Government Experience Design

Disclaimer: As I work for the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts, this posting does not reflect the opinions of that office or the Washington State judiciary. I speak here as a private citizen interested in improving the way government functions. Nothing here implies or otherwise suggests the support of my employer or of the Washington State judicial branch.

User experience is one of those fields where it’s easy to have things overhyped. There are enough buzzwords floating around the business world that losing track of what the discipline actually focuses on is a trap easily tripped. There are those that even argue that a laser-like focus on the user neglects other, just as important, aspects of business.

But at its core, user experience is a philosophy. It’s the idea that if you design software for its users and you listen to the users input and actively solicit that input, then respond accordingly by tweaking software somehow, you’re doing it right. However, user experience encompasses so much more than just software. As of late, this has been called cross-channel user experience design: the idea that you design for how the user interacts with companies across approaches, whether digital, in-person or in-store, via print media, or via other approaches that haven’t even been discovered yet. To offer up an extremely dumbed-down example, if I find a product on REI’s web site, I should be able to find that product in stores and be able to use the information I found online to my advantage. It’s about how we design the transitions between those mediums to ensure a cohesive experience for the user of that information.

This is not what I want to talk about today, though it is extremely closely related.

It surprises me that, in a quick Google search, the phrase "government experience design" does not readily appear[1]. Think about this. We interact with government on a day-to-day basis. We drive on roads maintained by the government, we pay for utility services that are sometimes provided by the government (municipal or county government, typically). We go to courts, the judiciary branch of government, to resolve disputes and determine matters of law.

But what do I mean, exactly? If "user experience design" is the idea of designing how a user interacts with something, is "government experience design" the idea of designing how a government interacts with something? Well, yes and no. Absolutely, we want to think about how government interacts with those it represents. We also want to think about how its constituents interact with government. This is something that has been discussed, debated, batted back and forth for centuries without such a label. So why am I bringing it up now?

In short, government needs to wake up a bit. We’re taking steps in the right direction – the White House has a site where users can directly petition the White House for responses on issues, whether that be pardoning people for their crimes or asking that we build our own Death Star (yes, really). We pay utility bills online, we can pay traffic tickets online, we can watch how government works online, we can do all these things. All these things are great. There’s more on the list that I don’t even begin to mention.

Here’s some of what’s missing:

  1. Transparency. While we can file for Freedom of Information Act requests to see what government is doing, in a lot of cases, we shouldn’t have to do so. Transparency should be the first measure of government. If I want to know what’s going on (within reason), I should be able to find out. This should not involve having to talk to multiple people to find out something because the relationships between government data at the different levels are not well-defined.
  2. Listening. I’m not talking about the politicians explicitly here; I’m talking about government’s ability to gather input from its citizens and react to it in a timely and effective manner in a way that makes citizens feel well-represented, even if their requests are denied. You could call this "civility"; the art of recognizing someone’s needs and then making a clear case for why something will or will not be done such that the original request is respected and not ignored.
  3. Adaptability. Governments are well-harried for being full of red tape in a lot of circumstances. They are slow to adapt, slow to understand, slow to do anything asked of it because things get bogged down in political discussions or the ebb and flow of the raft of supporting mechanisms within government itself. Any cursory glance at the comments thread of a news article about political decisions will find at least one comment to the effect of "why wasn’t this done sooner, like, five years ago when the problem first reared its ugly head?".
  4. Open-Source. This is a subset of transparency; I call it out separately here because it warrants a bit further explanation. The open source software movement is the idea that, by publishing the source code of a particular piece of software, that software will become stronger because many eyeballs are reading that source code and thinking of improvements and finding security flaws. This philosophy is easily extensible into the government domain; what would it be like if we could crack open the source code of government programs (once again, within reason) and help to find flaws in logic and computation? What if citizens could save governments money because they fixed bugs?

    The idea extends beyond software as well, to being able to see how legislation evolves over time – imagine being able to see the original draft of a piece of legislation, then how that legislation was changed, with each legislator’s change listed clearly for all to see.

As an information manager and software developer, I look at the above, and my first instinct (to the surprise of none) is "throw some software at it!"

Well, actually, that’s not quite right: it’s more like "throw some software at it thoughtfully!"

How can we change government so that it utilizes computers and technology in a way that it increases the ability of government to both represent its constituents and increase the ability of citizens to feel represented? How can we improve the ability of a citizen to interact with government across multiple channels, physical, digital, and otherwise? Code for America – a sort of Teach for America for geeks – is an excellent start, doing excellent work. But that change should not have to come from nonprofits. Certainly, nonprofits and for-profit entities have great opportunities here, but government itself needs to work on these issues as well. As a civil servant, this is the question that I work with on a daily basis: how do I make it easier for government to work? This is the genesis of this post.

And it’s an open question I hope to continue to work with and write about. I do not imply that there are not excellent minds thinking and working on these very questions daily at all levels of government everywhere; but we must be conscious of the issues and deliberate and open in our discussion.

Footnote 1: There is a book that I have yet to pick up as of this writing: Elizabeth Buie’s Usability in Government Systems: User Experience Design for Citizens and Public Servants, ISBN-13 978-0123910639, that talks about user experience design in the context of government systems. Return to Post

  • Elizabeth Buie

    btw, I fully agree with your post. :-)