How to Design
Lessons learned in public digital design
As part of Governor Cuomo’s mission to make government better serve the people, NY.gov was redesigned in November for the first time in 15 years.
In the weeks since we launched, governments around the world have reached out to hear how we did it.
Here’s a brief look at our approach to public digital design and what worked for us. We hope it’s useful, and look forward to sharing more with governments across the nation and globe.
- Agree on the user you will design for. Many government websites began as tools to serve journalists or internal users. And a lot of government technology departments were initially formed to serve their fellow agencies or executive offices, not focus on the end-user. If you want an effective website, start by agreeing that your target user is every constituent that you serve. Establishing this priority at the outset will preempt conflict down the line.
- Look at your data. Even if you don’t have sophisticated analytics, you can learn a lot about your visitors and what they do on your website. Your research time period should cover the past 365 days at least, to capture seasonal changes but show the most recent patterns. Look at devices used, content, everything — not only will you learn about constituents, but you’ll learn about which government services are most important to them. Make a list of the top 20 transactions by volume, and of top 20 pages by visits.
- Recognize that your user is different than other users. This will impact your success more than anything else. In government, we serve everyone. Design needs to address users who are visually impaired, who speak different languages, who have different connectivity speeds and income levels. You’ll need to surpass ADA requirements, use larger text sizes and higher contrast, and make sure that a screen reader can navigate your pages effectively. Good design is intuitive for everyone, and America is beautifully diverse.
- Welcome talent through smart procurement. To ensure value and integrity, governments have to follow important procurement rules to buy goods or services. If you’re procuring outside services, work with counsel to identify smart requirements that minimize risk but don’t exclude smaller or younger firms from competing.
- Design (and scale) for disasters. Apart from Tax Day, on NY.gov we see our biggest traffic during an emergency. As government, our most important duty is safety and security, and our website must scale effectively to support increased traffic in urgent scenarios. Your design also needs to adapt: For NY.gov, our design firm Code and Theory developed special emergency templates tailored to present high-demand information, and quick to load on mobile devices.
- Ask those who know. Interviewing ‘key stakeholders’ is an important part of gathering input and encouraging buy-in for any big project. But make sure that you include people in the trenches, too. The individual who is responsible for updating a website is going to have different input than the commissioner who leads an entire agency. Both are valuable, and both should be included.
- Go outside for input, too. Sometimes employees have been looking at the same website for 10 or 15 years. It can be hard to be objective, and hard to see the bigger picture. Ask the public for input, send out surveys, and if you can afford it, conduct usability sessions with a diverse range of users. Document the results and share.
- Content is half the battle. In your redesign, you are not just building a pretty new frame for your resources. You may have to completely overhaul the information itself. It won’t be easy, but this will reap enormous benefits for your users. And as a bonus, it often clears up confusion for internal employees, too. Remove every acronym you find. Be consistent in format and tone, and share guidelines across the organization. Clear, concise writing enables good design.
- Empower your experts. Updating a website is no longer a technical task; it should be part of the standard workflow for a government communicator. If your Content Management System (CMS) is so difficult to use that only highly trained technical staff can manipulate it, your website will not live up to its potential. Make it a priority to identify an easy-to-use CMS, and have your communications staff, not your engineers, weigh in on usability.
- Your org chart is not your information architecture. Org charts should help you navigate internal roles, not content. Users shouldn’t have to know which agency is in charge of their problem before they ask a question. Card sorting shaped how we categorize our content on NY.gov. We use layman’s terms and organize intuitively, not based on agency.
- Enable many paths to every question…because the customer is always right. If one user tries to access Hunting Permits through the “Recreation” category and another starts with “Licenses,” we want to adapt to their way of seeing the world, not force them into a government view. Offer multiple paths to information through search, navigation and discovery.
- …But offer only one answer. There’s nothing more frustrating than asking a simple question and getting five (or ten or thirty) seemingly equivalent contradictory answers. Again: content is half the battle. Where possible, consolidate and streamline. At NYC, there is 311. For NY.gov, we created Service ‘one-stop shops’ like How to Start a Business. It took a long time to build the top 45 service pages, but it’s saving our constituents time and effort.
- Launch is the beginning, not the end. It’s obvious, but your project plan should not end at launch. Allot ample support and resources. You’ll not only be testing and documenting bugs, you’ll see new features you wish you’d thought of before. Or that users aren’t responding how you thought they would. Track feedback and analytics. Above all, make sure you have the ability to keep building. And get started on what you’ll tackle next.