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Fredrickson Communications

John Wooden

Responding to the Rise of Mobile: What’s Government in Minnesota Doing?

from John Wooden, UX Director
on May 11, 2012
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First, some quick stats:

  • As of February 2012, 104 million people in the US owned an iPhone. (comScore Datamine)
  • On a typical day, 68% of all smartphone owners go online using their phone. (Pew Research Center)
  • IDC predicts that 106 million tablet computers will be sold this year.
  • IDC also predicts that by 2015, more internet users in the USA will access the internet through mobile devices than through PCs.

In addition to the growing numbers, it’s important for web managers to be aware that, as Josh Clark says, “Anything that a user can do on mobile, they will do on mobile.” The first of Clark’s Seven Deadly Mobile Myths is that there is no stereotypical use case for mobile.

Are government organizations behind in adapting?

Given that millions of us are already using smartphones and tablets, and many more of us will be using them over the next few years, what are government organizations in Minnesota doing with their sites and applications to respond? That was the core question at our last Intersect meeting. It’s worth pointing out that with respect to web matters, government agencies in Minnesota are generally leaders, not laggards.

The results of a survey on mobile that we distributed to our Intersect membership a few weeks prior to the meeting show that most government organizations in the state are still in the early planning stages.

  • About 80% have not optimized their public site for viewing on a mobile device, and have not developed any mobile applications for staff or other audiences.
  • A third have not started planning a mobile web strategy; half said they were in early-stage planning. Only 14% had implemented a mobile strategy.
  • Nearly half have seen a large to moderate increase in traffic to their sites from mobile devices.

Responses to an open-ended question about key challenges in adopting to a more dynamic and mobile web environment indicated a lot of uncertainty about where organizations would find the time, budget, and resources (either internally or via contractors) to handle new design and development work. There were also concerns from several organizations about whether a mobile audience truly exists for their content.

We were fortunate to hear from three early adopter organizations about what they have developed and what they have planned.

Metro Transit

John Siqveland, Public Relations Manager for Metro Transit, demonstrated Metro Transit’s mobile website, showing how customers with smartphones can have fast access to tools like NexTrip, to get real-time bus departures, and Trip Planner. John explained that Metro Transit so far has not developed apps for particular devices but has instead made data publicly available for app developers at datafinder.org. Check out the range of metro transit apps that have been developed so far.

John suggested that it may not be long before riders can use their phones to interact with a chip or image (or whatever ends up replacing QR codes) at transit stops to get real-time information.

MN Department of Natural Resources

Jed Becher talked about the DNR’s Android app, LakeFinder, their cross-platform app, MN Water Access, which locates public water access points, and a Fall Colors mobile site. All are available from the DNR's mobile apps page.

LakeFinder was developed as a proof of concept for the department, showing how mobile development could be done. As of April 2012 they have had nearly 17,000 active device installs. Jed said that the DNR is currently working on an HTML-based replacement for LakeFinder. They are also adding an HTML-based “Where am I?” mobile web version of the Recreation Compass to assist citizens in determining if they are on public land or where the nearest public land is located. The Department is also making high-use pages on the site more mobile friendly.

J. Hruby, Fredrickson’s VP of Sales and Marketing (and our most avid outdoorsman), congratulated the DNR for its work on LakeFinder. J. made an excellent point about how effectively the DNR has won fans in the public because of tools like LakeFinder, to the point where they are happy to pay higher fees to continue getting such great service.

City of Minnetonka

We ended the session with Marc Drummond, Web Technologies Coordinator for the City of Minnetonka. Marc was the person who introduced me to Ethan Marcotte’s concept of responsive web design over a year ago, and he is now redesigning Minnetonka’s website using responsive design techniques. Marc shared a beta version of the new site during his session.

Marc began his talk by referring to Stephen Hay’s famous tweet from January 2011: “There is no mobile web. There is only the web, which we view in different ways. There is also no desktop web. Or tablet web. Thank you.”

What designers like Ethan Marcotte, Stephen Hay, Josh Clark, and Marc Drummond suggest is that we “shouldn’t be developing completely separate mobile websites, or iPhone websites, or iPad websites, where well defined universal websites would suffice” (Josh Clark). Instead, there should be one web. As Marcotte wrote in his pioneering article on responsive web design: “Can we really continue to commit to supporting each new user agent with its own bespoke experience? At some point, this starts to feel like a zero sum game. But how can we—and our designs—adapt?”

The three technical ingredients of responsive design that Marcotte describes, and that Marc explained in his talk, are fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries. It also requires a new way of thinking. “Now more than ever, we’re designing work meant to be viewed along a gradient of different experiences. Responsive web design offers us a way forward, finally allowing us to “design for the ebb and flow of things” (Marcotte).

Resources to learn more about mobile

We'll be revisiting the subject of mobile user experience many more times. For now, check out Jeff Zeldman's excellent list of mobile web resources and best practices. This is a great place to start digging in to learn more.

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