Turning civic design promises into realities

Teams working on digital initiatives must go beyond design thinking workshops to probe deeper into the role of culture and how it affects the way people engage ...

For nearly a decade, we’ve heard predictions of a human-centered design (HCD) revolution in government and the impact is starting to show, but it’s limited. Despite five of the 15 government agencies rated by Forrester’s Federal Customer Experience Index for 2020 reaching all-time high scores for their user experience, the federal CX average is the lowest of any sector measured: 10.7 points lower than any other industry (on Forrester’s 100-point scale). While the HCD approach is improving experiences, it has yet to transform the citizen experience. Citizens expect more and the government is playing catch up. That can lead to shortcuts: fixing citizen-facing experiences without fixing the underlying problems, relying too heavily on generic solutions, and not taking the time to understand how current citizen expectations conflict with their perceptions of a government department.

So how can the benefits of the HCD method be realized faster and more broadly? More investment from the highest leadership levels is necessary. Wired called for the government to appoint a Chief Experience Officer. Brookings is proposing a New Tech Deal to hire a civilian corps of tech designers. However, while leadership and talent are important scaffolds for success, they are out of the control of project teams today. Consultancies, agencies and contractors can do three critical things now to bring about success:

  • Tap into existing client expertise.
  • Apply knowledge to every interaction.
  • Understand the role of reputation.

Unleashing government talent

Too often HCD practitioners proceed as if we have all the insights already, as if our frameworks and tools will always lead to a product people will love and use. We sometimes mistakenly believe that “what’s good enough for government work” is less than “what’s good enough for commercial clients,” when ideally our best work should be in the service of citizens. At Huge, the global experience agency I work for, we’ve learned these lessons through experience. The tactics driving thousands of consumers to a mobile product purchase aren’t necessarily the answers to public service problems.

The first stop for all HCD practitioners to sharpen their understanding of context and user behavior should be career government employees. Their experience and availability provides the best balance of insight and speed. We must draw in as many divergent points of view and context as possible to see where there is congruence and dissonance. In this tension, the contours of a simplified, user-centric solution begin to emerge.

Many of these employees may be siloed and bound in bureaucracy so engagement is essential to ensure execution and results. Instead of jumping into sprints and prototypes, directly engaging employees working with users — through user-centric workshops and integrated teams to avoid program-centric thinking — breaks down barriers internally. It puts valuable, pent-up knowledge to work. When these employees are given the opportunity to add their expertise, projects shift from delivering a product to solving a problem.

Every interaction matters

Only 57% of people accomplish what they set out to when interacting with our government. This drops to 49% for attempts exclusively through the government’s digital platforms. That’s not surprising when, for example, the CDC website requires users to click through 115 navigation links to find answers on the coronavirus. It’s no wonder interacting with government ranks alongside airlines’ in-flight service when it comes to quality of experience. We worry about the newsworthy failures, but it’s the everyday frustrations — what Google calls “micro-moments” — that erode citizen’s trust in and perception of the government.

There is a perception that brand is window dressing to compensate for functional failings, but brand is the sum total of a citizen’s experience with the government. The government is a meta-brand. The responsibility for reputation is distributed across numerous departments and agencies. The citizen makes limited distinctions between them: they see the U.S. Government in each interaction regardless of the department. Frequent frustrations evolve into low expectations. Where there are low expectations, there is little trust. Where there is little trust, people disinvest in government — both financially and emotionally.

The solution isn’t just shifting the burden from user to employee, either. Systems need to carry more weight on their own for both employee and citizen. The benefits of improving the employee experience can be immense as well. According to a study from the Nielsen Norman Group, “Government agencies typically realize immense ROI from usability projects because they operate on a large scale with millions of website users and thousands or hundreds of thousands of intranet users.”

Make government stand for more

Building better experiences is the start of building a better brand, but it is not the end. Brand work in government often gets dismissed as a feel-good waste of resources, as too often departments have their only branding amount to aesthetic changes with little substance. True brand building recognizes that government brands must stand for more and people have to believe in it. Teams working on digital initiatives must go beyond design thinking workshops to probe deeper into the role of culture and how it affects the way people engage with a civic experience. If commercial brands like Nike and Patagonia are leveraging their brands to create social change their customers can’t themselves, then what does that mean for today’s civic experiences and the expectations of users?

The approach to this problem is combining depth in design and UX with the cultural forces impacting the lives, perceptions and choices of consumers today. While being user-centric is key to design, motivating actual use and adoption are often a byproduct of cultural forces shaped by brand. Going beyond behavioral observation, teams must examine what cultural trends are signaling a more substantial behavioral shift with a given agency or department. For example, what cultural trends might influence how a minority audience perceives a healthcare app designed to increase access and thus impact use and engagement? These insights can become the basis for design principles and a key element of how to measure effectiveness of the resulting experience. It’s an approach that recognizes humans at the core, but culture all around.

Justin Anderson-Weber leads strategy for Huge, Inc’s Civic Design practice.

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