Understand user needs to avoid developing apps nobody downloads #FOI2024 

By Mochamad Azhar

Li Hongyi, Director of Open Government Products Singapore; Ibrahim Arief, Chief Technology Officer of GovTech Edu Indonesia; and Dr Maheshwara Rao, Director of Digital Public Health at the Ministry of Health, Malaysia, shared about how to get government apps downloaded and more widely utilised at the recent Festival of Innovation.  

Speakers from three countries share their experiences in overcoming the challenges of why government service apps are not widely downloaded by the public, at the Festival of Innovation 2024 event in Singapore. Image: GovInsider

One nightmare that government app developers face? That the apps they develop face poor downloads and fail to build engagement with the public. If users feel they don't need the app, the apps will slowly get abandoned.

This is the situation that many Southeast Asian governments are grappling with: last year, GovInsider reported that the Malaysian government built more than 200 apps to digitalise public services - but 97 of them had been downloaded less than 1000 times.


At the “Build for Use Panel: Avoiding the Dreaded ‘Nobody Downloaded the App!’” session at GovInsider's Festival of Innovation 2024 on 28 March, speakers from the region shared their experiences on how to overcome these challenges.   


"Stop building things that no one asks for,” said Li Hongyi, Director of Open Government Products, GovTech Singapore.  


“Governments should ask themselves, does anyone want this [app]? And if people don’t want it, and you build it anyway, then you can’t be surprised that no one downloads it.”  


Hongyi noted that governments tend to work in a top-down manner, so when a minister or senior official offers an idea, programme implementers and developers will just follow suit.  


"It's not that the idea is bad… but it may turn out that what consumers want is very complicated… and requires a lot of nuances and understanding, so you need to be a lot more more flexible with ideas."  


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Who is the app built for?  

Ibrahim Arief, Chief Technology Officer of GovTech Edu Indonesia, mentions that one major mistake that causes apps not to be downloaded by the public is that they are built to fulfil the wishes of stakeholders rather than the needs of users.


Based on his experience partnering with Indonesia's Ministry of Education and Culture, there was a concern that technology providers were only perceived as “feature factories” that provide features A, B or C, for instance.  

Dr Maheshwara Rao, Director Digital Health, Ministry of Health Malaysia, emphasised the importance of technology partners in helping the government undertake digital development. Image: GovInsider

However, he managed to convince the organisation that the app the government were looking to procure did not necessarily solve the problem. Instead, GovTech Edu brought a new approach to problem-solving through working together.   


"We do field research, we do design thinking, a lot of the practice that we already have in industry and private sector, we bring it here [to government]," said Ibrahim.


Dr Maheshwara Rao, Director of Digital Public Health at the Malaysian Ministry of Health, which developed the MySejahtera healthcare app, also underlined the importance of government and technology partners sitting at the same table to discuss the best way forward to achieve goals.   


In the past, governments hired vendors and instructed their project management teams to simply execute orders. But now the paradigm is shifting, said Dr Rao. Technology providers are no longer just vendors, but government partners.   


"They [tech partners] must have the same, equal [say] as we have. Although we have our own technology teams, private players have much different perspectives and capabilities in terms of new technology," he said.  

Listening to user feedback is a must 

In the session moderated by Suresh Kumar, GovInsider's Senior Conference Producer, Hongyi emphasised that government agencies should talk to users and seek their inputs, as “a surprising number” of multi-million-dollar government projects fail as they lack critical feedback.


According to Hongyi, a common trap that developers fall into is the decision to create one giant app to fulfil all the users’ needs. 


That would be like deciding to open a single restaurant to serve all the food that users want, he said. “It’s a terrible idea because it would just do everything poorly. And that’s also what happens with apps. 


“After you’ve spoken to users and really understood their needs, you have to figure out the small slice of it [that you can create something good for]. So you have to understand the market and you need to talk to people.” 

Ibrahim Arief, CTO of GovTech Edu Indonesia, explains how user feedback is key to improving service quality. Image: GovInsider

Ibrahim emphasised that user feedback is critical to improving apps. This was demonstrated by the Platform Merdeka Mengajar (PMM), an app for teachers that has been downloaded 3.5 million times.  


When it was first launched, PMM only provided learning materials by the ministry. Thereafter, teachers wanted to know how other teachers were using the app so that they could learn and implement best practices in their classrooms. 


"We took that feedback and turned it into a feature that allows teachers to share how they teach. After we released the feature, our monthly active users grew ten times, from 30,000 to 300,000," Ibrahim added. 


Dr Rao said that inclusivity, or ensuring that broad segments of society can access digital government services, remains very important.  


“In Malaysia, we are very hungry for digital access through electronic platforms. Today, you can book a [public] clinic appointment in just less than 10 seconds.” 


If it is a mass-scale application, app developers must ensure they cater to the needs of people who do not have the opportunity to use a smartphone.  


“You need to consider how to make it easy for people to onboard their newborns, and the elderly, to experience the same [government services] that everyone else can,” said Dr Rao. 


“You must always look at all the good practices from all over the world, in applications similar to what you are developing,” he said. “See what best practices you can adopt, and then you can improvise. It’s a journey of learning throughout [all this].” 


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