog of brands to figure out what rancher to call about their cattle. Now, they have an app. They take a picture of the brand with their iPhone, and the owner's name pops up. Accessing the camera on the phone requires a native app, as does the ability to work in rural areas where there is often no cell coverage. That couldn't be done with a web app.

  4. Is your app going to be used by your customers every day, or at least a couple times a week?

    If your users perform a task only once in a while, the tasks of downloading and installing the app, and accepting updates outstrip the benefits of the application. The majority of apps on iTunes and Marketplace are untouched because users prefer to visit websites to check updates instead of downloading an app.

  5. Building native apps for Apple's App Store/Google Play store is a strenuous process and expensive to maintain. The skill set to build an iOS app requires a programming language called Objective-C. People who know Objective-C are in high demand right now because everyone is trying to build apps. For Android, the skill set is a special subset of the Java programming language. Java developers — especially Android developers — are also in high demand. You don't get any real efficiencies in supporting both Android and iOS; you are basically duplicating most of your effort and companies that do publish the same app for both Android and iOS are often doing it with two separate teams.

If your application isn't a good fit for a native app, you are probably wondering what you should be doing about the 25%+ of your traffic that is coming in on a mobile device. For all the agencies hosted on GTA's GeorgiaGov platform, we are planning for your content (and functionality) to look good on a mobile device. We're in the process of converting all the available themes to Responsive Design, which means your website will be optimized based on whatever device the customer is using — phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop. A web page you visit on a desktop might have a 3-column layout with a navigation bar on the top; if you visit the web page on an iPhone, layout might collapse to 1 column (so you don't get the dreaded horizontal scroll bar), and the nav bar might move to the bottom of the page. We're doing this for all websites hosted on the platform. Regardless of what your visitors do on your website, you don't have to worry about the differences among iPhones, iPads, Androids, or desktops.

For state agencies whose sites are not hosted on the GeorgiaGov platform, we recommend considering a traditional hosted website or application combined with Responsive Design. Only when your use case fits the criteria described here should you think about developing a native mobile app.