3 Cities Where User Experience Design Helped Make Services Better

Source: Government Technology on November 2, 2016 | Ben Miller

OAKLAND, CALIF. — There is a difference between the way a person buys a book on the Internet and the way a person fills out a form to apply for government benefits.

But why?

Much of the discussion on Nov. 2 at the Code for America (CfA) Summit was focused on that question. Why is it that so many people have a hard time applying for business licenses, or enrolling in food assistance programs, or doing most things involving government?

Government leaders, civic hackers and industry representatives at the conference think they know why — often, the systems in place to accomplish those tasks were designed around the needs of the government bureaucrat, the back-office worker, the lawyer. They weren’t necessarily designed for the people using those systems.

Now, many in government are finding ways to flip the script — to design processes that give government what it needs in a way that is also easier for residents, and they're doing it through user experience design. Sometimes the solutions are high-tech and mobile, and other times it’s as easy as changing the way something is done.

Here are three examples.


In Oakland, like the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area, rents are going up. And that can mean conflict between tenants and landlords.

The city has a process for resolving disputes, called the rent adjustment program, and that became a target for user experience-centered redesigns. Together they looked at the user experience to find slow spots and used technology to streamline those parts of the process. That includes an easier means for petitioning online and text messages for legal notifications.

“[It’s] changing this really tense conversation to a collaborative one,” said Kiran Jain, chief resilience officer for Oakland.

On top of that, the city is beta testing a redesigned portal that focuses on simplistic language. It was designed for citizens using all kinds of devices, including older systems. The beta site puts common service requests up top and is designed around what residents need to do on the site.

“We know that better technology is a result of great community engagement — in fact, we know that user experience is community engagement,” said Mai-Ling Garcia, online engagement manager for the city. “As we develop the city’s first UX strategy, we’re looking to create experiences for people … who are learning to use computers at schools and other public places.”


There are no fewer than 11 city health and human services agencies in New York. That means people often find themselves stretched between several different agencies when accessing benefits — which is a problem when it comes to providing things people need urgently.

“Missing information is one of the biggest causes of incomplete applications in the city, so you might have to deny your client services," said Amulya Aradhyula, a user experience designer with CfA’s New York City team, "and that’s one more night they might have to go without something like stable housing in the city.”

Working with CfA, the city revamped the Worker Connect system for case workers across multiple agencies. The redesign was driven through interviewing and then shadowing 50 case workers on the job.

It was all about small, meaningful improvements instead of replacing the whole system. The work made it easier to access useful data in the system and made it easier to use in the field.

“The incremental, meaningful changes that we’ve made to a system that case workers use on a day-to-day basis has allowed them to use a cleaner, more efficient tool,” said Alicia Mathews, a policy advisor in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Operations. “That means a missing child is found faster. It means a homeless person is connected to shelter more quickly. And ultimately, by supporting New York City’s caseworkers, we believe we’re supporting New Yorkers. And we’ve begun with the 4,000 case workers that use Worker Connect.”


The Kansas City Health Department had a problem: Every August, the number of people bringing in children for vaccines or immunization records more than doubled — that was when they needed records to enroll in school.

Read more here