It’s time to think mobile first for government services and information

I’ve heard more than one government client say that he or she didn’t have the time or budget to think about the implications of mobile when developing online content. Getting approved content online in both official languages and in accordance with multiple TBS policies and standards was daunting enough, and it stretched staff and budgets. If considered at all, “mobile” was thought of in terms of mobile applications.

But can government departments continue to ignore mobile?

Most decidedly, they can’t. Mobile is not only here to stay but according to the latest Google research, it’s fast becoming the platform of choice for many people looking for information and services online. The research tells us that:

  • 90% of smartphone users use their phone to make progress toward a long term goal or multi-step process “while out and about”; and
  • 62% of smartphone users are more likely to take action right away to solve an unexpected problem or new task when they have a smartphone.

In Canada, three in four people own a smartphone. Millennials spend about half of their time online on devices other than a desktop computer. This trend toward mobile use is bound to continue with today’s toddlers having practiced on tablets as soon as they could snatch the device from a parent.

Government departments therefore need to consider mobile carefully as they offer services and information to citizens and other stakeholders. The Government of Canada is forging ahead with a focus on mobile through its Web Renewal Initiative and the development of Canada.ca. The site’s templates are coded using mobile-friendly responsive design techniques to adapt to different screen sizes and device capabilities. When displayed on a smaller screen, menus behave differently and column widths are automatically adjusted so content can be read more easily. The coding also supports touchscreens so users can tap, swipe and scroll through content.

While responsive design handles how content is displayed, content strategy – as described by strategist Kristina Halvorson – determines “the creation, delivery and governance of useful, usable content”. A mobile-first content strategy does not mean one strategy for mobile and another for desktop. Rather, it recognizes that the ability to support user tasks requires a rethink of how to create and deliver that content across a range of devices. Plan and develop content for the small screen and users with a large, traditional computer screens are also served.

As a starting point for this strategy, Web teams and content creators should first learn and understand their users’ experience when accessing content on a smaller screen. There are three straightforward ways to do this:

  1. Go small – Open a content page on a desktop computer and then shrink the browser screen down to something close to a smartphone size. Better yet, open the page on a smartphone. Try scrolling the page to the end. Did it seem like the scrolling wouldn’t end? Was it possible to find key information? Was there a PDF with critical information or a form? Could the PDF be opened? What other issues were noticeable with the content?
  2. Do a task – Identify one of the top tasks for users and perform it on a smaller screen. Was the task easy or hard to complete? Impossible? When did frustration set in? How long did it take?
  3. Try search – Perform a search for a known piece of content on a small screen device. How long did it take to scroll through the search results to find the content?

Understanding the user experience first-hand helps prioritize the issues that must be addressed through the content strategy in order to achieve desired outcomes. Thinking mobile-first will help Web teams reach the growing numbers of users who will first reach for a small screen to use their content.

Denise Eisner is a senior consultant at Systemscope. She is the lead content strategist for the Web Renewal Initiative.


Denise Eisner is a senior-level web strategist and communications specialist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a member of the Government Service Excellence practice, Denise’s experience and specializations include web strategy development, information architecture, web analytics (WebTrends and Google Analytics) and web project management. She has led large-scale content audits, developed performance measurement frameworks, and coordinated site updates to meet Treasury Board policies standards and guidelines. Engaged in the evolving spheres of information technology, corporate communications and media for almost two decades, Denise has transformed business objectives into web strategies and information architectures for corporate and government clients in the U.S. and Canada.


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