For the foreseeable future, government's customers will interact with us in person, mail, on the phone and online. Consequently, as part of the Miami-Dade County's customer service strategy, the county has made vast improvements to those service channels, particularly for phone and online interactions by implementing miamidade.gov in 2001; introducing the 311 Answer Center in 2005; launching eNet, the employee portal in 2007; and creating web 2.0/social networking mobile apps in 2009. Through those innovations, the county is seeing more customers, both external and internal, make the shift to either phone or online interactions.

For services that are already web-enabled, implementing mobile apps can be as simple as developing a mobile interface to an existing application. Luckily, the majority of the county's highly accessed services — trip planning, mapping and bulky trash pickup requests — already have been brought online through the miamidade.gov portal or 311. To mobile-enable those services requires a user-friendly design that works effectively across all mobile devices. Usability is more important for mobile applications, where users have less patience with complex interfaces.

In-house programmers develop the county's apps. A smartphone app generally requires a multidisciplinary team — a programmer, a designer (or usability specialist), and an integration architect, who integrates the app with the existing infrastructure, data sources and with other applications.

Once developed and tested, mobile apps require a different type of deployment and promotional effort from standard online services. The county coupled its mobile strategy with its social media efforts and banked on the apps' inherent virality. Mobile and viral go hand-in-hand, hence Facebook, Twitter and the different mobile app stores and catalogs are the best places to promote new apps. They are also the best social spaces to study demand for other mobile applications and test concepts for novel features.

Mobile apps continue to test the county's agility. Because mobile apps may start sprouting up from all divisions of the enterprise, usability, branding and architecture standards must be communicated quickly. The best practices applied for web applications must be extended to mobile apps.

Real-time communication with customers is another challenge. Because of their interface and flow, mobile apps enable less structured and more informal types of interaction, and organizations may not be equipped to react quickly. Or, they may respond with a high level of formality and discourage dialogue.

Mobile technologies are an important element of Miami-Dade's evolving customer service strategy. Moving forward, the county will respond to the changing patterns of its customers. It will build on the investments made over the last decade and develop a countywide strategy that provides for a systematic and fact-driven process to select the applications that are best suited for mobile technology. The county will ensure that development efforts are driven by usability, uphold the brand and can be supported by its technology platforms and policies. Finally, the county will develop outreach strategies to help move customers to online and mobile platforms.

  • Read the main story, "The new public square," to learn how New York, Boston and Miami-Dade County are engaging residents through e-government and mobile applications, including social media.

Judi Zito is the director of Miami-Dade County's Government Information Center.