At this year’s Adobe Digital Government Symposium, one challenge was made clear: many federal agencies feel the rug has been pulled from under them with last year’s passing of the 21st Century IDEA Act, mandating a handful of requirements to modernize their overhaul presence without much time to spare.
Chief tenets of the law include a mandate to modernize websites—like making them mobile-friendly—and provide greater accessibility. Another major mandate is that agencies must adopt a more data-driven approach to ensure their digital resources successfully achieve users’ goals, highlighting the need for federal agencies to adopt a more purposeful approach to mapping out user journeys.
For some government agencies, this shift in priority is a bit overdue: according to Forrester’s 2018 Federal Customer Experience Index, most US federal agencies ranked as “poor” or “very poor.” A key issue experienced by frustrated citizens, according to Forrester Principal Analyst Rick Parrish, is that “a mere 46% of federal customers agreed that they could get help quickly when they needed it,” and just as few customers say they feel respected by the agencies.
Taking these issues to heart, the new law provides government agencies a good opportunity to rethink their approach to designing platforms and how user data may be applied to support citizens’ access to the services they need most.
Start Small to Gain Internal Buy-In
An advantage that federal agencies have is that they retain a built-in, captive audience. Without profit as a motivator, these agencies must begin their digital transformation with a sense of purpose and a zeal to achieve it. This is especially important for agencies when reaching out to the partners they need to implement their platforms and make content more accessible to users. “Agencies have to start by asking themselves ‘why,’” says Michael Leen, VP of Growth and Partnerships at MediaMonks, who attended the Government Symposium as a panelist. “Everybody has a different mission, and government agencies will need to articulate that to inspire their partners.”
Quick wins make the case for digital initiatives with larger impact on the user.
But it can be a long road to translate that sense of purpose to something tangible to end-users, especially for federal agencies whose services are broad and complex. “These agencies can begin by identifying some quick wins,” says Leen. “That way, those with boots on the ground can take those wins to their supervisors and make the case for digital initiatives that make a larger impact.”
Dynamic journey mapping is a great way for organizations to take a step-by-step approach to their transformation efforts. In her report “Supercharge Your Journey Mapping,” Forrester Analyst Joana van den Brink-Quintanilha describes how Netherlands-based utility provider Eneco uses journey mapping to “challenge assumptions to drive cross-functional collaboration,” applying data to “quickly define and prioritize people, process, and technology fixes that its Agile scrum teams then address.”
Through a similar approach, government agencies can maintain a user-centric focus while tackling goals in manageable phases—and can inspire administrators to recognize the value of digital transformation efforts. “Health, government and other public sectors that continue to lag behind in user experience do not see the importance to funding technical solutions properly,” says Gradwell Sears, Creative Director at MediaMonks. “Acting administrations must truly understand the importance of the modern digital experience,” and a series of victories backed by insights and data can pave the path to greater support.
Let Data Drive Platform Modernization
Using data to inform design decisions as outlined above is a great way for government agencies to modernize. But doing so requires that they be equipped to bridge together IT and creative, whether in-house or through production partnerships, because the 21st Century IDEA Act mandates agencies to adopt data-driven analyses that ensure user needs are appropriately met. A best-in-class example of bridging data and content is the US Air Force website, a platform that we partnered with GSD&M to build.
The problem many government websites struggle with is that they’re built from archaic platforms that haven’t kept up with technology,
With an algorithmically driven database on the backend, the US Air Force website begins the user journey by surfacing up a selection of content relevant to data inputted by the user: who they are, what professional or educational experience they have, what their goals are. As users finish with one piece of content, the platform dynamically recommends others based on their behavior and interests. To keep users from plunging too far down a rabbit hole, a list of sections acts as a beacon by mapping out the types of information they need.
The flexibility of the website’s backend is crucial to effectively delivering content in such a personalized, targeted fashion. “The problem many government websites struggle with is that they’re built from archaic platforms that haven’t kept up with technology,” says Gradwell Sears, Creative Director at MediaMonks. The Air Force platform shows how a data-driven approach intertwined with content can enhance user experience while ensuring agency goals are met: for example, the Air Force platform not only educates readers on what a military career is like, but uses its algorithmic pathing to sift out unqualified leads before they reach a recruiter.
The US Air Force website is clean and modern, adapting to both mobile and desktop displays. It opens the experience by asking for user preferences to personalize the journey.
Streamline Forms for Greater Accessibility
Once government agencies have resolved to build more engaging, intuitive experiences, how can they do so effectively? They might take inspiration from private businesses that have emerged to provide your average citizen with greater accessibility to government services, whether it be digital platforms to register voters or software that lets them file taxes through a simple question-and-answer design.
One thing that these tools do well is make navigating complicated and overwhelming processes more manageable. Sears recommends that government agencies break down lengthy forms into a series of simpler chunks to become more comprehensible for laypeople and mobile users. “Smaller moments—like contained sections—avoid the general cognitive overload and anxiety of searching for and filling out government forms,” says Sears.
Forms can be daunting, and it’s our jobs to try and make them simpler and easier to use.
And government agencies would do well to compete on par with firms that provide alternative, streamlined paths to policy processes or advice. In the Forrester blog post about agencies’ rankings in user experience linked above, Parrish writes: “For every one-point increase in an agency’s CX [Customer Experience] Index score, 2% more customers will do what the organization asks of them.” This means a good user experience ensures a higher likelihood of users meeting accurate outcomes to their questions about government services or policies when interacting directly through the agency itself—if it provides a good user experience, anyway.
Time is ticking for agencies to modernize: in December, they must provide Congress with a prioritized list of digital service modernization initiatives, including a schedule for when these goals will be met. The following December, all public-facing forms will require a digital option. By meticulously crafting a sense of purpose, forging relationships with UX experts and intertwining content with data, agencies set themselves up for success with 21st Century IDEA Act compliance.
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