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Meeting Users Where They Are

How mobile responsiveness and site design can bridge gaps created by digital inequities.

Access to a mobile device or a high-speed Internet connection means little if a user is too intimidated by technology to have a productive experience with it.

This is the reality state and local governments must deal with when creating and designing digital services. In the private sector, developers have the luxury of building sites and products aimed at certain customers. Government, however, is responsible for reaching and serving everyone.

This responsibility has given rise to a new trend in governmental digital services design: simplification. Gone are the days of convoluted and labyrinthine websites constituted largely of dense pages of text. In their place is a new era in which services are more direct, easier to understand and considerate of end users who may not have much education, or who have come to the digital realm later in life.

Rhode Island’s state government, for example, is like many agencies increasingly concerned with digital equity. In fact, the state’s Office of Innovation has launched a program called ConnectRI, which works to ensure that as technology evolves, none of Rhode Island’s more than 1 million residents are left behind. Like many municipal governments, Rhode Island is doing what it can to prepare for the deployment of 5G mobile tech by researching any infrastructure barriers that might interfere. The state also sees itself as a convener of digital inclusion efforts, able to partner with other groups already doing the work and help them leverage resources. One example of this is a series of literacy workshops on which the state teams with libraries and public housing agencies.

Meanwhile, the state’s innovation office has worked to commit itself to inclusive design on all Web platforms, said Kevin Parker, the office’s director of government innovation.

“We have a Rhode Island digital services team focused on how we design platforms and making sure the user experience on is friendly and intuitive,” Parker said.

Central to this work is doing end-user research, conducting surveys and identifying trends.

This sort of design and development is also foundational to work being done by Code for America (CfA), a nonpartisan and nonprofit group that uses tech to make governmental services simpler and easier to access. This is especially true of one of its most mature projects, GetCalFresh, which helps eligible Californians apply for state food assistance programs.

In designing GetCalFresh, developers learned that 40 percent of searches for info about food stamps were being conducted via mobile devices, said ST Mayer, chief program officer for CfA. GetCalFresh also takes into account that many users lack extensive data plans, so developers built in functionality that provides alerts and info via SMS text. Making the service accessible also means writing sign-up questions in a clear way, once again shaped by end-user research.

“Everything we have done has started with users and trying to understand what is standing between someone who is eligible for CalFresh and receiving the benefits,” said Dave Guarino, a senior software engineer with CfA.

This is what equitable design and development is all about.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.