How Civic Engagement Is Unlocking California’s DMV Web Services

Jacob Roper
Code California
Published in
4 min readAug 22, 2019


DMV website

Governor Gavin Newsom created a Strike Team earlier this year to tackle the Department of Motor Vehicle’s long-standing problems with customer service and technology. An obvious first step was to overhaul the DMV website.

Code for America Brigade

Leveraging enthusiasm and expertise from the Code for America Brigade Network, the DMV Strike Team asked volunteers from almost every major California city to sift through the byzantine page structures on DMV.CA.GOV. At sessions held in San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, Fresno, and San Diego, users found bugs, poor navigation, and ultimately proved what the Strike Team feared all along: the end-user experience of the DMV website was not a priority.

Volunteers at Code for San Jose documenting their experience accomplishing tasks with the DMV website.

Volunteers at Code for San Jose documenting their experience accomplishing tasks with the DMV website.

The Governor’s DMV Reinvention Strike Team would like to thank everyone involved, from the Code for America Brigade leaders who designed personas to test, to the actual volunteers that gave up a weeknight or two to help improve one of the State’s most heavily trafficked websites.

A first

The DMV is seeing a lot of firsts recently. First use of credit cards is just a few weeks away. First statewide “training reset” for 5,000 front line workers. And now, the first statewide community-involved UX testing on DMV’s most underutilized tool — its website.

Key themes

The community of volunteers was able to identify major themes from our engagements including:

  • Confusing design doesn’t give users confidence they are in the correct place or service channel for their needs. In other words, if you’re lucky enough to find the right page, you have no confidence that it’s what you need and will work.
  • