What government can learn from interaction designers

I just returned from 2 great days of presentations and discussions at OpenGovWest in Seattle (March 26/27, 2010). Organized by Sarah Schacht of Knowledge as Power, the conference/unconference brought together leading thinkers and practitioners in the field of open government initiatives throughout the USA and Canada, primarily from our Cascadian cluster of BC, Washington, Oregon, and northern California.

The first day was a set schedule of presentations and small panels, the second day was an unconference format, where suggested topics were discussed by self-organizing groups of attendees. The 200+ people that attended represented a wide range of experiences, all trying to build a different kind of democracy through the use of modern network technologies.

Many of the sessions, particularly on the second day of unconference sessions, seemed to surround the question of “how?”

  • How do we engage citizens in our governmental/policy processes [using these tools]?
  • How do we design for a varied citizenry?
  • How do we deal with 10,000 comments on our public policy blog?
  • How do we assemble the right tools and technologies to build this new vision of government?
  • How do we measure success and report back the outcomes of our work?

It struck me that the motivation was strong to deploy these recent “2.0? technologies, embodied in the many-to-many communicative / collaborative platforms that afford (or are perceived to afford) a deeper civic engagement than is currently possible using “real-world” traditional methods. Public servants want to use these tools. They want to change how government works. They’re just not sure how to get there.

The expression “citizen-centric” was used more than once in the discussions that I attended. When I called out the the classic design pattern (or rather anti-pattern) of building a civic website’s navigation structure to represent the departments and organizational structure of the civic institution in question, I got a lot of nodding heads. “Here’s our org chart, you figure out how to access services.” Classic. This is the dominant design pattern of the government website genre.

Now there’s nothing terribly 2.0 about any of this. The domain and discipline of user-centred design, task-oriented interaction design, whatever you want to call it; it’s been around for quite some time. And a lot of people have been busy working away on trying to better understand the needs and mental models of “users” (be they citizens, visitors, businesses, or whatever label you prefer to apply) in order to design a better experience.

And in doing so, they’ve developed a lot of tools in the proverbial methodological toolbox. Interaction designers have been pondering these problems, or variations of them, for quite some time.

Now I’m not going to claim that we (user experience professionals, interaction designers, information architects, usability geeks, ethnographers, etc.) have the answers to how to transform government. But I did find myself chiming in to the discussions more than once asking if anyone had heard about “method X” or “method Y” — I sheepishly did so a few times, hoping it wasn’t getting tiresome or simply assuming that most people in the room knew what a persona was or how to design effective KPIs, but when asked to see a show of hands, I only ever got a couple of knowing nods of recognition.

So I figured it might be useful to assemble a few of the many methods and tools that public servants can look into in the service of designing “the next government.” And really, in my mind, transforming government (or any institution) is a design activity.

And just to clear up what we mean when we say Design (because it’s a very, very big word in its usage and meaning), Design is not bound to the domain of solely aesthetics or physical objects. Far from it. Design theorist Richard Buchanan outlines four broad areas of design as a discipline. These are 1) the design of symbolic and visual communications, 2) the design of material objects, 3) the design of activities and organized services, and finally 4) the design of complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning.

Pertinent to government employees are the last two in particular. Examples of the design of activities and organized services include logistics, operations, schedules, bureaucracies, cause and effect systems (domain of management, process engineers, bureaucrats). Sounds like government to me. And of course, examples of the design of complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning include buildings, structures, streets, neighbourhoods, towns, cities (domain of urban planners, architects, systems engineers). This is what government does.

The configuration of government and its outcomes are really just a massive design exercise. At least seen through the eyes of this design professional…

But I digress. Let’s get onto the practical stuff.

How do I better understand the needs of citizens?
This is the domain of user research, ethnography, quantitative and qualitative methods. We try to get a 360 degree view of the user by interviewing them, surveying them, and observing them. Looking for inspiration? Read Grant McCracken’s The Long Interview. Take a Steve Portigal workshop. Read Jan Chipchase’s blog. Read Adaptive Path’s book Subject to Change.

How do I design for varying levels of citizenry?
Personas, while contentious within the field of interaction design and not favoured by some, are still a great tool and exercise in design empathy, putting the user front and centre in the design process. Alan Cooper popularized the methods, you can also derive citizen archetypes using Dave Snowden’s Cognitive Edge methods through the process of group signification. Create Mental Models based on human behaviour. Again, refer to ex-Adaptive Path’er Indi Young’s book on Mental Models. Look at what Webcontent.gov did with their personas. Find out about the City of Seattle’s Race & Social Justice IT Project Management Checklist.

How do I deal with all of these citizen feedback now that I’ve created a giant forum for discussion?
While the growing field of text analytics and semantic analysis grows more and more popular, I’m personally still reluctant to place my trust in “machine understanding.” Machines can help us sort out the mess of content that results in large scale feedback, but understanding in my mind is still a very human activity. The field of sensemaking and narrative analysis as put forth by the folks at Cognitive Edge and Anecdote appear to me to be some of the best ways of trying to grapple with complexity. Anecdote circles, story telling, mass narrative capture and group signification: there’s some language hurdles here for sure if you’ve never been exposed to this body of knowledge and practices, but it’s worth spending some time reading it or finding a Cognitive Edge practitioner to help you out.

How do I measure the outcomes of all of this?
Measurement is at the heart of performance management tools like the Balanced Scorecard and shouldn’t be a stranger to government employees working in modern numbers-driven environments. But measuring some of the “softer” things can be tricky. What’s my ROI on engagement? How do I measure the blog comments that we’re getting? Drawing cause and effect lines between a website and the changed behaviour of a citizens is the dream of every government worker involved in building a site, but it’s often just not possible. We’re quite fond of Stacey Barr’s PuMP methodology for measuring outcomes. While she’s in Australia, you might be able to catch her in North America a bit more often in the future – we managed to catch her first appearance on this side of the Pacific in 2009 and were really excited about the workshop.

Of course, if you’re looking for general purpose web analytics, look at Avinash Kaushik, Eric T. Peterson, or head down to San Jose for eMetrics and meet them all in person!

This is just really touching the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more. But it’s a starting point.

The methods and tools used by interaction designers have a lot to offer government. And let’s not forget that government has a lot to offer interaction designers. Public planning exercises, participatory methods, and the design patterns of Doug Schuler’s Liberating Voices represent a wealth of material on how we, as humans, have assembled ourselves in groups big and small and changed the way we live. I hope to return to this topic in the near future for some more writing.

Here’s to a continued dialogue amongst designers everywhere. Thanks to Sarah for making OpenGovWest happen.