The windy city’s newly minted identification card, known as the Chicago CityKey, was first conceptualized as an optional, government-issued ID that would help certain residents who faced barriers to municipal services.

But the scope of the project, which eventually came under the leadership of the Office of the City Clerk, expanded as development progressed. City leaders decided the card should benefit all of Chicago’s 2.7 million residents. That meant developers had to find a way to ensure the card really worked for everyone. Otherwise, what was the point?

So, the city turned to human-centric design, a concept that puts residents at the heart of all that government does, according to Eric Vazquez, chief technology officer for the Office of the City Clerk.   

Human-centric design is taking off as state and local government agencies transition from an era in which online services were largely built based on the needs and expectations of institutions, to a new normal where services are tailored to the needs of the citizens. This requires extensive research, interviews and user observation.

It’s a model that has been pioneered by large and successful private companies — Amazon and Apple, to name two — and is now seeping into government. Essentially, public agencies have begun to envision themselves as customer service organizations.

Creation of Chicago’s CityKey card meant that Vazquez and other project leaders worked with a diverse range of 74 stakeholder groups in the city, including nonprofits, community groups, churches, charities, advocates and many other influential city institutions. The work involved extensive conversations, as well as more than 40 roundtable events held throughout Chicago, to discuss how the card could benefit constituents.

“The CityKey really helps a lot of different groups of Chicagoans,” said Vazquez. “A lot of conversations we’ve had with the LGBTQ community, the veterans community, the re-entry community ended up as product features.”

One example is that the card allows users to designate their own genders, picking between male, female, non-binary or simply leaving the space blank. Vazquez said Chicago is the only city he is aware of that issues an ID card that allows users to make that choice. Other cities that provide municipal ID programs include Detroit, New York City and San Francisco.

Another key to human-centric design is running pilot programs to test assumptions that have been gleaned from user research. This meant issuing 1,000 cards during a prototype phase to a variety of stakeholders who were most likely to provide honest and productive feedback.

“Thankfully, because we had conversations with stakeholders in various communities, we had a pool of users ready to test the card,” said Vazquez.

The CityKey is designed to give users access to public transit, serve as a library card and to be used as accepted identification for any service that requires ID.

Kate LeFurgy, a spokeswoman for the Office of the City Clerk, described the human-centered research phase as one that never quite ends. “What we’re learning as well is what are the other use cases for people,” she said. “How will they be using this new government ID, and what should we be cognizant of as we continue to add additional features and work on this program.” 

Chicago plans to invest approximately $2 million to develop and roll out CityKey, according to LeFurgy.

Both Vazquez and LeFurgy anticipate human-centric design to be a large part of the work done by the city clerk’s office moving forward, especially in the realm of gov tech, which City Clerk Anna Valencia has directed her office to use in service of legislative management and increasing civic engagement. When Valencia took office, updates were made to Web streaming capabilities for city council meetings, and work is underway now to help Chicagoans have easier online access to the legislation that affects them.

“As far as legislative management, it’s not the sexiest thing out there, but it’s critical,” Vazquez said. “It allows Chicagoans who are not in city government to come to our website and look up a piece of legislation that’s important to them and get engaged.”