Taking Cancer.gov Mobile

Oct 2, 2012

NCI MobileMobile Gov Experiences are agency stories about creating anytime, anywhere, any device government services and info. This entry is a story shared by National Cancer Institute._ _

The National Cancer Institute (NCI), the nation’s leading cancer research agency and part of the National Institutes of Health has a legislative mandate to collect, organize, and disseminate the results of cancer research to cancer patients and their friends and family, health professionals, and to the cancer research community at large. NCI developed a mobile strategy for enterprise level communications activities based on user research and web analytics which resulted in the development of a mobile version of NCI’s enterprise website, m.cancer.gov.

Why We Did It

Since 2009, there has been an onslaught of data related to the growing number of people using mobile devices to access information. Pew Internet and American Life Project data from 2010 showed that 40% of adults used the Internet, email, or instant messaging on a mobile phone. More recent statistics from Pew also shows nearly half of American adults are smartphone users and 87% of smart phone users say they use their phone to access internet or email. The Pew 2010 study also shows that African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to depend on mobile phones for internet access. Our own web analytics data showed significant increases in traffic from mobile devices.

These general trends are also reflected in research about how people are seeking health information. The development of mobile health (mhealth) as an industry is evidence of the growing recognition of the role of mobile devices in improving health.

What We Did

Cancer.gov is a large site and a varied range of users come to the site with very different needs and tasks that they want to perform. When we started we were not sure who would really want to use our content on mobile devices and in what format.

We also knew that it would be a monumental task to make our entire site (which has grown over the past 17 years) available on mobile.

We wanted to focus on the audience that would benefit most from a mobile approach. As with every web project, we started by looking at our user personas/key audiences to hypothesize who would access our content on mobile devices and in what context. We followed up with user research that included cancer patients and their caregivers, health professionals, and researchers. The research directed us to start with our patients and their caregivers audiences as they would be most likely access our content on mobile devices. At that time, both health professionals and scientific researchers, our other two major audiences, did not consider our site their primary source of information in a mobile context. In addition, our web analytics showed that the desktop site content that was most often accessed from mobile devices was also the content designed for our patient and caregiver audiences.

This helped to inform our decision on the mobile platform we would use: mobile app or a mobile website. We had proponents for both, but we went back to who was visiting us on mobile, the context they would use our content, and how they would find us (a lot of our traffic comes to Cancer.gov via search). Our experience and research shows us that context for use that is most apt for our users is “urgent now” – the information has to be quickly available. One may not think to download an app in the context of a life and death decision about cancer treatment. But one always has a browser on a mobile device. So mobile web was the direction for us.

In addition, the fact that the private sector was already building apps using our content made our strategy of moving to mobile web even more apparent.

Once we decided on a mobile website, we then evaluated our most valuable content to decide what we would share on a mobile site. We were lucky that a lot of our content was already structured enabling us to more easily share the same content between the desktop and mobile sites.

How It Worked

Users who come to our desktop site on a mobile phone are automatically redirected to the mobile site. Many of the features on our desktop site are also available on the mobile site, including autosuggest for search, our dictionary of cancer terms, as well as features to share content on social networks as well as email. In addition, given that people would be on a mobile phone when they were browsing, we also made a prominent call to action to call our Contact Center (1-80-4-CANCER) to talk to an Information Specialist or to send an email to the Contact Center.

The analytics are showing approximately 300,00 page views a month on the mobile site without a major awareness campaign.

We are also thrilled that m.cancer.gov was named among the top 10 government mobile “apps” by Government Computer News and more so by the fact that we got ratings of 10 on usefulness and usability! The rating of 6 on cool factor did not bother us one bit – it’s hard to make cancer cool!

What We Learned

  • If your content is structured (either XML or XHTML), it is much easier to port to mobile
  • Tables in content are really difficult to deal with on mobile
  • Be mindful of how users may be using their devices – we added the ability to directly call our contact center, but did not anticipate that on some devices, users are given an option to call or text. And our contact center was not prepared to respond to text messages.
  • A cross-functional team of content experts, user research and web analytics experts, information architect and designer, and technology gurus are critical to success.

What’s Next

Were working with content owners to bring more content into the structure for mobile, and we plan to turn our structured XML content in an API-based feed.


Lakshmi Grama | lgrama (at) mail (dot) nih (dot) gov

Originally posted by Jacob Parcell on Oct 2, 2012

GSA | Washington D.C.

Oct 2, 2012