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3 Cities Where User Experience Design Helped Make Services Better

There are often easier ways to do the things that government does.

OAKLAND, CALIF. — There is a difference between the way a person buys a book on the Internet and the way a person fills out a form to apply for government benefits.

But why?

Much of the discussion on Nov. 2 at the Code for America (CfA) Summit was focused on that question. Why is it that so many people have a hard time applying for business licenses, or enrolling in food assistance programs, or doing most things involving government?

Government leaders, civic hackers and industry representatives at the conference think they know why — often, the systems in place to accomplish those tasks were designed around the needs of the government bureaucrat, the back-office worker, the lawyer. They weren’t necessarily designed for the people using those systems.

Now, many in government are finding ways to flip the script — to design processes that give government what it needs in a way that is also easier for residents, and they're doing it through user experience design. Sometimes the solutions are high-tech and mobile, and other times it’s as easy as changing the way something is done.

Here are three examples.


In Oakland, like the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, rents are going up. And that can mean conflict between tenants and landlords.

The city has a process for resolving disputes, called the rent adjustment program, and that became a target for user experience-centered redesigns. Together they looked at the user experience to find slow spots and used technology to streamline those parts of the process. That includes an easier means for petitioning online and text messages for legal notifications.

“[It’s] changing this really tense conversation to a collaborative one,” said Kiran Jain, chief resilience officer for Oakland.

On top of that, the city is beta testing a redesigned portal that focuses on simplistic language. It was designed for citizens using all kinds of devices, including older systems. The beta site puts common service requests up top and is designed around what residents need to do on the site.

“We know that better technology is a result of great community engagement — in fact, we know that user experience is community engagement,” said Mai-Ling Garcia, online engagement manager for the city. “As we develop the city’s first UX strategy, we’re looking to create experiences for people … who are learning to use computers at schools and other public places.”


There are no fewer than 11 city health and human services agencies in New York. That means people often find themselves stretched between several different agencies when accessing benefits — which is a problem when it comes to providing things people need urgently.

“Missing information is one of the biggest causes of incomplete applications in the city, so you might have to deny your client services," said Amulya Aradhyula, a user experience designer with CfA’s New York City team, "and that’s one more night they might have to go without something like stable housing in the city.”

Working with CfA, the city revamped the Worker Connect system for case workers across multiple agencies. The redesign was driven through interviewing and then shadowing 50 case workers on the job.

It was all about small, meaningful improvements instead of replacing the whole system. The work made it easier to access useful data in the system and made it easier to use in the field.

“The incremental, meaningful changes that we’ve made to a system that case workers use on a day-to-day basis has allowed them to use a cleaner, more efficient tool,” said Alicia Mathews, a policy advisor in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Operations. “That means a missing child is found faster. It means a homeless person is connected to shelter more quickly. And ultimately, by supporting New York City’s caseworkers, we believe we’re supporting New Yorkers. And we’ve begun with the 4,000 case workers that use Worker Connect.”


The Kansas City Health Department had a problem: Every August, the number of people bringing in children for vaccines or immunization records more than doubled — that was when they needed records to enroll in school.

So the department sat down with CfA representatives to map out the process parents go through at the clinic and find the pain points, and then worked to address some of the worst ones.

One of those big offenders was simply letting parents know whether their children needed new vaccines or just proof of immunization.

“They may stand in line for two to three hours just to find out that all the child needs is a shot record,” said Tiffany Wilkinson, a division manager for the department.

So CfA helped develop an app, called ReqCheck, that helped parents figure out whether their children were up to date.

The next step was to get parents to come in during months of the year that don’t end in -gust.

“People are so busy, often working multiple jobs, and so we needed to come up with a way to reach out to parents and trigger them to come in not just in August, but also in other times of the year so we could rebalance the load,” said Jessica Cole, a Code for America fellow who worked on the project.

The partners decided to take a whack at the city’s existing strategy of mailing out reminders to parents. They piloted a texting program, sending out more than 10,000 messages, and found some clear benefits.

For starters, texts were a lot cheaper to send — about 2 cents each, compared with 10 cents for mail. On top of that, they were faster and often more reliable since mail might not reach a parent if they’ve changed addresses.

“It was a great way to reach people where they’re at,” Cole said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.