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.