U.I. Joe — A Real Experience Hero
What experience design teams can learn from President Biden’s Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience
Improving Customer Experience
Near the end of 2021, President Biden issued an executive order to improve customer experience (CX) across federal agencies. Historically, government services have been critiqued for a lack of quality experiences — for example, see my analysis of the quirks of an early version of the Healthcare.gov site.
While not a law itself, the executive order is an appropriate vehicle for addressing customer experience as it enables the President’s responsibilities to execute existing laws. In other words, it can define and enforce the quality of the delivery of government services.
Biden’s efforts to improve experiences should benefit the wide range of people who use government services, but the executive order is also a milestone for the field of CX. As an experience design practitioner, I was impressed with several elements of the order. It contains thoughtful recommendations and actions that experience design teams outside of government should consider as a model for their activities.
While the proof will be the in the doing, the order demonstrates robust knowledge of customer experience challenges and recommends thoughtful approaches to address them, including:
- Providing clear definitions of key terms (with one notable exception)
- Identifying specific challenges, focus areas, and near-term actions
- Naming the specific roles responsible for carrying out said actions
- Requiring ongoing, evidence-based feedback and measurement
- Addressing cross-agency collaboration required to support customer journeys that cut across organizational structures
The executive order is comprised of ten sections. I have excerpted and commented on the initial six sections, highlighting content that CX teams will find valuable, as well as a couple of areas of critique. The remaining sections of the order (7- 10) are too broad, boilerplate, and/or brief for discussion.
Section 1. Purpose.
The initial section provides the justification and goals for the executive order, and reads like a user-centered design practitioner’s fantasy:
Government must be held accountable for designing and delivering services with a focus on the actual experience of the people whom it is meant to serve. Government must also work to deliver services more equitably and effectively, especially for those who have been historically underserved. Strengthening the democratic process requires providing direct lines of feedback and mechanisms for engaging the American people in the design and improvement of Federal Government programs, processes, and services.
The use of phrases such as “actual experience” and “direct lines of feedback” prelude the order’s emphasis on empirical inputs and measurement. Notably, “time tax” is introduced as a conceptual metric (bolding added for emphasis):
When a disaster survivor, single parent, immigrant, small business owner, or veteran waits months for the Government to process benefits to which they are entitled, that lost time is a significant cost not only for that individual, but in the aggregate, for our Nation as a whole. This lost time operates as a kind of tax — a “time tax” — and it imposes a serious burden on our people as they interact with the Government.
Oddly “time tax” is always presented within quotes and is never defined beyond the general notion of “lost time”, not even within the subsequent Definitions section. While time-on-tasks can be a fundamental experience design measure for simple transactional tasks, it is not a meaningful measure without context. Fortunately, the recommendations for “behavioral science and user testing” imply more holistic information-gathering methods.
The opening section also references several related previous executive orders, dating back to 1993. It would be a very interesting “retro” exercise to assess the effectiveness and outcomes of those orders as they relate to the prospects of the current one.
Section 2. Policy.
This section re-emphasizes, if not re-iterates, the key points from Section 1.
The Government’s performance must be measured empirically and by on-the-ground results for the people of the United States, especially for their experiences with services delivered.
The strongest point within this section is the recognition that experience issues may have varied causes that must be resolved “regardless of whether the source of such challenges is statutory, regulatory, budgetary, technological, or process-based.”
Often experience design practitioners are limited to solutions at the end of a causal chain (e.g. an interface for delivering an already flawed service). A great customer experience is not feasible if the decisions and processes behind it were ineffective. In theory, at least, the executive order should empower teams to make changes wherever needed to improve experiences.
Section 3. Definitions.
Definitions are provided for seven key terms including “customer”, “customer experience”, and “human-centered design” (but not for “Time Tax”). I found some of these explanations refreshingly direct, simple, and clear, for example:
The term “human-centered design” means an interdisciplinary methodology of putting people, including those who will use or be impacted by what one creates, at the center of any process to solve challenging problems.
These definitions may be useful for experience design practitioners, a field that often struggles with defining terms consistently. One exception is “customer life experience” which the executive order defines as “each important point in a person’s life at which that person interacts with one or more entities of Government.” The insertion of the word “life” to differentiate from “customer experience” is confusing, and might be better defined by a term such as a touchpoint, interaction, or moment that matters.
Section 4. Agency Actions to Improve Customer Experience
This lengthier portion of the executive order enumerates the federal agencies and the associated CX improvements each agency is responsible for addressing. Rather than naming the agencies directly, the list is organized by the respective heads of the agencies (i.e., Secretaries of State, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, etc.). I appreciated this for clear accountability, something that can be missing in customer experience plans and briefs.
While some of the customer experience improvements were relatively broad (“update rules, policies and procedures”) most were surprisingly specific, to the point that I could imagine high-level epics enabling their execution, including:
design and deliver a new online passport renewal experience that does not require any physical documents to be mailed
test the use of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits for online purchasing
develop a mobile-accessible, online process so that any individual applying for or receiving services from the Social Security Administration can upload forms, documentation, evidence, or correspondence associated with their transaction without the need for service-specific tools or traveling to a field office
While improvements are primarily linked to individual agencies, there is also a subsection for “Joint Agency Actions”. This is critical as customer journeys often cross-agencies and their respective systems, definitions, and policies. Cross-agency collaboration is addressed more explicitly in the subsequent section.
Section 5. Government-wide Actions to Improve Customer Experience
Perhaps the most compelling and progressive part of the executive order is the need for cross-agency coordination to create effective, integrated customer experiences:
Customers often navigate services across multiple agencies in specific moments of need, such as when they are seeking financing for their businesses or experiencing food insecurity. In such situations, relevant agencies should coordinate their service delivery to achieve an integrated experience that meets customer needs through the exchange of data with appropriate privacy protections.
Much of this depends on collaboration, information sharing, and governance across customer experience journeys (a topic I wrote about last year). The section details several near-term actions to get this process underway, including objectives for organizing, prioritizing, and measuring improvements.
Section 6. Ongoing Accountability for Federal Service Delivery.
Section 6 and the remaining subsequent sections cover the more administrative areas of the Executive Order, related to budgeting and reporting. But even here we see a prioritization of human-centered design relative to more traditional metrics of transactions and dollars:
Identification of designated services should be based on the moments that matter most to the individuals served, as illustrated through human-centered design and other research, and on those services’ public-facing nature, the number of individuals served, the volume of transactions, the total Federal dollars spent, the safety and protection of lives, or the critical nature of the services provided in the lives of the individuals they serve.
There is also a requirement for assessing customer experience through “meaningful measures” that can include methods such as “ethnographic research; feedback from public engagement; human-centered design methodologies such as journey mapping”.
Less a customer experience bill of rights than a project brief, the executive order contains information that is often lacking or ambiguous in experience design project plans. While serving as a high-level starting point, the order is specific, actionable, and measurable. Experience design teams should strive to provide clear definitions, specify responsible parties, require evidence-based inputs, and mandate cross-department collaboration in their project approaches.