The user experience field is named after its intended beneficiaries. Users, end-users, customers—all of our terms for people are commercial or pragmatic, which stands to reason since most of us spend most of our time creating or improving experiences on behalf of profit-oriented businesses.

Lately, I’ve started thinking that our view of the human as a “user” is incomplete. Yes, interacting with interfaces does come down to using technology, but just as “customer” is a more comprehensive term in the commercial realm, we need another term to describe other important relationships in people’s lives.

One of the most important relationships people have is with government. Whether at a local or national level, citizens interact with their governments in myriad ways, and these days those touchpoints increasingly take place via websites, phone apps, or other types of technology. Anyone applying for a business license or a building permit, paying taxes, looking up public records, or requesting benefits is participating in an interaction where they are something more than a user. These relationships aren’t exactly voluntary the way commercial relationships are, but at the same time, the public nature of these services makes the user a co-owner in a way that customers typically are not. And most citizen experiences don’t properly reflect this reality although they should, and it’s interesting to think about how they’d be different if they did.

The idea that government is inefficient and unpleasant to deal with is almost axiomatic at this point, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ll contrast some recent experiences with my city:

  1. I needed to register my 6-year-old daughter for a youth bus pass with San Francisco’s municipal transit agency. My daughter was born in San Francisco, attends public school, and is registered with the parks department for recreation classes (the latter two required physically taking her city-issued birth certificate to be inspected by the relevant departments). In a perfect world, I could have added a bus pass to a verified citizen profile for her, picked a monthly payment method, and been on my way. But since transit is yet another department, I once again had to get out the birth certificate from my jewelry drawer, take it to a different set of officials, fill out a two-page physical form and submit it by hand. I had no way to track the request, and I waited three weeks for processing before my daughter’s card was issued.
  2. One day last summer, driving through Golden Gate Park on one of our notoriously freezing and foggy June mornings, I noticed sprinklers in full spray all along a major road, wasting large quantities of water. Having recently heard about the service, I tweeted @SF311, and within 45 minutes I had a helpful response assuring me that it would be checked out. The next day when I drove the same route, the sprinklers were off.

Imagine an interface point with the government (at any level—city, state, federal) that is confidence-building, pleasant, and maybe even delightful. What would the right design values be to achieve that? How would we come up with personas to represent all the use cases? Would that exercise even make sense? What techniques could we employ to inspire change in highly complex, change-resistant environments? Above all, what should a public experience be and how can we define best practices for government agencies that aren’t likely to hire a UX practitioner anytime soon?

Early Thoughts On Design Values

Early American civic architects consciously tried to differentiate their buildings from their royal or feudal analogs in other countries. Thus the U.S. has thousands of Greek revival buildings meant to remind citizens of their special role in a democracy. Similarly, we have an opportunity now to create an equally influential vocabulary for citizen experiences in technologically mediated interactions. As a starting point for discussion, here are my top design values for public experiences:

Respect: a citizen is part owner in a democracy, but at the same time governments are monopolies and citizens can’t just take their business elsewhere if they don’t like the service. Recognizing this, the interface must respect the citizen’s dignity and time. The citizen should be treated as an equal, never as a subordinate. There’s a big difference between the experience of being an applicant and that of being a supplicant.

Participation: the interface must always invite full participation and never present barriers to entry. This includes the way language is used, which should be as clear and straightforward as possible. In cases where duty is involved, the interaction should both expect fulfillment and demonstrate gratitude.

Unity: the interface should behave as if the government and its citizens, even though citizens may disagree politically, are on the same side and working toward common goals.

Who’s Walking The Talk

There are a few shining examples of UX practitioners working in this area. Dana Chisnell has championed civic design for years, and has been instrumental in the rethinking of ballot design since the 2000 U.S. election fiasco. She speaks on the topic regularly. But aside from Dana, this year’s UPA featured only two presentations on related topics: MP Ranjan’s closing keynote on Social & Public Interfaces, and Steve Krug and Nicole J. Burton’s presentation on testing government websites. Webvisions had one nod to citizen experience, again by Dana. An Event Apart appears to have none in 2011.

There is another group of people who are already working on this problem and making a lot of progress: the engineering community. Our code-writing colleagues are participating in a lively Government 2.0 conversation right now at conferences, on blogs, and on Twitter. With the sponsorship of various agencies, they’re building apps at weekend hackathons and camps, and getting them adopted too.

