A case for style as substance

You’ve been warned, right? Don’t put style over substance. Style is nice, but substance is what matters. Framed that way, who could argue with the obvious? Well, please allow me to reframe. The truth is that the traditional style/substance binary is reductive. As we read and understand messages, seemingly unimportant matters of style bring us substantive information. From Marshall McLuhan’s claim that “the medium is the message” to the tricky digital high tide we’re all bodysurfing these days, how messages reach us matters. The how intertwines with what those messages say in a way that breaks down the distinction. Form or style isn’t an empty boxcar that carries the freight of meaning. It’s more than cosmetic. Wording, visual design, UX, and more aren’t a coat of fresh paint adding surface appeal. Instead, the way we present a message is a key part of what the end user will get from the experience. That fact matters in a wide range of contexts.

In user testing sessions like this one, Austinites help us learn what messages our deliverables are (and are not) communicating. [Image of a community member looking at a computer screen.]

Content and design work together to help residents

Where it matters most in our work is how that dynamic plays out in communication between governments and residents. What we know about communication can and should inform the design and delivery of information residents need. For starters, the twin movements of plain language and service design can cut friction and frustration. When residents face an indecipherable block of text or a hard-to-navigate interface, the negative experience ripples out beyond that page. Let’s look at a federal example: a veteran trying to access health care. If the system is too counter-intuitive to navigate, the appointment doesn’t get scheduled. In that case, the veteran also receives a between-the-lines message about how much their service matters.

How might a parallel dynamic play out at the city level? Having too many pages to sort through can make information hard to find. Posting text that isn’t reader-friendly makes key points hard to understand. This creates stress for residents.

Residents want to know about rules and codes and services. How does zoning work? How strict are our impervious cover codes? What can and can’t I put in my recycling bin? Finding out about these things shouldn’t involve a fifteen-point bullet list, a link to a dead page, or complicated sentences that don’t make clear sense.

How you say something matters as much as what you say

The issues of pure substance are, of course, important in each case. When the communication fails on that front, the city has failed the resident. But there’s another dimension there. Messages that are hard to find or hard to understand aren’t just doing a weak job of communicating what residents want to know. They’re also communicating a negative message. They’re saying something like “we don’t care much about whether you understand this information or access this service.”

By the way, that negative message is generally not true. The culprit is more likely a matter of resources and competing priorities. That hypothetical service page might have been crafted by one person with too much to manage. Some of the phrasing may seem dated because it was repurposed from an already-existing page. There is a lot of room to improve. City offices and city employees could use more support in communicating with residents. At the City of Austin’s Office of Design & Delivery, we’ve set out to do just that.

Okay, let’s review just that much: How you say something is a crucial part of the message itself. That fact has direct relevance for how governments communicate with residents. Further, there is room for improvement. That brings us to the “So What?” part of this post.

The style and substance of civilian oversight

The “So What” is that in May of 2018 the City of Austin launched the Office of Design & Delivery. Our goal is to assist city offices in designing and delivering the best possible services for our residents. We do this by applying our design, communication, and technology skills to specific projects. From permitting to recycling to homelessness to public safety and more, we’re making a difference. How? By introducing and refining best practices for user research, service design, content strategy, web development, and product management. We’ve launched Austin’s first Digital Services Strategy with a new platform at alpha.austin.gov.

Here’s a representative example of what we do and why: we worked on a recent project to develop content in support of Austin’s brand-new Office of Police Oversight. In broad terms, that means letting Austinites know:

  • This new office exists.
  • It is independent from the Austin Police Department (APD).
  • It prioritizes access and anonymity.

These are crucial factors in providing meaningful civilian oversight to the department. We convey that information in a clean design with service-oriented language. The place where the rubber meets the road, though, is with the online form. This is where residents can share their experiences with police officers.

At every point, every feature of functionality, everything about the form’s sequence, the way the questions and instructions are worded, we are laser-focused on how to make the form communicate this message: “We take your experience seriously. We appreciate your taking the time to tell us your experience. We appreciate your overcoming any reluctance you may have about doing this. You are helping to make Austin a better city.”

Every detail becomes part of that effort. For example, a recent discussion focused on the “Time” field in the form. Should it be required? If so, should the input options ask for an exact time that the events occurred? To someone filling out the form, would a required field asking for such specific information feel intimidating? Might it create user uncertainty over whether the incident happened at 3:00 in the morning exactly? So, we asked ourselves, should “Time” be an optional field or a required field? Should there be a precise input option? Should the options be broader, more like “last Friday afternoon,” or “yesterday morning”? As we refined the form, user testing guided us on this issue, as well as similar issues. We believe in iterating. We believe in listening to the people who use the service.

It’s important that we get these visual, user interface, and wording details right. It matters because the way the form communicates will be a crucial part of what the form communicates. Why have a form at all? Ultimately, its purpose is to improve trust between Austinites and the police department that serves our city. Without paying close attention to these matters, the form will communicate the wrong message. Our goal won’t be achieved.

To bring things back to the broader point, the work we’re doing is informed by the idea that style matters because it communicates a substantive dimension of any message. With that premise in place, giving good attention to stylistic matters is a crucial part of the struggle to make government better, more accessible, and more effective.