Building a mobile experience doesn’t automatically equate to spinning up a new mobile app — it might even end up with a paper form, if that’s what the user wants.
That was the message founding U.S. Digital Services member Erie Meyer delivered at FedScoop’s sixth annual MobileGov Summit, explaining how user experience trumps fancy widgets when it comes to serving the public’s civic needs.
Meyer explained how USDS used an extremely iterative process that focused on user feedback and constant redesigns when building two projects for the Education Department: the College Scorecard and a guide for repaying student loans.
Meyer said the teams focused more on creating a problem statement to figure out who they were trying to serve and how they could build prototypes that could test the riskiest assumptions.
“It is agnostic of what will accomplish the goal,” Meyer said of problem statements. “Regardless of what we are going to use to do it, it focuses on what are we trying to do.”
She also described how teams will take user feedback and pump it into low tech prototypes — cardboard and construction paper “garbage” as she described it — to figure out how users will interact with something before devoting any time or money to coding out a product.
“The point of a prototype is to test your riskiest assumption,” Meyer said. “That gave us the opportunity before we went anywhere else, before we spent one second writing code or one second doing a high-fidelity design, to test what we had heard in the field.”
This work eventually steered USDS away from building mobile apps and toward a mobile website. However, users aren’t beholden to just a mobile experience. In the case of the scorecard, users can replicate their experience on a desktop. With the student aid guide, users can have directions emailed to them to finish a paper-based process.
“When you are building mobile experiences, look at the entire experience,” Meyer said. “Maybe it ends in paper. Don’t lock people in mobile if that’s not where it should end.”
Meyer also stressed the idea that agencies should look outward if they have data that can be useful but don’t have the resources to build something on top of it. She used the example of the non-profit news outlet ProPublica building their own college scorecard on top of the Education Department’s data, including the option to translate the page into Spanish and Chinese.
“By working with these third parties and making sure the open data got to them, and they we’re able to bake [the data] into their mobile products, we were able to get to a much larger audience,” she said.
In the end, Meyer stressed that the success of any mobile-first product needs to focus on how people can quickly and easily get the information they desire.
“I don’t care if someone goes to a specific URL,” she said. “I care if a student is able to make an informed choice to know what going to a certain school has done for other students in their situation.”
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