SF311, the good experience I mentioned earlier, is a product of cooperation between San Francisco’s Innovation Department and Code for America (CfA), an organization that matches developers with city governments to create open-source applications that can be freely copied by other cities. They’re having great success, with four cities and 20 engineering fellows participating in the 2011 program.

But I don’t see as many UX people taking part as I would expect, and I believe the coders could use and, just as importantly, would welcome our help.

Two Examples

A few weeks ago, two of my colleagues at Bolt | Peters, Stephanie Carter and Mike Vattuone, and I spent some time with the 2011 Seattle and Philadelphia teams at CfA. The teams are collaborating on a web app and had reached the point where their prototype was testable, but they didn’t have experience with user testing so we shared the basics of interviewing and informal research techniques. I have never had a commercial client take such a strong interest in our work, or put our methods to use so quickly and enthusiastically.

The Seattle team headed back in to the city the weekend after we spoke, and they revised their schedule of demos to include a few Listening-Lab–style observation sessions. They gained significant insights from just a few sessions and came home with tons more questions for us about analysis and course correction. Following them, the Philadelphia team headed out in the field the next week, after some further coaching on validation sessions and working with very small samples.

A while ago, B|P was asked to assist on a project to help local health departments disseminate critical information during emergencies like the H1N1 outbreak. The project goals were clear and obviously important, but the project team didn’t have any UX people, so the group needed help to evaluate the templates they were developing from a citizen perspective. A small amount of time and advice from skilled UX thinkers made a significant difference to the finished product.

What They Want

At CityCamp SF on June 18, I asked participants from several disciplines how they would like to see designers and researchers participate in the effort generally known as Government 2.0. They came up with some interesting ideas:

  • Several developers said they’d be happy to take a designer onto a hackathon team as long as the designer could fit into the rhythm of the hacking (i.e., even faster than agile) process.
  • Another developer suggested that researchers collaborate on pre-hackathon problem-definition sprints. A hackathon could begin by showing videos of people experiencing the problems the event is trying to solve.
  • I noticed that no one at the event was taking the kind of sketch notes you often see at design events, so much of the progress from the event wasn’t recorded. What if a strong sketcher showed up and did that, allowing the event to be shared with many more people?

My guess is that there are many UXers quietly doing this work, but the conversation is in the background, and that’s a shame. So many of us are in this field at least partly because it offers the opportunity to make the world a better place. And we’re certainly having an impact through our commercial work, and our contributions to developing new and better products. But it’s hard to imagine an area that offers as broad a reach as citizen experience, or that is as desperately in need of improvement.

What We All Can Do

  1. If your plans for 2012 are flexible, please consider applying for a Code For America fellowship. This year, researchers and designers are explicitly invited to apply. The application deadline is 7/31.
  2. Sign up for your local Gov 2.0 hackathon, CityCamp, or conference and bring your skills and an open mind. SF designer Tim Sheiner recently did this at Code For Oakland and blogged about it. I think a lot of UX folks would consider that a fantastic Saturday. This is a great list, though it doesn’t include local hackathons.
  3. Passing on a suggestion from Dana: sign up to be a poll worker in the next election and use the opportunity to do both public service and observation and problem definition.
  4. Start paying attention to the #gov20 and #opengov streams and look for opportunities to contribute.
  5. Whichever of these you do, please share your experiences, ideas, design values, and healthy arguments. Tag them #CITX and let’s keep the conversation going.

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Great article. Thanks

Latebreaking, but if folks are still coming to this thread there's a new book coming out: Usability in Government Systems: User Experience Design for Citizens and Public Servants, edited by the excellent Elizabeth Buie and Dianne Murray - read all about it at Elizabeth's blog

Wow! Very inspiring Cyd! I will certainly seek out ways to engage with public UX.

Thanks for this article!

Thanks so much for your comment, Dana! Looking forward to talking more about this soon!

Thank you for writing this, Cyd, and for doing the great work you do.

There is so much to do in civic design and not nearly enough money to do it with. And so, volunteers come forward and do good, important work, such as the stuff that comes out of hackathons. The little band of people I work with in the election space do things like flash usability tests of ballots or other election materials weeks before elections.

