Decide if you need a mobile app

Before you begin

This How-to guide has one major purpose, which is to help you objectively decide if creating a new a mobile application is the best choice for your agency or department.

What is a mobile app?

A mobile app (or mobile application) is a stand-alone piece of software developed specifically for use on smartphones and tablets, rather than desktop or laptop computers.

Why focus on the 'cons' of creating mobile apps?

Apps are popular, but they may not be best tool

A mobile app should only exist if it’s the best way possible to help people complete tasks better and faster. If a better option than a mobile app presents itself, your users will be better off.

Your agency can change with technology

As technology changes, so too will the online tools you need to offer to Victorians. An app requires a significant amount of effort to build and maintain. An alternative (such as creating a mobile-friendly website), is easier to adapt to changing technology and future needs.

Save public funds

If you work your way through deciding if your agency really needs an app, it will also help you write a strong business case for a mobile app — or not. If the answers to the questions we pose here help you find a better alternative than an app, you’ll save a considerable sum.

What does the Victorian Government recommend?

All Victorian Government departments or agencies must only create a mobile app if it’s absolutely necessary. To decide if it is, use this How-to Guide.

The government’s preferred approach has been to deploy mobile-friendly websites – often to great success – before turning to dedicated mobile phone applications (mobile apps.) There are much cheaper and more effective ways to deliver services to mobile users. A dedicated mobile app is just one option.

What standards must be met?

This How-to guide is a decision-making tool, so we have not mentioned mandatory standards.

 

Getting it approved

Discuss your decision with your Digital Management Committee (DMC) (or their equivalent.)

Before any development begins, you’ll need to show local ICT practitioners or your department’s Digital Management Committee (or both) you’ve worked through the questions below.

In short, you’ll need to convince them the idea is worth doing.

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Step 1: Do you really need a mobile app?

Answer these questions to help you decide

Bringing your idea to life

All mobile apps start as an idea. The idea might have arisen out of customer feedback, or from a business transformation. There are many ways to bring an idea to life — an app is just one possibility. Often, the idea can be realised in a more universally accessible way than an app.

As only your agency fully understands the environment you work in, it's therefore best placed to respond to the following questions. The questions are designed to find out if an app is really the best way to realise your idea.

Tip: If you begin to plan (refer to the planning sections later in the document) and realise you can’t articulate a compelling reason for the app or its objectives, it’s probably because a mobile app isn’t the right approach, and better options exist.

 

Question 1: Would the idea work as a mobile website instead of an app?

Your department or agency should consider deploying information and services via the web, and not through mobile apps — unless you can articulate compelling reasons for a mobile app.

Websites designed to adapt to mobile use can perform many of the same functions as apps, while reaching a greater audience. Remember that government has to provide information and services to all its customers – not just smartphone or tablet users.

Some genuine cases need the unique attributes of a mobile app. The key — especially if considering this platform — is for you to give the platform-selection process serious consideration with your users’ needs at the front.

Disciplined user experience (UX) research will go a long way to help you choose the best platform, as it uses an evidence-based approach. For information on UX research refer to the How-to guide: How to do user experience (UX) research

Use this checklist below to guide the discussions with your team, and work out the best way to realise your idea.

User needs checklist:

  • what does the user want?
  • what does the user really need?
  • can user needs be met through a website or a web app using responsive design?

Tip: Many people are very confused by what is and isn’t an app.

A responsive website in some people’s eyes (when well done) can look every bit like an app.

 

Question 2: If a mobile app is being considered, are you confident the target user will download and, if necessary, configure the app?

Functionality checklist

  • Does the app merely provide information that could be made available through a website? If so, what’s the need to develop a mobile app for the information?
  • Is the information/service that will support the idea currently available through a website? If so, why is a mobile app being developed in addition to the website?
  • Can the development of a mobile app be justified over improving the existing website offering (for example, by implementing responsive design)?
  • If the app is merely providing a textual or visual presentation of data, could the data be delivered in raw format through data.vic.gov.au or via your agency’s website instead?
  • What is the need to present the data through a government mobile app? Is that need significant enough to requiring it because of the unique functions available in mobile apps?

Even mobile websites can offer location data. However, apps can offer advantages over websites, for example, use the device’s 'native' application or operating system (for example, Android), or be usable offline. The benefits of each are explored here.

Features checklist

  • Where the idea needs a specific feature of a mobile platform (for example an accelerometer), is the feature crucial to executing the idea or just a nice-to-have?
  • Have you confirmed if the feature required is available through existing web technologies (such as HTML 5)?
  • Which devices and browsers are you targeting, and do these browsers support the necessary technology? For a browser and technology support matrix, visit caniuse.com
  • If it is, and you still want to develop on a mobile platform, what is the justification for this course?

