Uncle Sam Wants You (to Optimize Your Content for Mobile)

Uncle Sam Wants You (to Optimize Your Content for Mobile)

Americans deserve a government that works for them anytime, anywhere, and on any device.
President Barack Obama

It’s easy to get frustrated by the pace of change in mobile. Companies drag their feet about actually delivering content and services optimized for mobile devices, commissioning yet more research to “prove” the need for a mobile strategy. Meanwhile, we tap away at our ever-more-capable smartphones and tablets, pinching and zooming our way through sites designed for a much larger screen.

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Now we can find inspiration for taking quick action in mobile from an unexpected source: the government. President Obama has ordered executive branch federal agencies to make at least two key services available on mobile devices over the next year.

The initiative to optimize content for mobile is part of the larger Digital Government strategy aimed at building a twenty-first-century platform to better serve the American people. This strategy outlines a sweeping vision for how to deliver government services more efficiently and effectively, and it covers everything from how government agencies can share technology and resources more effectively to how to maintain the privacy and security of sensitive government data.

But running through the entire Digital Government strategy is a consistent thread: The government needs to communicate with and deliver services for its citizens on whatever devices they use to access the web.

If it’s true for the government, it’s probably true for your company, too. Your customers are using mobile devices to access your content—you need a strategy to communicate with them where they are.

The latest personal computing revolution#section2

Nearly everyone is carrying smart devices in their pockets that have incredible computing power. It’s creating a dynamic, both inside the walls of government and outside, where citizens are really demanding more.

Steven VanRoekel, U.S. chief information officer

Imagine you don’t have a broadband internet connection at home. Your employer could see how many hours you waste looking up elementary school classmates on Facebook. Your ridiculous Google searches for things like “What is the probability of being killed by a Pop-Tart?” and “What does rhino milk taste like?” and “Ned Flanders shirtless or nude”—all visible to the eyes of prying co-workers as they walk past your desk. All your por… okay, let’s not go there.

Sure, we all indulge in embarrassing behavior on the internet, best left to the privacy of our own homes. But don’t forget about all the perfectly normal information we want to look up online—research we might not want our employers, coworkers, or strangers in a public computer lab to know about. Looking for a new job. Learning more about a medical condition. Checking a bank statement. Even shopping for Christmas presents.

If you’re like me, you’ve enjoyed the convenience of having a home internet connection for almost twenty years. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that for many people, access to the internet is a luxury.

Thirty-five percent of Americans have no internet access at home. More than a third of Americans don’t have easy access to personal medical information, tools for financial planning, and animated GIFs of surprised cats.

Race, income, and education level all influence whether people will have a home broadband connection. Roughly 50 percent of both Black Americans and Hispanic Americans have no broadband connection at home. Nearly 60 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 per year don’t have a broadband connection at home. And Americans who don’t have a high school diploma? A whopping 88 percent of them lack a broadband connection at home.1 The digital divide is real.

But as of early 2012, 88 percent of American adults reported they do have a mobile phone.2 As of July, 55 percent of those Americans who own a mobile phone have a smartphone—and two thirds of people who had acquired a new phone in the previous three months chose to get a smartphone.3

As more and more people acquire smartphones, many of those who don’t currently have access to the internet will suddenly have it in the palm of their hands. A growing number of people who cannot afford to pay for both mobile phone and broadband internet access pick one device—the phone.

The mobile-mostly user#section3

Mobile was the final front in the access revolution. It has erased the digital divide. A mobile device is the internet for many people.

Susannah Fox, Pew Research Center

The stories about how mobile computing has changed human behavior often emphasize the developing world. Billions of people will only ever connect to the internet from a mobile phone. That development may seem positive and exciting, but remote. We assume that a “mobile-only” user is as foreign to us as a villager in Africa, in India, in China.

We’re wrong.

A large and growing minority of internet users in the U.S. are mobile only. As of June 2012, 31 percent of Americans who access the internet from a mobile device say that’s the way they always or mostly go online—they rarely or never use a desktop or laptop computer.4
Most tellingly, people who are less likely to have a broadband connection at home are more likely to rely solely or mostly on their mobile device for internet access:

  • 51 percent of Black Americans
  • 42 percent of Hispanic Americans
  • 43 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 per year
  • 39 percent of Americans with a high school or lower education

Even some populations who do have access to a broadband connection and a full-size computer prefer to browse the internet on their phones. Do you want to communicate with people in the coveted 18–29 demographic? Good luck pulling them away from their smartphones. A whopping 45 percent say most of their internet browsing is on their phones.

By 2015, more Americans will access the internet through mobile devices than through desktop computers, according to a prediction by International Data Corporation. Some of these people may still have access to the desktop web, but, for reasons of context, ease, or sheer laziness, will choose their mobile first. For others, there will be no other way to view your content.

For this growing population, if your content doesn’t exist on the mobile screen, it doesn’t exist at all.

It’s never too early for content strategy#section4

Will your organization be ready? Are you moving right now to develop a content strategy for mobile?

Or are you telling yourself that mobile is a blip, a grace note, a mere satellite to the larger desktop website? Do you think that offering a full set of content on mobile is a “nice-to-have,” something to think about only after investing in yet another redesign of the “real” website?

Delivering content on mobile isn’t an afterthought. It’s a requirement. It isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Think of any piece of information people may want to access on the internet. They will need to access it on a device that isn’t a desktop computer. Do people want to look it up? They’ll want to look it up on mobile. Do people need to search for it? They’ll want to search for it on mobile. Do people want to read it, deeply and fully? They’ll expect to read it on mobile. Do they need to fill it out, document it, and enter it into the system? They’ll need to do it on mobile.