It's fun, it's energizing, and it's incredibly empowering to feel this kind of civic engagement. I'm not kidding when I say that UX people have super powers that can change the world. (See my slides on this topic from Webvisions here:

In many ways, the volunteer work is more fun than any government contract could ever be. There's room for creativity, innovation, and no demand for rounds of public comment. It's fast, it's open, it's open source, and there's already plenty of sunshine on it.

Like you, I've never seen a commercial client embrace user research and usability practices as willingly and quickly as I have the local governments I've worked with. One example: colleagues Whitney Quesenbery, Josie Scott, and Sarah Swierenga and I pulled together a simple package that we call the LEO (for Local Election Official) Usability Testing Kit. It's available for free from the Usability Professionals' Association web site. ( Loads of counties and states have used this kit to conduct tests of their ballots, voter education materials, poll worker training, voter registration forms, and much more.

What's important is that the civic space has begun to see the value of design. I'm seeing that not only in elections, but also through efforts of federal agencies like the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which is redesigning the disclosures that all mortgage applicants get from their banks. (See to contribute your comments about the design of the forms.)

Thanks for the mention. As you say, many people working in civic design are unsung. But I think we're at the beginning of a movement. And I think there are lots of UXers who are just looking for something like this to do -- something that can make a difference where they live. I hope they find you and me and say so.

In the meantime, keep up the good work.

Great comment Tim, thank you so much! I agree that we're at the beginning but (obviously I guess) :) I think the time is ripe for us to spring into action. We can do 2 things basically acting as multipliers of the developers' efforts:

- we can help make their work more useful to its target audience and thus allow them to gain traction faster. Could be in the realm of elegance and polish, or could be helping prevent wasted effort by examining presumed needs closely

- citizens won't clamor for things to improve until they realize that they can be better. Right now there are very low expectations, but a few shining examples could start to raise them. One of my favorite analogs for this is Peter Pronovost and his famous checklists in the ICUs - ICU infection rates went down not only at hospitals where the checklist was implemented, but at nearby hospitals as well. It's believed that this happened because infections came to be seen as a solvable problem.

So I think we can help speed the process, a lot.


Another great article!

I think your central observation that the citizen experience is a special design problem, with unique value concerns, is a gift to the UX community. This is one of those insights that immediately upon hearing it I knew I'd been given a new and powerful tool. So, thanks and bravo for that.

Two more detailed pieces of feedback:

First, you raise the question of the applicability of a persona approach to CITX problems. My instinct is that, in fact, because of the extreme variation in impacted individuals, an activity-centered approach will be a more efficient design method for this domain.

Second, with respect to your call to action regarding UX participation, I agree with the need but believe the issue is timing, rather than interest. I believe we are currently at a very early stage in the evolution of CITX expectations, and as a result the most important thing happening now is essentially proof of concept; demonstration that software systems can make the CITX experience significantly better. At this stage, polish and elegance is great, but not essential to prove the point.

As a result, it is not a surprise that right now those who can produce functionality are more involved than those who can increase the elegance of the functionality. This situation is not unlike the general story of software: first it was designed only by the engineers who were proving it could exist and add value, and then, once the value started to become established, experience quality concerns produced a need for designers who focused on what it felt like to use the software.

My experience at Code for Oakland that you reference is a case in point. I think I contributed little true UX work to the project I worked on, rather I worked on the graphics, markup and styles for the front end to the simple functionality we created. Certainly I brought some design skills to bear in this work, but fundamentally, the thing I did that was needed for our simple proof of concept was programming, albeit of a rather trivial kind.

Of course I do not disagree or in any way object to an experience community call to action; I just suspect that thing that will truly influence the rate at which government software becomes a joy to interact is the rate at which the citizens themselves demand that it be so.

Great preso Kate! Sorry I missed your talk in my roundup in the article but great to meet another person working in this space.

Great article, Cyd! Much to do at all (federal, state, local) levels globally.

If you're interested, here's my Interaction '10 talk on designing gov 2.0 that's inclusive: [video] [slides]

A lot afoot in DC right now - Open Government Partnership (#ogp) and "Improving Federal Websites" initiatives (#dotgov) announced yesterday. More to come.

Again, great article and thanks for bringing more attention to it!