Good customer experience begins with the customer, agencies say

In the federal government’s perennial quest to improve customer service, three departments have discovered one key concept that can make or break efforts right from the beginning: To ensure a good customer experience, start with the customer.

The departments of the Air Force, Education and Homeland Security are all in the process of transitioning public facing functions into digital applications. Each has a broad customer base with very specific needs that need to be taken into account from the beginning of the process if the departments want to provide a good customer experience.

“Unless you involve the user community in what you are trying to do, and get some feedback from them in metrics as to what you are delivering to them … you don’t keep the mission going correctly,” Frank Konieczny, chief information officer at the Air Force said during a March 20 GovLoop webinar.

Konieczny said the Air Force has 780,000 “customers” across the world, divided into two groups: service members and civilians. That makes it difficult to provide the same services, but still customize the experience for the two different groups.

That’s why the Air Force decided to involve the community in the design. App developers have a different perspective on what users need, Konieczny said, and that can be a major pitfall for design.

But sometimes those needs can be even more diverse, like in the case of Education. Surendra Babu, an information system security manager at DOE, said the department is working to create new federal student aid options online, and make it easier to apply. But the customer base ranges from high school ages to 60-years-old, all with different experiences and levels of familiarity with technology. The new apps have to be accessible to all of them, which Babu said can be challenging.

And occasionally, the needs of a customer base might even be temporary, which makes it hard to involve a single community in designing an application, and impossible to apply a one-size-fits-all approach.

That’s the issue DHS ran into in designing an application for FEMA to use in disaster response. After a disaster, people have limited connectivity, and likely don’t have all the necessary documentation at hand. That kind of customer is a far cry from the people accessing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ digital intake forms. Those users are most likely international, and while connectivity and documentation isn’t a problem, language barriers may be.

“We really have spent a lot of time allowing each of our components to really tailor their message to mission,” said Cathleen Tracy, an IT specialist with DHS’ office of the CIO. “But the same underlying themes are there: What do people need? Simplify the user experience, and think about the user experience from the beginning to the end of the journey.”

Another benefit to involving the community of users in the entire process, Konieczny said, is that it shortens the learning curve in adopting new applications. If the intended users have been involved in the process, they’ll absorb the changes quickly and easily. If not, the training process may be painful, even if it’s possible to use web training to overcome logistical challenges like getting everyone in the same place at the same time.

Babu said DOE federal student aid forums give it valuable access to the community it’s trying to serve. Not only do they give parents and students a place to help promote new student aid options, but they give DOE visibility into the customer’s experience, which the department regularly implements into future planning.


And federal agencies should remember that these customers also have a personal stake in how applications are designed, outside of user experience. These applications are collecting their personal data, and they’re often looking for reassurances that it’s going to be kept safe. Privacy is always the first priority, Tracy said.

“We tend to be very conservative on privacy and security issues,” she said. “That means we probably are a little less agile, a little less secure, so we spend a little more time. As the department’s moving to the cloud, the components have moved faster than headquarters has. Headquarters tends to be the most conservative. We’re really taking our time to do it right.”

That’s one of the reasons, Tracy said, DHS tries to keep the least amount of personal information on any individual at any time.

Konieczny agreed, saying the Air Force has to publish whether they keep any data to maintain transparency with citizens. The service also requires authentication to access the data; anyone who uses it must be authorized.

But the Air Force is also trying to be flexible in other ways. For example, it’s experimenting with mobile-friendly apps for the new generation of airmen who are used to doing everything with their phones. So the service is specializing applications and capabilities from legacy systems into a mobile environment, launching “bring-your-own-device” pilots, and capturing metrics on how they’re used.

“What apps are being used at what bases?” Konieczny asked. “What’s the difference between those bases? How can we serve airmen?”

Tracy said DHS is also looking to mobile to accommodate a newer generation, and take advantage of its capabilities.


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