September 23, 2019

When residents have to resort to a Google search to find government services, it’s a sure sign that its website isn’t working well.

Such was the case in Washington D.C. Because of its unique status as a city and a federal district, D.C. processes complex requests that cover a range of traditional state, county, and city services. Its website, like those of other civic organizations, needs to serve many purposes to many people — and, according to users, it wasn’t. Ineffective search and poor design made the user experience frustrating, and each of the 100-plus district agencies had its own microsite, navigation, and content standards, which compounded the problem.

In San Francisco, the city’s Ethics Commission was facing a similar challenge. Its website helps promote accountability within the government, so it has to serve many audiences and functions. The agency — and by proxy, the website — serves as a repository that stores documents and policies, a department that registers and reports on campaigns and lobbyists, a schoolhouse that educates about rules and compliance, a courtroom that conducts and informs on investigations, and more. But with more than 3,000 pages, the site was difficult to navigate, reported users, and with no key words, it was tough to find the content that was relevant to them.

To help redesign its website, D.C. brought in FUSE executive fellow Hua Wang, a CEO and strategy consultant with more than 10 years of experience in innovation and customer experience transformation. She is currently working on the D.C. site along with pro bono partner General Assembly (GA), which offers training in technology, design, and user experiences. In 2016, the Ethics Commission hired then-FUSE fellow Gayathri Thaikkendiyil, an IT strategy and operations expert, to help modernize its website. She is now the deputy director and chief programs officer for the Ethics Commission.

Both Wang and Thaikkendiyil believe it’s especially important for government websites to take a human-centered approach to design. In particular, this means considering what diverse groups of people need and how they would use the site.

“When you’re building a website where the goal is to maximize revenue, the things you focus on are very different than a public agency,” Thaikkendiyil said. “We have to serve a much broader audience. Government information needs to be equally accessible to people across language barriers, disabilities, and the digital divide. You need to think about how people can access that site. For example, if you need something that takes higher bandwidth, say video or big graphics, some people might not be able to see or watch it.”

A human-centered design approach will help public agencies better reach and serve their constituents, adds Wang. “For many people, the website is their first entry point into interacting with government,” she said. “When designing, we need to start with and stay focused on the users. It is their government, and we are here to help make sure we answer their questions and provide the information they want and need.”

While D.C. is still in the middle of updating its website design, the Ethics Commission rolled out its initial redesign in December of 2016. Based on their experiences, Wang and Thaikkendiyil share lessons learned to help civic agencies build a website to best serve their communities.

Consult the people most connected to the site. Wang and Thaikkendiyil quickly realized that internal staff — who use and rely on the website and best know constituents — were an amazing, underutilized source of information.

“The first thing I did was a listening tour with 30 people across 10 agencies,” Wang said. “It helped me understand the degree of pain points the website caused. They had lots of ideas about what needed to be done to better serve residents.” For example, she learned that something as seemingly simple as how to pay a parking ticket was difficult to find using the site’s search engine. Other feedback included text that is too tiny or too large, disorganized content, disjointed color schemes — Wang synthesized all their comments and included them in her recommendations for improvement.

Meeting with staff also helped Thaikkendiyil understand the services and information that people seek from the Ethics Commission, both online and in person. In turn, she used this knowledge to help define the various users who come to the site and what services were important to them.

Reach out to current and potential users. When conducting research, Thaikkendiyil reached out to the most important stakeholders: people who already use the site, as well as those who might need to use it in the future. She conducted interviews and test sessions, gathering feedback on content and design. By having people try to navigate the site, she was able to figure out where they got lost, what wasn’t clear, and what changes, however small, were needed to improve their experience — where content was placed, for example, and which words were used for navigation.

To ensure a diversity of responses, Wang and General Assembly spread across D.C.’s eight wards to talk with residents. They received 1,500 survey responses and did about 150 interviews throughout the city, according to Zach Thomas, UXDI instructor lead at GA. “We used initial discoveries to hone in on what the website offered and lacked. What were pain points? How satisfied were people? What could be better?” he said.

In Ward 4, for example, residents often brought up the need for help with poor roads and dangerous intersections — and they noted how it didn’t feel like the government heard or responded when they surfaced these issues. In Ward 1, where many residents are transplants, a common request was for the website to provide information about various ways to connect with the D.C. community.

Use these insights to define priority users and why they come to the site. A standard step in human-centered website design is creating what’s known as a user persona, or a fictional person who represents a key audience for the website. This helps designers better understand who they’re designing for and helps them align website design, strategy, and goals to the needs of specific user groups.

The Ethics Commission, for example, has multiple key audiences: city officers, campaign staff, permit consultants, developers, lobbyists. To make the website effective, the redesign team had to understand what problems each of these audiences needed to solve. “The main challenge for this type of agency, and the volume of information that we make available, is trying to communicate and provide information to a great variety of users,” Thaikkendiyil said. “Previously, the website was not organized based on those roles, so it was not easy to navigate and find information.”

But after identifying its core users and why they came to the site, the team was able to simplify navigation. Website visitors can now choose what kind of problem they’re trying to solve (Disclosure, Compliance, E-file,) and then sort by persona (Campaigns, City Lobbyists, Major Developers). “We made it easier to find answers to common questions, and, in the process, serve as a community facilitator — an up-to-date, reliable resource that makes life in the city better,” Thaikkendiyil said.

Test how easy it is — or isn’t — to use the site. Thaikkendiyil worked with staff to help them understand standard processes for testing the website. She created online surveys so that users could provide feedback on their experiences and challenges, as well as offer suggestions for improvements. And she helped create an online feedback form that’s on each page of the site, which helps staff maintain and enhance content.

In D.C., General Assembly helped Wang gather real-time data about specific pages and places where residents got lost on the site. This allowed her to inform leadership about current pain points — such as difficulty using the site to register a car — and make recommendations on how to prioritize information and changes.

Website design is not one-and-done. For a website to stay useful, someone has to “own” it, which means budgeting resources beyond its launch. “Oftentimes, what happens is a website redesign project is funded as a one-time expense, and then funding ends,” Thaikkendiyil said. “But the work extends past that if you’re committed to continuous improvement. Getting user feedback is not a one time thing, and there’s constant change in how we operate in any city. You have to build in an ongoing way to meet the needs of the people we serve.”

Don’t expect everyone to immediately jump on board. Some people may not recognize the importance of designing from the user’s perspective versus, say, the agency’s chain of command — so be ready for pushback. An important function of the team is helping educate others on the benefits of human-centered design.

“It might be that a director wants to say what the agency’s website should look like, or agencies might want to use it to showcase what they think is important, rather than what users need. This is natural,” Wang said. “But one of the roles that people play as leaders of human-centered design is to be an advocate for the user, to bring their needs to the decision-making tables, and to help others understand why it’s so important to hear their voices and provide the experiences they need.”

Sara Hudson is a writer, researcher, and co-author of The Government Fix, how changemakers inside government are solving problems and innovating solutions to provide better services.

Photo Credit: John Schnobrich