NCI gets agile in developing mobile website

This is the last 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 task of building the mobile version of Cancer.gov presented the National Cancer Institute with a choice: go with a standard website development method or a responsive web design.

A responsive design aims to create websites that can adjust to a given mobile device, but NCI decided to go with the conventional approach.


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Lakshmi Grama, senior digital content strategist at NCI’s Office of Communications and Education, said responsive design “was a little bit too bleeding edge” in 2011. She also cited constraints with cancer.gov content that would have made responsive design more problematic. The adoption of responsive design, for example, would have required NCI to clean up content structures, which evolve over time, Grama said.

“We thought it would take too much of our resources to be able to start implementing responsive design,” she said.

Grama said NCI may be looking at responsive design in the future, noting that the technique would work if the agency were starting a project with entirely new content.

As for an overarching software method, NCI has moved to agile versus the traditional waterfall development approach, said Jonathan Cho, chief of NCI’s Communications Technology Branch.

Agile methods emphasize iterative development, user involvement and rapidly incorporated feedback. 

“We are an agile shop now and it has been interesting doing agile for Web development and, in particular, for the user research and the user experience aspect of it,” Cho said.

NCI rolled out paper prototypes of the mobile website — a blueprint of the site’s layout — and then moved on to wire-framing, a practice designed to uncover website design issues. Users provide reaction to prototypes and wireframes in an iterative development cycle. 

Usability testing contributes additional feedback. NCI tested a mobile site with users prior to launch. The evaluation involved eye tracking, which records where a user looks on a device’s display. NCI’s research team helped tweak eye tracking equipment to work with small form factor devices.

The research group was one element of the NCI integrated project team that collaborated on the mobile website project. Other members came from NCI’s technology, contact center and public affairs teams. The office that coordinates content creation and management was also represented.

“They were all connected in some way to the content and the audience we needed to reach,” Grama said.

NCI incorporated change requests from users, and project team members and then moved the project into the build environment. NCI put the mobile website into production in February.

The project has captured some attention early on. The mobile website received a bronze award from the Web Health Awards program for the Winter/Spring 2012 period. As for customer impact, Grama said the mobile site had sparked a spike in calls to the NCI’s call center. She said in one month the center received more than 20,000 inquires via phone, e-mail or live chat.

Grama described the call center, where agents help customers with their cancer-related questions, as an “additional value-add of the mobile experience.”

The making of a mobile website, particularly on the scale of Cancer.gov, is no stroll in the park. The takeaway from the NCI experience: upfront planning, an integrated project team, and an ample feedback can make the going easier.

About the Author

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

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