Technology for Good

The Rise of UX in Government

A user-experience (UX) focus isn’t just key to improving digital interactions—it can play an important role in making access to public services more equitable.

May 30, 2016

When thinking about the nature of government, user experience (UX) may not be the first thing that comes to mind. That’s beginning to change, however, as policymakers and practitioners look to UX as a way to rework government services. It’s been put to test recently with the design of the Environmental Protection Agency’s website and the Food and Drug Administration’s openFDA web application, but its influence—and potential—is much broader.

While the term UX may have been popularized in the context of web design, its origins date back to Leonardo daVinci in the 15th century and to the late 19th and early 20th centuries with business leaders like Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford. At its core, UX focuses on how a user experiences any product or service. This applies to its aesthetics, its functionality and the interactions a user has before, during and after she uses a product or service—be it a website, a physical good or a government program.

“In government, it’s very important to take a UX approach to design programs and services,” says Rodrigo Davies, head of product at Neighborly, a platform for investing in public projects through municipal bonds. “Someone applying for a benefit, for example, likely isn’t just hitting a button and receiving the service they need. There’s a whole journey that they must go through. If public administrators aren’t thinking about this journey, and every interaction users have along the way, users (or, in this case, citizens) will likely walk away having a poor experience.”

More than just improving on the experience of those who are already using public services, this way of thinking is also key to ensuring that programs do serve disadvantaged populations. Jorrit de Jong, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, who leads the Innovations in Government Program, explains: “Over the past three decades, the ‘reinventing government’ movement has focused on how to make public services more effective and efficient. While that was an important push in the right direction, it was clear that optimizing existing operations and client encounters did not necessarily benefit disadvantaged groups in society. If you make schools better, those with no access to schools are not better off. If you create tax breaks or benefits, but people are not aware or unable to claim these benefits, it does not serve them.”

While UX concepts can seem foreign or intimidating to government decision-makers, Davies assures that these practices are relatively simple to incorporate. “The key is to start with the users,” he says. “Who are all the people who could be eligible for your program?” From here, policymakers can a develop hypotheses about these users and think about what their needs are or will be. “Find real examples of these types of users and test your program with them. This will help you understand how citizens will interact with your program, service or offering.”

A number of initiatives are working to improve the way UX is integrated into the design of government programs and services; Usability.gov, a resource from the Department of Health and Human Services, offers best practices and guidelines for UX for practitioners in the government. 18F, a collaboration featuring the U.S. Digital Service, recently launched the U.S. Web Design Standards. These design standards provide the US government with a metric to adhere to when designing digital interactions for citizens and allow the American people to have a yardstick to measure their experience with digitized government programs.

But de Jong knows that these same questions—who are your users, and how are they actually likely to experience programs?—also apply to making engagements more effective in the world of brick-and-mortar and flesh-and-blood, pointing to a project at Harvard called “Embedded Education.” “We study the practice of educating people through everyday encounters with organizations and networks that exist primarily for non-educational purposes. Public health education can be embedded in a barbershop visit; financial literacy education can be embedded in a hospital visit; parenting education can be embedded in an encounter with a financial services provider. The most significant innovations that help reach disadvantaged, hard-to-reach demographics build on existing touchpoints that the target group has with public sector organizations or private sector service providers. That approach truly makes public service delivery more effective, efficient and equitable.” de Jong cites as an example a Dallas, Texas, study that tracked the effectiveness of training barbers to discuss hypertension as they gave haircuts to their patrons, primarily African American men (a population, as the study notes, disproportionately at risk for hypertension—which the U.S. Center for Disease Control has given priority for improved treatment and access to care). While noting the need for a broader sample size, the study’s results found a 8.8% improvement in hypertension control in the study group that benefited from barbers’ discussions.

That’s not to say, of course, that digital tools don’t have a role to play: “Data-driven governance combined with a more user-centered, holistic perspective on public services can lead to a complete redefinition of public problems,” de Jong says, adding that tools like pattern recognition and machine learning can help to better understand populations’ needs and to develop different ways to serve specific groups. Such a holistic view suggests why UX, an idea with considerable vintage, has gained popularity in recent years: An explanatory framework for public policy at a time when online and off, digital data and lived experience have become increasingly integrated.

Featured Image Photo Credit – Getty Images