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Partnering to Improve Digital Services

In July, Seattle IT’s Digital Services Usability and Design team partnered with Civic User Testing (CUT) to facilitate usability testing on the web site. (Learn about the CUT group and volunteer with them at

The intended goal of the project was to understand if people were able to successfully navigate to popular City services on their mobile devices. The project team was hoping to create a list of design updates for its development team to implement, for example, changing navigation labels or interactions like tapping from the top navigation to page navigation.



Project leads chose to partner with the Seattle Housing Authority to include low-income Seattle residents. With guidance from Community Builder, Andy Chan, it was decided to facilitate a usability test on site at a subsidized housing building on First Hill to make participation easier.

Overall, 10 people participated, which was the target. Generally, usability testing is aimed at collecting qualitative insights to drive design, not numbers. Typically, it takes about five people to find most usability issues. (

Participants used their own mobile phones to navigate to and complete some common tasks like paying a parking ticket, finding community classes, and reporting garbage.

What they learned

While the team did learn a few things to improve the site navigation and terminology, they also learned about their own digital biases. There are many digital conventions that they take for granted that are still not ubiquitous to some user groups.

  1. The group of people they interviewed had a different digital vocabulary. Some participants did not regularly use the words “web page” or “browser” so the language was quickly changed to be more generic.
  2. Mobile “hamburger” menus are debated widely in the design community. The test confirmed this group of users were not familiar with it. They mostly used the apps on their phones that were installed by the manufacturers or heard about from friends or family from word of mouth.
  3. The CUT group were the main organizers and they compensated participants with Visa gift cards. The paradigm of activating the gift cards were also not well understood.
  4. Many participants did not know how to pinch and zoom.
  5. Based on the City’s 2014 Community Technology report, low-income users are twice as likely as other groups to have smartphone-only internet access. However, some participants had free phones provided by government services that they were hesitant to use based on bandwidth and limited data plans. While Seattle is a tech hub and many residents expect to complete many services online, there are residents that still need basic digital education and access.


Next Steps

The team will use what they learned about navigation and terminology to update the web site. They will be iterating with the Digital Services development team soon on a mobile-first navigation that is simpler and more obvious to use.

The team will also continue to learn firsthand about the needs of residents to improve the web sites and apps and usability test with them to understand if  digital properties can be improved.

Volunteers needed to test upcoming projects!

Sign up to give feedback on upcoming iterations. The team is looking for a diverse mix of people across the city to test digital experiences or participate in design research. Typically, participation is about an hour of your time.

Sign-up to become a usability tester.

About the Usability and Design team

Usability and Design is a small, but mighty new program within the Digital Services Team in Seattle IT. The team’s goal is twofold:

  1. Coach City staff on designing and maintaining public web experiences to support City services
  2. Create inclusive digital experiences by practicing human-centered design and usability testing

The team depends on partners to reach intended audiences and to help extend usability testing and design research capabilities.

Beverly Slabosky is Seattle IT’s user experience program lead.