This goes double for any organization that needs to reach people outside mainstream desktop users. Government agencies have a civic responsibility to deliver content to all citizens, which means providing it to them on mobile. Organizations seeking to deliver public health messages to the most at-risk populations won’t reach them—unless that content is available on mobile. Are you an equal-opportunity employer? Not unless you’re delivering your content where African American and Hispanic users can find it. You can’t assume all people in these groups will take the extra step to go find your desktop website.

You need to bring it to where they are. Which is mobile.

How to do it#section5

The United States’ Digital Government strategy outlines a customer-centric approach to optimizing content for mobile. Your organization might not need to take a page from the government procurement handbook, but the roadmap for getting government information and services onto mobile might help you get your content out there, too.

A few highlights from the U.S. government’s approach that you should consider for your organization:

Manage structured content#section6

Today, 57 percent of domains under development by American federal agencies are not being built with a CMS.5 As a result, managing and updating content is a cumbersome and difficult process. Content is locked up in static web pages (or worse, in printed documents), which makes it difficult or impossible to move content to a new platform.

The government encourages agencies to explore open-source CMS tools—and to model their content, turning unstructured pages into structured data with appropriate metadata attached.

Create presentation-independent content#section7

Instead of focusing on the final delivery and presentation of the information—whether publishing web pages, mobile applications, or brochures—government agencies now are encouraged to take an “information-centric” approach. This means separating content from presentation, and instead describing the content more fully with a complete taxonomy and authoritative metadata, so the same content can be reused in a variety of contexts.

Treat content as a service#section8

Making government content and data available through APIs increases the value of that data. When the government made GPS and weather data available to the public, it fueled multibillion-dollar industries.

By structuring their content and data, then treating it as a service that can be accessed via an API, the government can make content available to more people and more devices—while maintaining security and control over confidential information.

You can do it. Start now.#section9

The U.S. government has recognized that their goal is not to publish brochures, handbooks, or binders. Their goal is not to publish web pages, either. Their goal isn’t even to publish apps. Their goal is to keep American citizens informed.

The government’s challenge and responsibility is making information available in whatever format American citizens want to consume it. We get to decide what device we want to use—the government can’t impose that on us.

The same is true for your organization. You already have customers who only access your content from their mobile device—and that number will only grow. If your web content isn’t fully optimized for mobile, you’re invisible to a large and growing subset of Americans.

It’s not too late, but the time to start is now. Develop a roadmap and put a strategy in place to start publishing your content on mobile devices.


8 Reader Comments

  1. Not sure if I’d agree. When I travel, I still see flip cells being used in greater proportion to Smart or iPhones. The age group I see struggle with Smart or iPhones is 50+. Is the government going to step in to regulate data control, which the major carries seemingly have price fixed? We can speculate what any government entity wants, but until the U.S. is able to increase it’s broad band beyond 4G along with it’s coverage the ideas is just that.

  2. “Nearly everyone is carrying smart devices in their pockets that have incredible computing power.”

    Yes, many people do have smart phones and the trends are clear. But “nearly everyone” seems overly optimistic. Moreover, the data plan costs are well out of the budgets of many folks.

    We need *hard* data, not forecasts. We *especially* need cost data. There is little competition in most markets for wireless bandwidth, or even for wired broadband.

  3. That quote from Federal CIO Van Roekel didn’t include any data, but there’s lots of data in this article from Pew Internet about cell phone and smartphone adoption:

    You’re right that this article doesn’t discuss the cost scenarios. I agree that the cost of a data plan or broadband plan is out of reach for many people, but if they can afford one, they’re likely to choose the phone. For example, this anecdote about homeless teens and smartphone use:

  4. Good points that mobile users aren’t just growing overall, but at a higher rate among different demographics. Glad to see the government is getting out front on at least one part of mobile strategy.

  5. I’m not sold on this concept that we have to make all content available on mobile just because some users don’t have desktops.

    It’s true that large swathes of the population don’t have desktop broadband, but that’s not for want of access. There is no law preventing certain groups from buying second hand computers and signing up to broadband. Nor are the economic constraints convincing – computers are not substantially more expensive or hard to obtain than 4G-equipped smartphones. So it’s a big assumption to say that mobile-only users want desktop content in the first place.

    That’s not to say we should create arbitrary barriers. We should provide access to the content, certainly. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the notion of mobile-specific workflows and interactions, just because we assume mobile-only users don’t know what they’re missing on desktop.

  6. I was looking over another article about RWD (responsive web design). After reading the article I was swayed that RWD may actually be a very good thing. I however would like to see a standardized option to view the site in the desktop version. I have been to many sites while out and around which force the smallest form factor on you. I think it is a dis-service to the end user when there is no accesible option to view the site normally.

  7. Fantastic article, very convincing. Also agree with Dwayne. I think people have the wrong idea of how to go about optimising for mobile – yes I now browse on my smartphone (or tablet) more than either my laptop or desktop (I fall into the laziness category), but I also more often than not tick “Request desktop site” in Chrome because frankly mobile ‘optimised’ sites are almost always cut down and missing important features. If web sites were made properly in the first place they’d be fine on smartphones with little to no optimisation. My favourite pet peave case in point is drop down menus, if I can’t hover on my smartphone they should be ‘optimised’ away, but actually they’re pretty annoying on a desktop site so why use them in the first place?! Clearly not to save space because you can cope without them on the mobile optimised site! I promise I’m trying but I can’t think of a single feature that works on a desktop but becomes troublesome on a mobile that couldn’t just be dropped entirely to the benefit of all.

  8. Karen, from looking at the source data, I think that your Americans without high school diplomas who lack broadband should be 78% rather than 88%.

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