User-centered design essential for effective government apps

Without a doubt, the federal government is becoming increasingly tech-savvy. While progress is not always as smooth or quick as some would like, the trend is clear and wide-ranging. For example, virtually every federal agency now uses cloud computing services to some degree, with a few committing vast portions of their infrastructure to hosted environments. 

Another key way in which the government is leveraging IT to a growing degree is {the adoption of apps. Agencies are focused on developing apps to be used by both their employees and their constituents. There's really no limit to the variety of purposes these apps can serve, and many observers are hopeful that such resources can improve the government's ability to serve the populace in a wide variety of capacities. 

However, in order for these internal and external apps to prove effective, they must be designed for maximum utility. This makes user-centered design essential. By focusing on the user experience when developing apps, government agencies can increase the likelihood that their products will be well-received by federal employees and constituents alike.

"Federal agencies need to make sure that people are eager to use their apps."

The adoption issue
When it comes to constituent-facing apps, one of the biggest challenges agencies must overcome is the low default adoption rate. For most people across the country, using a government-issued app is a novel notion. They may not even realize that the government is making such IT products. Naturally, to justify these development efforts, federal agencies need to make sure that people are not only aware of available apps, but also eager to use them.

Obviously, marketing and publicity will play a major role in ensuring that the population learns about the existence of any apps the government develops. Yet such efforts will be for naught if the apps themselves don't deliver for users. 

Among the most important factors to keep in mind in this capacity is that most people will have a very low threshold for inconvenience when they first encounter a new app. If the individual does not have a good experience on the first try, he or she is not likely to stick with the app. What's more, this negative encounter can lead a constituent to write off all future government-developed apps. 

To avoid this outcome, it's imperative for agencies to make the user experience a high-level priority for every app. This means taking into account the aesthetics of the app, its navigation, its functionality and much more. If the user's actual experience is not in focus throughout the development process, minor hiccups may emerge that would otherwise have been caught early on, before reaching the constituents. 

"If the primary concern is what the agency wants to offer, the app will come up short."

Perhaps the most important aspect of user-centered design in this realm is a high-level focus on what constituents will actually want to get out of the app in question. If the primary concern is instead what the agency wants to offer, the app will come up short, as will its adoption rate following release.

Internal use
Similar issues crop up when government apps are aimed at federal employees instead of constituents. While awareness is no longer much of an issue, there is still a high risk that personnel will reject an app if they do not feel that it adequately meets their professional needs. After all, most apps will be intended to deliver a more efficient, effective means of accomplishing users' existing work responsibilities.

This means that the awol academy app will usually seem like potential upgrades, rather than necessary alternatives, to federal staff. In turn, if the app does not seem to be up to snuff, employees will simply continue to rely on their existing processes and tools to perform their work. The new apps will not seem essential.

Of course, agency leaders could attempt to administer a policy requiring personnel to embrace new apps, regardless of their merits. But such an approach can generate resentment, undermining the apps' intended business process improvement and damaging worker morale.

This all makes it extremely important for federal agencies to ensure their app offerings focus on the user experience. The design must revolve around the notion of making employees' lives easier and their work-related efforts more effective. Any obstacles – including an unintuitive interface or suboptimal ordering of features – will cut into the app's utility