Accessibility checklist:

  • If a mobile app is selected, will the information or service it promotes be available elsewhere, for example through a website?
  • If not, can it be said the app is discriminating against users and if so, how will possible complaints be resolved or mitigated?

Platform considerations checklist:

  • If you choose a mobile app as the desired solution, will you publish on all popular platforms (for example Apple, Android, Windows) and accommodate a reasonable range of operating system versions?  
  • If so, have you evaluated the costs of multi-platform delivery?
  • How will you decide which platforms to maintain the app for the long term? One option is to maintain it for any platform with at least X% of users. (Choosing a percentage will help focus your thinking on the complete lifecycle the app, and the cost of ownership long after its release.)
  • Have you compared the costs against those of delivery via the web?
  • If the app won’t be delivered on multiple platforms, how will you resolve a complaint that the information or service it promotes is only available on a limited segment of the mobile phone marketplace?
  • Will users have to call a separate customer help desk? Is there a budget for this? The better approach might be to add advanced web properties instead of an app.
  • How often is the user expected to update your app?
  • How many iterations of an app have you budgeted for in your business case? At the moment you need to update an app at least once a year for each platform.

Making a decision: Would the idea work as a mobile website instead of an app?

Yes: The idea can be satisfactorily implemented through other means, for example, the web. Consider improving or augmenting existing web services. Don’t proceed with the development of a mobile app.

No: The idea can’t be satisfactorily executed through other means and/or the use of handset-specific or OS-specific features is required. Users unable to take advantage of a mobile app aren’t disadvantaged and can get the relevant information or service through other channels.

Question 2: Would your app be unique?

No two Government mobile apps should ever serve the same purpose. To avoid this, assess all ideas first against the existing government mobile apps. Use the WoVG Digital Group on Yammer (VPS access only) to start your research.

Government mobile apps should also perform some unique role or offer some unique insight that only the government can offer. They should not merely present static information. Your agencies shouldn’t create apps out of data third parties could release and develop.

Your agency should start an ongoing dialogue to monitor your respective efforts in mobile development. These conversations will facilitate understanding as to what’s been done before, what’s now in development and where there are similarities and subsequent opportunities for reuse.

This also allows you to exchange knowledge and skills. The responsibility to engage with others is shared equally across all agencies — but you as the owner of a proposed mobile app have a special responsibility to engage from the moment an idea forms and becomes a possible development candidate.

Use the following checklist to guide discussion and evaluate the uniqueness of your app idea with your team.

Checklist

  • Have you scanned the government’s digital landscape for similar apps, including within your agency? The current list is kept on the Victorian government website.
  • If similar apps were found, have you engaged with the business unit/ or agency behind that app or website?
  • Will your proposed idea be sufficiently different?
  • If the proposed idea is similar to another app, have you drawn on the available intelligence from the other, similar app?
  • Even if the idea is unique, is there scope to consider opportunities to re-use it for close cooperation with other agencies to benefit from your experience?
  • Are there existing resources you can use?

Making decisions: Would your app be unique?

Yes: In its final form, this idea will be unique amongst all other Victorian Government mobile apps.

Not entirely: If there are some similarities with another Victorian Government mobile app, exercise caution and consider approaching the relevant owners of that app to discuss any possibilities for collaboration or re-use. If, notwithstanding the similarities, you intend to proceed, ensure all other steps in this decision-making process are overwhelmingly in favour of continuing.

Tip: Another option is to create a small app or app component to use alongside the existing app. Both Android (with Intents) and iOS (with App Extensions) support apps working together.

 

No: If there is another app that is the same or very similar, engage further with the relevant owner of that app to find out if there are opportunities to contribute or consolidate content and services. Don't proceed with the development of a mobile app.

Conclusion: go ahead or not?

If you’ve decided you need an app you’ll need to write a well thought-out brief to guide the app’s development. If you do, your final app will achieve what it set out to achieve. It will deliver true value to your department and your end users.

Step 2: Write a brief to build a new app

  • Outline the objectives
  • Outline the benefits
  • Align with surrounding strategies and policies
  • Consider resourcing
  • Identify risk and outline mitigation strategies
  • Set up your performance measurement

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Related How-to guides

How to do user experience (UX) research

How to publish a government open-data set

How to design and develop a digital presence

How to create a content strategy and manage content online

How to use social media

How to design forms

 

Join the conversation on digital

Get advice and share your insights about this topic with other digital practitioners on the WoVG Digital Group on Yammer (VPS access only).

Can’t access Yammer? Contact us by email: contact@dpc.vic.gov.au. (We may post your comment on Yammer for general discussion. Please tell us if that’s not OK.)