The Intersection of Product Design and Service Design

Me, very casually pointing at sticky notes.

Hello, My Name Is

I’m Elizabeth and I was a Product Apprentice at NYC Opportunity between January and August, 2018.

This post shares a research guide I prototyped last summer to quickly deliver a cheap and easy-to-use data tool for city employees.

My research guide helped transform tangled web analytics into actionable next steps to advance our partner’s goals. The resulting data tool helps PEU (the Mayor’s Public Engagement Unit) onboard and train staff to use ACCESS NYC, a core product of NYC Opportunity’s Product team that helps people find out eligibility for food, money, housing, work and more.

Below I give a little background on the collaboration that resulted in the research guide and final tool, and share some of my takeaways.

The Super Users of ACCESS NYC

The NYC Opportunity team shadowing PEU Outreach Specialists.

As background, PEU is a team with Outreach Specialists who use data-driven door knocking to connect New Yorkers to several key City services, such as tenant support and healthcare.

To help Outreach Specialists expand the number of City services covered, the NYC Opportunity Product team built a tailored version of ACCESS NYC’s eligibility screener that covers 30+ City services and fits into Outreach Specialists’ work flow.

Essentially, Outreach Specialists are super users of ACCESS NYC. The more they use their ACCESS NYC Screener with residents, the more people find out what services they’re eligible to enroll in. This matters because benefits enrollment reduces poverty citywide.

The Challenge

While the NYC Opportunity team provided monthly web usage reports for the newly deployed Screener for Outreach Specialists, PEU communicated an interest for even more data — and on a weekly basis.

We could have immediately jumped into a data solution, but first we wanted to better understand the reasons behind the request. Why did they think a weekly solution was best? Among the many available web metrics, which would be most useful? Lastly, how could we offer a data solution that is manageable to maintain for both teams?

With all of these challenges in mind, I designed a research guide to help scope this new data report.

Building The Tool

My research guide was built with two parts, and took lots of inspiration from the Civic Service Design’s Tools + Tactics. The first part helped PEU and the Product team quickly re-align around larger goals and people’s roles. The second part uses a card sort to help a group prioritize the critical details — which web metrics will advance the stated goals and roles?

Using The Tool

Research guides printed out with cards for each available web metric.

We used my research guide in a 45 minute meeting with PEU and my Digital Product colleagues. As I walked us through the guide, group members wrote individual responses on sticky notes which we later sorted into themes.

The guide’s questions aimed to keep the conversation grounded in the Screener’s purpose and the scope of people’s roles. Card sorting grouped individual web metrics into categories of either “I can act on it now” or “I can act on it later.” This step helped ensure we would focus on data that people were in a position to use immediately. Finally, we kept only metrics that advanced the product’s current goals.

In an elegant fashion, limiting ourselves to only actionable data and just one current goal left us with only three relevant data points — not the fifteen we started out with!


Documentation of the session with the PEU team.

Together we were able to surface the most pressing reasons to put together more frequent reports about the new Screener:

  1. PEU wanted to see to what degree Specialists were adopting and using the new Screener, in order to identify barriers and training needs.
  2. Data was useful only if available in time for specific PEU team meetings which happened more frequently than once a month.

These findings made a lot of sense — the product is new, therefore the focus should be getting people to use it! And if data isn’t available when decisions are made, the data can hardly be called helpful.

The Final Tool

In a short amount of time, we had a clear scope for a new report built in Excel. Although it sounds a little boring, Excel was a perfect first tool because it didn’t require costly technical development, and anyone with access to spreadsheet software could access the report. Since then, the PEU team has further adopted the tool by using python scripting to complete analysis in time for team meetings.

My Takeaways

I had a lot of fun designing this research guide, most of all because it helped ensure more PEU Specialists, and therefore New Yorkers, use ACCESS NYC to connect to city services and benefits.

When it comes to digital product design and service design, I was also able to synthesize many things I learned during my apprenticeship.

Strategic Use of Data

One takeaway is that you can track all the data you want. And you probably should track it all. Doing so helps you communicate the scale and impact of your digital product to stakeholders.

But when it comes to the day-to-day of product design, you want to make actual tangible improvements to how people use your product! To do so, you’ll need to put aside most data. You’ll want to drill down to focus on one current product goal, one or two related data points, and a few simple steps to change those numbers towards a better user experience.

Human Centered Design

From the Service Design team, I learned how to better orchestrate complex conversations to be more interactive and productive for everyone. With the Civic Service Design Tools & Tactics, dialogue becomes more modular and flexible when written down on sticky notes. You can move any comment where you like, and even move it again! This format opens up the tone of a meeting in ways that lead to open ideas and solutions.

All of this is directly applicable to product design, which is all about collaborating with people on the essential goals, opportunities and team responsibilities that help build & maintain your product.

Thank You

Summer 2018 Apprentices, left to right, top row first: Steven, Margaret, Yuka, Leonore, Max, Johnny, Paula, and myself.

It was a real privilege to learn from this apprenticeship while contributing to innovative delivery of city services! Thank you to the whole team for the opportunity.

Interested in creativity, communities, tech, best practices, changes to fit new needs, & fun stuff.

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