UX Experts' Advice: Talk to Users, Developers

Local governments face the challenge of unifying a digital experience across many agencies with many business processes that evolve as ordinances change. For that reason, experts say, UX hinges on connecting developers with users.

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As an institution, each local and state government must serve every person who visits, resides, or does business within it. Local governments face the challenge of unifying a digital experience across many different agencies with many different business processes that evolve as ordinances change.

A session on the UX of Government at the recent Summit on Government Performance & Innovation, hosted by Governing magazine and Living Cities and moderated by Zach Patton, executive editor of Governing, focused on the question of how to create a positive experience for the people who interact with government and the challenge of and strategies for designing digital government around the people who use it.

Traditionally, government has no competition for most of the services it provides.

“We are designing for a compulsory interaction, which is a different challenge and opportunity than the private sector has,” said Michael Duffy, founder and chief executive officer of CityBase. “The user experience is the process. The interface we see is only the surface of the actual interface. The business processes we are facilitating are the expressions of ordinances. Technology is now cost-effective enough to make a significant change in the area of user interface.”

Pointing out the example of developing a system to deal with managing cannabis licensing, Carrie Bishop, San Francisco's chief digital services officer, said she and her team asked themselves how a highly complex business can go from operating on the margins to being a fully licensed and permitted business. The city worked to get to know those businesses and overcome any misconceptions, she said. Seeing the constraints of the phone ringing and serving customers is important to knowing whether what is good in theory is good in practice and gives insight into what is a realistic process. She and her team have in some cases gone back to the authors of ordinances to point out that after user testing, policy updates were needed.

Bora Shin, design strategy lead for the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation, worked with her team — including its senior data scientist — to identify problems. In the case of alleviating renter displacement leading to the Home for Renters Campaign, this meant setting up workshops that asked questions like, “What does home mean to you?”

Recognizing that improving user experience isn’t a solo effort, Bishop added, “There are some great partners who are willing to work with us. For me, the litmus test of a great vendor is someone who recognizes that they don’t want to be in the business of running the government forever. They want to build your capacity and make government better.”

Rebecca Friedman is the Founder and President of Koru Strategies, a public sector business development advisory firm.