The overarching goal of Mass.gov is to enable the Commonwealth’s constituents to easily find, learn about and access state services. To do this effectively, Mass.gov’s staff periodically reviews how to best deliver information. After all, technologies which were once cutting-edge, look quaint in hindsight. (Nostalgia aside, is anyone playing “Pong” on an Atari 2600 these days instead of the latest online game?)
The next technological tipping point is upon us. In 2011, worldwide shipments of smartphones for the first time outpaced those of PCs (desktops, notebooks and tablets). 488 million smartphone units were shipped in 2011, versus 415 million PC units. Because of this, it’s likely that a generation of newborns will grow up to find a computer mouse as antiquated as today’s teens view a Walkman.
When originally developed, Mass.gov was designed for delivery via a PC (which was the prevailing user interface at the time). With the technological winds blowing in the direction of a new platform, we had to adapt to deliver information to people on the tool of their choice. However, we had to determine how to most effectively provide Mass.gov services on mobile and tablet devices.
Considering that our mobile delivery efforts are funded by taxpayer dollars, one crucial factor was to ensure that we are spending wisely. We certainly could have built “native,” platform-specific mobile applications. However, this approach would have increased development costs by 300+ percent, and would have necessitated that every new change to the desktop version of the site be implemented again in three additional mobile versions.
A more streamlined and cost-effective approach involved replacing the existing “rigid” architecture of our site with a more flexible architecture based on what is called “responsive design.” This approach enables our content to automatically display in a format which is optimized for each mobile device, based on the screen width of the device being used to access the site. With tablets, this causes some page elements and images to resize proportionally. On smartphones, menus are automatically consolidated for simpler navigation and for easier on-screen viewing. Most importantly, all the content which appears on the desktop version of Mass.gov is available “on the go” from any device while retaining its accessibility for site visitors with disabilities.
We have a goal to always provide users with “anytime, anywhere” access to information, but in times of emergency, this is especially important. Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 was an example of this. Hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents were without utilities (including electricity, phone and terrestrial internet access). Because of this, people naturally turned to their smartphones to get current situational information. Over the four-day period surrounding the storm, mobile “traffic” to Mass.gov accounted for 28.5 percent of all visits to the site (up from a monthly average of 14 percent), peaking at about 35 percent on Oct. 28.
While mobile usage of the site decreased as people’s internet connectivity was restored, continued growth in mobile traffic shows no signs of abating. According to our Google Analytics data for Mass.gov, while overall traffic to Mass.gov has increased 50 percent since July 2012 (from 3 million visitors in July to 4.5 million visitors in the month ending Feb. 11, 2013), mobile usage has increased even faster. In the same time frame, mobile traffic grew 123%, and now represents 18 percent of all visits (up from 12%).
Only time will tell what the next revolutionary device will be. But when the smartphone goes the way of its rotary predecessor, Mass.gov will be ready to support it, while maximizing the use of each taxpayer dollar.