Why Govtech Design is the Best Design (We Like to Think)

It’s a distinct responsibility of working with the public sector that govtech products must be usable for all populations. On the frontlines of this mandate is our dedicated product design team. Their tasks range from optimizing the user experience for constituents requesting and paying for services online or in person, making sure utility and government staff have the most intuitive tools to do their jobs, and designing our software interfaces so that they best meet of the needs of, well, everyone.

In this Q+A, our product designers share what they’ve learned from transitioning between private and public sector design, the surprises they’ve encountered with government clients (like, they’re really innovative), and how the constraints of government ordinances can lead to the most creative solutions.

CityBase contributors to this article: Design Manager Devin MacDonald, and Product Designers Rob Jurewicz and Amanda Siu

What are your past product design experiences?

“I’ve worked in various forms of visual design for many years. I moved into user experience and product design in the last few years, working on consumer, medical, and government products. I was trying to find that right fit of passion and creative energy that I’ve found at CityBase.” —Rob Jurewicz

“My past experience is working in e-commerce. I spent the past two years before joining CityBase working at Groupon on various different parts of their experience from coupons to booking on iOS, Android, and web.” —Devin MacDonald

“I’ve been in a variety of agency, startup, and in-house roles, but never in the public sector. If I had to identify a theme, it would probably be redesigning enterprise software and bringing paper-based processes online.” —Amanda Siu

What drew you to this industry?

“I wanted to use my skills to do something more than increase sales for a corporation. I wanted to bring what often feels like a dense wall of government to the people who need to interact with it and feel lost about how to go about it.” —RJ

It may sound cheesy, but being a change for good. Knowing that my work is going to help make it easier for someone to interact with their government is a great feeling. I know that if I do my job right, I’m making life easier for my fellow constituent. It may be as simple as paying a parking ticket or finding their polling location, but those simple tasks today might not be so simple. Being able to be part of the driving force behind making those tasks easier is really special.” —DM

“I think it’s a naturally fascinating space for UX designers. You’ve got the challenge of designing for literally everyone, and that comes with the opportunity to improve a crucial and ubiquitous aspect of life for a huge number of people. I personally developed an interest in civic tech from attending a local meetup called Chi Hack Night. It’s an excellent laboratory for solving problems with user-centered design because it’s driven by those whom the technology is meant to serve. Seeing the inroads that this and more established organizations like 18f and USDS have made in an institution that’s notoriously resistant to change made me realize that I may have something valuable to contribute.

It was a bit of a no-brainer. Information and processes necessary for living in the modern world have steadily been moving online over the past decade. But government, the institution that administers some of the most crucial services, has in many cases remained years behind the private sector technologically.” —AS

How does designing products for government and utilities differ from designing for the private sector? What are some of the challenges of working in the govtech space as a product designer?

“Your products have to be more flexible as the requirements become more inflexible. It becomes much more difficult to try to be a holistic experience when each agency you work with has wildly different requirements, process, and even language to describe similar types of tasks.

The biggest challenge is trying to build a cohesive product while trying to fit the competing needs of government agencies.” —RJ

“I think the main difference from my past product design experience is the audience. In e-commerce you will normally have a lot of research that tells you exactly who you’re designing for and the types of things they are looking to do on your platform. With government and utilities, your audience is everyone who interacts with that government or utility. If you’ve interacted with your local government or utility, you’re part of the audience that we have to think about. That audience isn’t a certain age group or gender or anything that narrow. That audience is massive. The sheer size of that user group and their different backgrounds means we have to design for everyone, which can be difficult, but also ensures we’re inclusive in our design. Finally, I would say the scope of each project can be challenging. Most of the time, I think I understand the complexities of a project only to realize as I keep digging that it’s so much more intricate than I originally thought.” —DM

“Each government entity has its a very specific set of requirements, and whether due to legal obligations or the procurement process, these requirements tend to be less flexible than in the private sector. This makes it especially challenging to design a scalable product that can work for all of our clients. Designing for the government has also been a refreshing return to the basic principles of design. Our clients aren’t necessarily interested in chasing down the next big thing in tech; instead, they’re focused on things like accessibility, intuitive navigation, and plain language — in other words, the foundations of a good user experience for the most people.” —AS

What are some of the rewards?

“The biggest reward is being able to surface services that were difficult to find, and make them available to a larger subset of constituents.” —RJ

“There’s always making the constituent’s life easier, which is a great reward in itself. The part that I think often gets forgotten is making life easier for the government employee. The software they often have to work with is old and outdated, which makes a lot of the processes take longer. Being able to make their day easier is not something I originally thought of when I started working in govtech, but it has become one of the most rewarding parts. Making their lives easier, in turn, makes constituents’ lives easier.” —DM

“Public servants are probably the sharpest and most engaged user group I’ve ever worked with. They are the ones volunteering for user testing and filling our inbox with feature suggestions and rich anecdotes of the problems they’re dealing with. It’s a dream for any UX designer, and probably the best part of my job.” —AS

How did your expectations differ from the reality of working in govtech?

