BALTIMORE — When government creates an app, launches an open data portal or redesigns a website, there’s often a critical element left out of the process: citizens.
At the second day of the NASCIO Midyear Conference, NASCIO President Bo Reese opened a panel on user-centered design with a simple question: When government launches a new product, “are we solving a problem the citizens have? Or are we solving a problem we think exists?”
To answer that question and offer on-the-ground experience and lessons learned in implementing user-centered design at the state level, IT leaders from Georgia, New York and Massachusetts each presented their approach to creating solutions with end users in mind, in a way that is efficient, cost-effective and ultimately better serves the people.
Georgia Chief Digital Officer Nikhil Deshpande compared the way his state’s website looked in 2002 versus 2012, and the difference was clear.
“The problem is that [the 2002] website was designed without the user in mind,” he explained.
In designing that older site, the state worked under the assumption that anyone trying to access state information goes to ga.gov, and the site then sends them to the appropriate page they need. But when looking at the example of a Georgia resident trying to register a business, for example, what became apparent was that person needed to visit at least three separate Web pages, or more if they initially mis-navigated the state site.
So in the 2012 version, Georgia took those three main sites for business registration, put them together on one page, and called that page, along with other similar cases, a “popular topic.” In other words, they designed around what was going to be most useful for the end user.
One of Deshpande’s points was that that frequently, state agencies approach the IT team and say they need a mobile app.
But an important question to ask is, “Do you?”
Because an app isn’t the right solution for every problem. In many cases, designing a mobile-responsive website or a subscription-based app may be more effective.
For New York State’s Office of Information Technology Services (ITS), however, whose direct clients are not citizens but instead the 45 agencies they’ve consolidated into just one IT enterprise, an app is just what’s needed. In this instance the user is a whole group of state employees.
Executive Deputy CIO Karen Geduldig used the example of a cumbersome plant inspection process within the Department of Agriculture and Markets as a prime instance in which an app was exactly the right solution. Where previously the inspections of both big farms and small nurseries was a cumbersome, paper-heavy, time-intensive process for inspectors, ITS worked directly with inspectors on the ground — even following their work on ride-alongs — to determine what the solution really needed to be most effective. The resulting app automatically uploads results, autopopulates repetitive information, tracks trends over time and includes a reference guide. This makes work easier for inspectors, and also makes the process simpler and more efficient for nursery owners.
It’s a good example of Geduldig’s point that “applications are really tied to business needs,” meaning that ITS identifies a department’s need, researches what might be the best solution to meet that need and makes it happen. She called it a “client-centered, skills-based and process-oriented” approach.
And, as Geduldig said, it’s now a template they can use to push similar solutions to New York state’s 90 other agencies that license and inspect businesses.
When Chief Digital Officer Holly St. Clair came on board with Massachusetts’ state IT operation 18 months ago, she said, she was challenged by Gov. Charlie Baker to rebuild the state’s website with a citizen-focused, data driven design.
The first task was to assess how citizens were using the current website. A poll showed 75 percent of constituents engaged through the website, but they were faced with wading through more than 250,000 pages and documents to find what they needed. What St. Clair and her team found was that 10 percent of the site’s content drove 89 percent of the traffic, so they focused their energy on that, making the 10 percent much more manageable for users.
After three months of user research, really talking to users and imagining what it’s like to be in the shoes of people across the spectrum of website visitors, St. Clair realized they needed to take a task-based approach to website design: “try, test, iterate.”
To develop the new Massachusetts website that is as accessible as possible to users across the state, with all kinds of needs, St. Clair was constantly testing the site, using specialized, inexpensive tools, like Crazy Egg, which creates heatmaps of the most clicked-on spots on a site. By looking at how visitors actually use and interact with the site, state agencies can use their resources wisely to improve that main portal to citizen interaction.
Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.