How one agency followed its users onto the mobile Web

This is the first of three stories about NCI's mobile Web strategy: what drove the agency to mobile development, how IT managers decided whether to develop an app or a site, and what kind of site they decided to build.

The National Cancer Institute’s journey to the mobile Web began with some startling numbers.

Within a six-month span in 2010, the number of people accessing the institute’s flagship Cancer.gov site via mobile devices spiked from 50,000 viewers per month to 250,000. But visitors were in for a painful struggle, since the website was not designed for small form-factor devices.


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Despite that less-than-optimal experience, mobile access continued to rise, leading  Jonathan Cho, chief of NCI’s Communications Technology Branch, to a couple of conclusions.

The numbers, he said, “told us we had not only highly motivated users, but a need we had to meet,” Cho said.

“What it came down to, for us, was recognizing that mobile was inevitable,” added Lakshmi Grama, senior digital content strategist at NCI’s Office of Communications and Education.

In January 2011, NCI kicked off its mobile foray. The months that followed took NCI through market research, website analytics, focus groups, prototyping, testing and, eventually, deployment. A mobile version of Cancer.gov debuted in February.

In the run up to the launch, the agency, part of the National Institutes of Health, faced a number of design and development decision points. This article is the first installment of a three-part series that will walk readers through the steps along NCI’s mobile path.

The agency’s initial step focused on basic background research and website analytics. That research confirmed the importance of creating a mobile presence, but NCI needed to drill down. The key task: identify which groups of users had the greatest need to locate cancer information via mobile technology. Narrowing the focus was critical, given the tens of thousands of pages of cancer-related content on Cancer.gov.

“I think we have nearly 50,000 pages of content,” Cho said. “Obviously, it is a huge challenge just to filter through the content even on the regular website.”

NCI segmented the mobile user population into three groups: patients, friends and family; health-care professionals; and researchers. The agency conducted focus groups with those audiences, asking them about their information access preferences.

The focus groups, Grama said, revealed the “most likely audience” for its content: patients and people concerned with family members or someone they know who has cancer.

Other audiences were not as close a fit for mobile. Researchers, it was found, access NCI content as they investigate funding and grants, but not on mobile devices. Health-care providers expressed interest, but wanted to use mobile cancer information in the context of care. NCI’s content, however, provides detailed evidence summaries that aren’t necessarily geared toward a quick consult with a patient.

“Clearly, we now had the audience that was looking for content on mobile,” Grama said, noting that NCI’s website analytics backed up the user group findings.

“We worked really hard on the ... research to understand our audience,” Cho said. “It really allowed us to target and segment the content ... for those mobile audiences.”

NCI’s next move was to settle upon the way in which it would serve up information to its patients, friends and family audience. Once again, NCI would go back to the research approach that became an important element of the agency’s mobile initiative.

NEXT: Should NCI build apps for mobile devices or create a mobile website?

About the Author

John Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.

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