photoWith Hong Kong having one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in the world –2.3 phones per capita according to some studies – it is no surprise the Hong Kong government is creating mobile applications to communicate with its citizens. The question is whether these apps are addressing user needs or simply ticking some bureaucratic bucket lists.

The Hong Kong government is right to spend money on mobile technology. It must, however, define a clear mobile communication strategy that puts user-specific needs at its core, and stop individual departments from wasting taxpayers’ money on pet projects that nobody is using.

In a public document entitled “Smarter Hong Kong, Smarter Living,” the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau justified the launch of 59 mobile websites and 62 mobile apps because “the public now expects access to information and services anytime, anywhere, on any device and through any platform.” Recognising the importance of mobile technology is laudable, but it is not enough to simply churn out apps.

Earlier this month, lawmakers questioned the efficiency of some government apps and struck a nerve with Hongkongers footing the bill for these projects as well as with the community of mobile technology developers.

Napoleon Biggs is a Hong Kong-based digital media specialist and founder of Web Wednesday, a network of digital entrepreneurs. He has helped developers compete for government tenders and sees three main issues with the government’s approach to mobile apps: an inflexible tender process not suitable to the fast-moving world of app development, lack of focus on the target audience, and government departments’ “build-it-and-they-will-come” mentality.

“In the crowded world we live in, they’ve got to make some noise,” says Biggs. “[The government is] not tapping into social media or search engines and they’re not buying ads.” As a result of poor marketing, many government apps are not downloaded because people are not aware they exist.

Download figures, however, are not the only problem. With an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 new apps launched globally every month, consumers expect well-designed, high-performing apps and are quick to forget those that do not deliver. A study by the analytics and marketing company Localytcs revealed that one in four apps is never used after being downloaded and tried. In many cases, users abandon apps because they are not compelling, are difficult to navigate, or were launched around a single event or campaign.

Successful apps engage users, who in return become their best advocates. “A good app is something that people use more than once,” says Biggs. “It’s one that people find useful, and would tell a friend they should download it.”

The MyObservatory app is the Hong Kong government’s most successful app. It cost HK$26 million to produce, but it has been downloaded over 3.9 million times, according to their website. Last year, the number of mobile page views exceeded that of the Observatory’s website.

On the flip side, the Red Tide Information Network app, cost taxpayers only HK$128,000 to build and maintain in the first year, but has been downloaded just 10 times. No one expects all apps to be as successful as the MyObservatory app, but commissioning should occur only after a specific need and audience have been identified.

As the popularity of smartphones and portable tablets continues to grow, the way we gather information and communicate will increasingly occur through mobile devices. To address this trend, the government has earmarked HK$9.5 million to fund over 100 apps in the three years to 2015. Before spending any more money, now is a good time for the government to take stock of its mobile successes and failures.

The sooner the government recognises that its target audience (Hong Kong’s citizens and visitors) is too sophisticated to be impressed only with the number of apps launched, the sooner it will deliver what they really want: useful, purpose-built apps worthy of a city like Hong Kong.