“You hear about how government moves slowly, but I’ve found it to be the opposite. The process can move really fast, and there can be more room to experiment than I would have expected.” —RJ

“I don’t think I fully understood the complexity of government until I experienced it first-hand. I know the government is complex because you hear it all the time. I think most people’s understanding of the complexity of government is only surface deep. When you really start to dig in, it is incredibly complex. Not only is the organization of government complex, but the tech systems they rely on are even more so.” —DM

I was expecting more resistance to change. I’ve since learned that there is plenty of enthusiasm for new technology solutions in government — sometimes an overwhelming amount — and some passionate changemakers driving these initiatives from within. I’ve also come to appreciate that a large part of improving the constituent’s experience of government is removing tech as a barrier to public servants trying to do their jobs.” —AS

How does implementing a product for a specific government or utility client change how you think about and execute your designs?

“Specificity is the biggest change for me. For utility providers, you have a more simplified use case and flow to be achieved. Larger government sites require a more generalized approach to match a wider need, which makes user research all the more important.” —RJ

“Each local government is different and has different needs. When people think of government, I think they often think of it as this monolith of sameness, when in reality each local government has different agencies, procedures, and needs than each other. That’s a long way of saying one size definitely does not fit all. With each implementation project, we have to take into consideration the specific needs of the government we’re working with and what gaps we need to bridge to make our product successful for that client. The great thing about that is the more governments we work with, the more our knowledge base grows and the more robust our product offerings become.” —DM

What’s it like designing software that will be used outside of a traditional online channel, like on a kiosk or point of sale (POS) device?

“It is fascinating watching how someone who uses a piece of software all day long every day invents workarounds and ways to work faster. Giving them pro-level tools to do so becomes an interesting task.” —RJ

“When working with POS or kiosks, we are much less able to control the surroundings where our products are being used. There’s also physical accessibility that comes with many of our physical products like kiosks.” —DM

What’s the difference between designing for a citizen-facing user interface (UI) vs. the staff-facing UI?

“The biggest difference is designing for someone that is going to use a product once in a while, vs. all the time. With changes for people who are using muscle memory because they work in the software every day, you have to be sure that the decisions you are making you can get as close to ‘right’ as you can the first time, because it causes a big load on the employee to change that model often.” —RJ

“The main difference, and this may sound obvious, is the audience. When designing for a citizen-facing interface, you have to consider the entire population as a user. When designing for a staff-facing interface, you can hone in pretty quickly on the persona you’re designing for. Often the staff-facing work is very controlled and has a specific set of requirements, whereas the citizen-facing work is often very uncontrolled and will be used by hundreds of different types of people with very different tasks.” —DM

“I think the main difference stems from the frequency with which the user interacts with an interface. The constituent ideally spends as little time as possible interacting with the government, so tasks are more focused and streamlined, and bolstered with plenty of guidance for inexperienced users. On the other hand, the government user needs to handle large volumes of information at a time, so the interface is a little more high-touch and configurable.” —AS

What decisions have you made based on user feedback or usability testing?

“Watching government users struggle with legacy software allowed clearer decisions on what needed to be fixed, so they could move more efficiently in their day-to-day activities. It doesn’t mean rewriting the whole playbook, but it allowed us to see their mental model to make search more effective.” —RJ

How do you make sure your designs are usable for all populations?

“I think accessibility is the biggest thing when designing for all populations. Every designer should be considering the accessibility of their designs no matter who they’re designing for, but that often gets forgotten. I know that before I started working in govtech, I was guilty of sometimes forgetting that step or realizing how important it is. One of the best ways to ensure our designs are usable for all populations is following the most recent Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Making sure things like the colors on the site are readable, there are alt tags for screen readers, the constituent can tab through the whole site without issue. When considering our kiosk solutions, we must be aware of the location of the kiosk and height of the screen to make sure each part is accessible for everyone.” —DM

How do you conduct user testing for a product that’s used to facilitate direct interactions between government and citizens, like a POS device?

“One of the great things about CityBase is our relationship with the City of Chicago as well as our proximity almost across the street from them. A great example of this relationship and how it has facilitated user testing and user research is being able to go across the street and see how the cashiers interact with the constituents. I’m able to ask the cashiers questions on how their POS system works, and how we can make it better for them.” —DM

What do you hope to see in the future for govtech product design?

“In the future, I want to see more UX/product design talent push into the govtech field and apply their techniques to put the voice of the constituent first when planning these complicated products. Most of the time, government sites, while well-meaning, seem to not know what they should be aiming for to make for a better experience, and their assumptions are missing the mark.” —RJ

“My hope is pretty simple, I hope that it grows as a design field. I hope that designers see the value in this work and join us in helping design a better future for government. Right now designing for government is a fairly small and unique niche area of the larger world of product design, but I think the more designers who join us, the faster we can change the government experience for the better.” —DM

“I hope that cities begin to embrace user research and user-centered design as a key driver of the tech development process. In a way, government already embodies that mindset in the form of town halls, social media, canvassing, etc., but I think there’s an opportunity to take user/constituent feedback to the next level. User experience design has some powerful methods for applying qualitative research that I think governments could harness to better serve their communities.” —AS

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