For the US government, good design is a civic duty

Written by YuJune Park on 20 October 2022 in Opinion
Opinion

In light of plans to overhaul USA.gov, YuJune Park of Parsons School of Design explains the revamp must put citizens first

Credit: Tibor Janosi Mozes/Pixabay

It's no secret that the United States Government’s bureaucratic systems are often convoluted at best and farcically counterproductive at worst – to the extent that late last year, president Joe Biden issued an executive order to transform federal customer service, with the express aim to build government trust through accessible digital services.

As public bodies prepare themselves to act on what’s outlined in the order, there are several things government needs to do in order to lay solid foundations for a smooth, accessible digital that will service citizens for years to come.

The plan currently laid out by the executive order appears to take a significant cues from the UK’s Government Digital Service, which is widely respected in the private tech sector for its commitment to accessible systems and language. 

GDS has been praised for its approach to activating its swathes of data for a streamlined, easy-to-use experience that helps citizens do everything from apply for a driver’s licence and passport, to checking the government guidance for travelling with pets, to understanding new policies. 

The purpose of the executive order is to harness technology for a more effective civic service across federal government. But the government cannot simply create a modern shell for its old way of working.

The Biden administration could also look to Estonia’s cutting-edge digital civic work, which showcases exactly how a digital system deeply rooted in design thinking can benefit citizens. 

Granted, in the US, the division of state and federal services complicates matters. But it’s not impossible to imagine a way of interacting with the government online that feels like a net positive experience for citizens.

In fact, the success of the US government’s own Covid-19 app is an excellent point of reference – one that proves that federal institutions can design accessible and meaningful experiences for citizens at scale. The question is, will the federal government be able to bring the learnings from the very specific Covid-19 solution to a broad scale redesign of its entire digital function? 

A significant goal of the executive order is an upcoming redesign of USA.gov, which the Biden Administration imagines as a new ‘digital front door’ for the government. 

In many ways, the lasting success of the order is based on how welcoming, accessible, and intuitive that door really is. 

But here’s where the US Digital Service has some real hurdles to overcome: presently, the information hierarchy that users face when they come knocking at the government’s digital front door feels overwhelming, confusing, and unintuitive. 

The most crucial adjustment the government will need to make regards accessibility and tone. 


September 22 2000
Date of launch


5.33m
Visits in the past 30 days, as of 19 October


54.3%
Proportion of traffic from mobile devices – ahead of desktop on 44% and tablet on 1.7%


‘Getting or Renewing a U.S. Passport’
Most popular webpage other than the homepage


One in six
Proportion of users from outside the US – with Mexico the leading international visitor location on 2.1%


While the site contains a wealth of information, it must do a better job of speaking to a general audience using straightforward terminology – with the opportunity to then go one to three levels deeper. 

For example, when you click on Covid-19 on USA.gov, you are inundated with titles such as Advance Child Tax Credit and Economic Impact Payments – Stimulus checks. 

Only a small percentage of people know these specialised terms; the site is speaking to other people in government, and not the general population. 

The coronavirus homepage on GOV.UK, in contrast, organises similar content by action items that everyday people can understand – such as ‘Staying Safe’, Testing and Staying at Home’ and ‘Long Covid’.

Another important language evolution the US would be smart to make is in how it refers to the site’s users. 

The exec order uses the word “consumer” a lot. This is understandable, but another way to think about this is to recast some of this in terms of ‘citizenry’, because it implies participation and cooperation – something that is at the heart of a democratic society. This would help shift some of the tone and goals of the site from not just providing services, but also empowering users 

Telling a different story
Making substantial change in activating the website’s data for its citizens’ benefit is not dependent on a full redesign. A simple reorganisation of the hierarchy and storytelling that citizens are guided through when they use the site could make an enormous difference; grouping information in larger sections could allow it to be presented more clearly. 

Estonia’s citizen portal could make an excellent blueprint. 

There, each large section is broken into Main, Services, Laws, Related Articles, Related Institutions, and References. 

This is a user-centric way of organising information, not by government body or legal instrument – but by how it is perceived and used. The Estonian guide to working during pregnancy is a great example of just how effectively information can be delivered through thoughtful design. 

More thoughtful visual cues would also make a big difference: if USA.gov were to adopt colour schemes and typography that are not only accessible but visually beautiful, these soft techniques would go a long way in helping people feel that information is easier to digest. 

The purpose of this executive order is to harness technology for a more effective civic service across federal government. 

But the government cannot simply create a modern shell for its old way of working; until it carefully considers the crucial role of a design overhaul the way it uses and activate data for every step of the customer journey, the work that goes into meeting the standards of this order will be pointless. It is crucial for data to be baked into process of transforming citizens’ digital experience of the government from the off.

The government has a track record of throwing technology at a problem without considering the real-world application – and we cannot risk the response to this executive order doing the same. 

 

 

About the author

YuJune Park (pictured above) is associate professor of communication design at Parsons School of Design, and the co-founder of consultancy Synoptic Office

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