Centuries ago, Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy proclaimed that the Earth was the center of the universe and everything in the cosmos revolved around our tiny blue planet.
Much as Ptolemy’s theory of the universe has evolved in scientific circles based on research and experimentation, the methods used by governments to design services for and convey information to the public have also transformed with time and technology. Where governments once placed themselves at the epicenter of the information and services they provide, today more and more municipalities are adopting user-centered design approaches that put constituents—and their needs—squarely in the middle of the conversation.
Breaking the government-focused culture
Deserved or not, governments have for many years been chided for designing services that are sometimes difficult for the everyday citizen to understand and use. Whether it’s a data-packed website that scrolls on for hundreds of pages, or complex applications and forms, it’s easy to see why some constituents have sometimes expressed frustration.
With the challenges of being more transparent and working within complex frameworks they’ve had to adhere to, municipalities and government agencies have many times had to prioritize their needs over those of the people they serve. But all that is changing.
Getting back to basics
Today as companies like Apple Inc. and Amazon.com, Inc. are showing real success with customer-focused business models, governments are learning that they must also get back to the basics of putting their customers first. This means integrating user-centered design practices into the work of government. By starting with an understanding of who they are serving, municipalities are finding that they are better able to provide effective and accessible public services and information that’s clear, easy to use and tailored to the needs of the constituent.
The Zoning Code example
Many municipalities are finding that their Zoning Codes are a good place to consider a more user-centered design approach. Zoning information can be complex and detailed, and often municipalities are content to simply post their zoning regulations online as a single (enormous) document. The problem with this approach is that not every user is looking for the same information. Business owners, for example, are usually trying to answer one specific question: “Where can I put my business?” Instead of quickly finding the information that answers that question, they may need to sift through the entire Code before they finally hone in on the details that they need. With a user-centered design approach, zoning regulations are organized in a way that makes it easier for specific users such as businesses and property owners to find, specifically, what they’re looking for.
Some municipalities are already taking a more user-centered approach by utilizing new tools such as interactive zoning maps. With this technology, business owners simply click on a map to quickly reveal essential elements about a property or area they are interested in. What’s more, when it’s easy for them to see what’s possible in the community, they are more likely to want to do business there.
The benefits can be huge
The website usability.gov recently published an article titled Creating a User-Centered Approach in Government that does a good job of highlighting some of the big benefits governments might see by moving toward a more user-centric approach with their products and services.
By embracing a user-centered design process, government agencies can:
- Save money long-term and increase their credibility by being more transparent
- Identify and respond to user needs by conducting user research
- Encourage participation by making it easy to connect with people and businesses interested in community growth and investment
- Produce easy to understand information that engages diverse community groups including citizens, business leaders, planners, developers and others
- Deliver information so that it can be accessed anywhere and through various channels and technologies
- Improve based upon feedback and analysis of other performance measurements
Want to learn more? Here are some helpful resources to consider:
Data-Smart City Solutions: User-Centered Government
Today governments are applying user-centered design to a host of situations, including digital service efforts, public policy work, and internal performance improvement. This specialization requires, more than ever before, insight into user needs, expectations, and pain points. An evolving set of government-specific resources that are aiding these efforts is included in this informative article.
Is User-Centered Government Really Attainable?
The push to rethink why and how government does what it does can be a point of great opportunity and frustration, but it all depends on how you approach it.
Why User-Centered Design Research is Time-Consuming–And Totally Worth It
Three of the State of Georgia’s biggest design proponents told a conference audience how and why they should consider a new approach to their digital government solutions.
Human-Centered Design for Government
Innovation in local government is often thought of in terms of efficiency or cost savings. But this focus leaves out an equally important one—a focus on how residents experience government programs, services and policy changes.
More about General Code’s smart ways to visually present zoning information: