Who are the people in your neighborhood? Building blocks for implementing UX/UI in agencies

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This op-ed is the second in a series on UX/UI design. Read the first here.

Digital government has become a common catchphrase, and improving citizen experience is now a main tenet of the President’s Management Agenda. Combining these two concepts, federal agencies are working to serve as a “government for the people” by giving citizens access to government and government services, delivered in a way the people can both access and understand.

Instead of complicated forms with names like “IA-810,” citizens expect to be able to use a computer to search for terms like “renew a passport” and have all relevant information and forms served directly to them on their phone or tablet, to take action right then and there.

Agencies have made great strides to organize and digitize their massive amounts of data and make it available online. But that is really only a first step. Today, information not only has to be accessible — it has to be actionable. Citizens want a more digital and modernized federal government, challenging agencies to incorporate citizens’ desire for actionable information into their citizen experience programs or to evaluate their current citizen user experience. To make government digital assets fully actionable, it is critical that agencies understand and use the principles of “user experience” (UX) and “user interface” (UI) design approaches.

There are several building blocks that can help improve UX and UI on an agency’s website, including persona mapping and analytics, in addition to being conscious of mission-focused messaging.

Persona mapping

A persona is a fictional representation of an actual user of your website. Knowing what users expect from the website and how they typically interact with it helps developers enhance the ultimate user experience.

You may know your major demographic groups — “women 18-55” or “senior citizens” to name a few — but when is the last time you really looked at what these users expect from your site? Within each group is a subset of users. For example, Anne is looking up Medicare information for her aging parents. George is retiring from the private sector at age 70. Why and when would these users access the site? Does the information they need change based on the time of year it is or any other external events? What kinds of actions are they likely to take when they interact with your site?

Persona mapping traces these users’ different paths as they seek information and the experience they are likely to have during that search. One way to develop personas is to survey current users and look at the data collected from calls and questions that come into contact centers for your website. From that data, you can understand what details are most common and most important across all personas.

For example, Anne works full time and has two small kids. Her time is limited, so she needs to be able to find information independently and at odd hours. George wants to research his Medicare options on his own but will likely call a contact center to talk through the large volumes of information he has found.

Knowing these likely user behaviors, designers can tailor how information is presented to meet Anne and George’s different needs. For example, both of them may need to access an FAQ document to help determine what additional information they need to learn. If that is the case, you have learned that the FAQ document should be prominently displayed on a landing page. Anne, George and other personas serve as the checks and balances on a website’s content and presentation, ensuring that what is being developed for the website will actually be used.

Analytics as a map

The need for data extends beyond persona development. Analytics increase the information we collect to develop personas by telling us what people are doing when they visit a website. While many agencies look at analytics, the value isn’t always clear. Setting a goal related to analytics helps make these metrics a proactive tool.

Website analytics can help answer some key questions:

  • How are people finding your site? What search terms do they use? If you know what terms people are searching for, you can reflect that language on your site to help them better understand the information you are trying to share with them.
  • What pages are most visited? Information from the most visited pages should be featured prominently. Make sure it is on the homepage, major landing pages, and linked from other pages on the site.
  • How long do they stay? Where and when they stop on your page is important, as it means they either found what they are looking for or they gave up. At what point in their visit do they click on “contact us,” a sign that they need more personal guidance via a contact center?
  • How do they use the site? Many tools are available that can record or videotape users’ mouse movement and scroll area. The data these tools collect are very helpful in determining user difficulties with navigating across a site and locating the content they seek. Similarly, implementing site “heatmaps” can show the areas of a page where a user is clicking. These analytics can help determine which designs attract attention best and which areas of a page the user is being drawn to.

Beyond the passive data, agencies need to actively seek out users and interview them to gather context behind the analytics. These interviews can include questions like, “Why did you come to the site?” “Did you find what you were looking for?” or “Were you able to get your answer another way?” Interviews — either individually or in groups, in person or virtually – can help you to gather qualitative information and confirm the assumptions you’ve made from site analytics.

Finding the balance between user need and agency mission

Agencies need to balance the desire to give citizens the information they want and the necessity to meet their critical missions. People contacting the IRS never want to be told they owe the government money, but part of the agency’s mission is to collect taxes. In the case of the IRS, citizens might be unhappy that they have to pay taxes, but they can be still be pleased if the process for paying their taxes online is intuitive, fast, and requires minimal effort.

Persona mapping and analytics provide a detailed look at the “why” and the “what” of your visitors. Knowing this information, you can tailor the delivery of mission-focused messages and services via online channels.

These elements are the building blocks for a UX approach to online service delivery that can help build trust in the government’s ability to deliver services to the people how and when they need them.

Andrew Griffiths and Josh Wilson are Managers and UX/UI Design Experts at Octo Consulting.

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Digital Transformation, Octo Consulting, Op-ed, President's Management Agenda (PMA), user experience, user interface
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