Think about the apps that you use for interacting with your city. Whether it is a reporting app made by companies like See Click Fix or an app that lets you apply for a business or construction permit from companies like Accela Software, you probably only use the apps that actually make a task faster, easier or better. As the CEO of a startup that helps companies like Accela - as well as city leaders - quickly prototype and deploy native mobile applications for their communities, I've come to understand what makes a civic app useful or a dud.
Useful apps resolve friction and focus on user experience.
One of the best ways for cities to get the rest of us to use the apps they've developed, is to make sure the app is actually reducing friction for us. If a process is a hassle, can an app make it easier? If finding information is a pain, can an app make it simple? If an app solves a problem for a city or for a government agency, but it doesn't make something easier or better for us, we likely won't use the app no matter how much an agency paid to develop the app or how much they promote it. To be successful, an app strategy needs to start with a current pain point, either addressing internal workflow or citizen access to services or information, and then explore how a mobile app will remove current barriers. Choosing a pain point where available data exists can lead to an easier win, but choosing readily available data where a real problem is not resolved may result in an easy app but will not result in a successful app.
Keep it simple. And then make it even easier to use.
The apps you use on a daily basis likely help you do one thing on the go that is far too much of a hassle to accomplish through other modes. As users, we know this is what we want. But when we're writing the check to have an app developed, it's easy to fall prey to the notion of either simply wrapping our mobile website into a container with no native functionality or of throwing everything into that one app so we can make the expense worth it. The problem is that it ends up being so clunky or noisy that no one wants to use it, because the experience isn't any better. This is not to say an app shouldn't provide relevant links and access to additional content that enhances the experience of the user, but if cities really want us to engage more in mobile, we're much more likely to do that if the app has one primary function that is really slick and simple.
Don't just shove it out of the nest: apps need a full marketing and media plan.
Even when an app solves a very real problem and does so with elegant ease, if we don't know it exists, we won't be able to take advantage of it. Making sure the app is developed correctly and provides the right native experience will make it easier to keep users, but the only thing that will help attract more users is an ongoing marketing and education campaign. And for cities that don't have an internal marketing team, there are companies like Granicus which have built their business on tools to help government agencies effectively communicate with communities.
Send real time updates, but make sure they're relevant and important.
If you use a transit app, you know how useful it is to know if a route is going to be delayed or if part of your planned trip is under construction and re-routed. And if you use a city app, you know how awesome it can be to get a notice reminding you that the deadline to register for summer programs is approaching ... or how annoying if you don't have kids who are interested in those programs. Cities need to understand that apps can be an effective communication tool, but only if they are sensitive to making the experience a positive one for users. Letting users opt into only the types of notices they want is just one way cities can immediately improve communication in an app. Making sure the content is up to date is another.