Applying design thinking to digital government

At the center of Seattle.gov’s online news feed is its dozens of City department blogs featuring updates from parks, police, public utilities and more. In this post, Beverly Slabosky, user experience program lead, outlines the collaborative design-thinking approach a team of city employees applied to update Citywide blog templates. Two refreshed blogs recently launched: Office of the Mayor and Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. New blog features include trending topics, related articles based on taxonomy, and a site map of all City blogs.

For a year and a half, I have led a small team of user experience designers in the Public Engagement Services Division of the Seattle Information Technology Department. Our team’s goal is to create Citywide web templates and standards so the public interacting with our 40-plus department websites will have an easier time navigating, finding information, and connecting to their City government.

We have been advocating a shift away from organizationally structured websites and applications towards a customer-centered mindset. My team uses a range of human-centered methods to bring broad groups of internal customers together to solve similar problems. I’ve adapted methods I’ve learned from more than 13 years working in the private sector in user experience, information architecture, user research, and taxonomy. Our team received a lot of positive feedback for its work, so I thought it would be a good time to reflect on my very first project.

Last year, I facilitated our first design sprint inspired by Google Venture’s model but adapted it to the needs of a government culture. Our goal was to update Citywide blog templates to better meet the needs of publishers, solve usability issues, and refresh the look and feel. I worked with two user experience designers to create an agenda, and we tag-teamed during design sessions.

We used design-thinking activities to solve real problems for humans and involve representatives across departments.

Understanding

  • We audited the City of Seattle’s 30-plus department blogs to understand their range of content and remove outdated information.
  • We analyzed Google usage data to identify which blogs received the most traffic and viewed those blog’s user paths.
  • We interviewed staff from departments with high-traffic and low-traffic blogs to understand their publishing needs and challenges.
  • We also conducted remote usability tests on select blogs to identify usability issues we could fix in the new templates.

Collaboration

We invited representatives from City departments with varying publishing needs together to share information and ideate. And staff in different roles across our Seattle IT team, including developers and web producers, also participated.

City staff participate in a blog design session.

Defining key problems

  • Department representatives shared data about the audiences they serve, what they blog about and why.
  • Together we created problem statements and voted on which problems to focus on.
  • We broke into small groups to brainstorm solutions to the problems and then shared collectively.
  • We voted again on which solutions were the most feasible and beneficial to blog readers and the staff members who maintain the blogs.

Prototyping

The designers and I came up with three prototypes to serve different publishing needs ranging from departments that publish requests for contracting bids and proposals to departments that publish videos and content from public events. We solicited feedback and co-generated a list of questions from our design session participants to test our design prototypes.

Office of the Mayor’s redesigned blog.

Usability Testing

We tested the design prototypes remotely and asked test users to navigate to blog articles, execute searches and evaluate results pages. Our biggest finding was City departments frequently use acronyms and organizational language which is confusing to readers. As a result, we’ve shifted our work to a more customer-centered focus. We accomplish this by consulting on projects and providing trainings.

New blog templates

In the end, we developed three templates for departments to choose from. The template designs are based on publishing needs and fixed usability issues. To help readers discover content, the City blogs include a few new features, including highlighted posts, trending tags, related articles based on tagging taxonomy, and a site map of all City blogs.

Seattle Department of Neighborhoods redesigned blog.

Lessons Learned

Department representatives really appreciated being part of the discovery process, which built a lot of long-term positive relationships. While I was brand new to Seattle IT and our team was new, the process was more collaborative than people expected. I heard feedback such as, “You’re running at the pace of a private sector project.” “You’re so organized,” and “This is fun.”

Over the past year, my team has worked on more experience-based projects, including helping other teams and departments approach their digital experiences with a human-centered mindset. For larger projects, we have stuck with the design sprint model, using activities from design thinking frameworks. We regularly conduct trainings to help website owners understand user experience, usability and accessibility best practices. This collaborative approach really helps our tiny team scale its reach. We look forward to continuing to grow our knowledge of City services and collaborating with other City departments so Seattle residents can more easily access their City government and public services.

Beverly Slabosky

Beverly Slabosky is the user experience program lead for Seattle IT. She manages a small, but mighty team of designers. Beverly has worked in the user experience field for 10-plus years. Before coming to the City in 2018, Beverly worked at Capital One and Premera Blue Cross and consulted for big tech companies. After many years working on business applications, eCommerce, intranets and marketing sites, she is excited to work at the City of Seattle knowing she is making a difference in her local community.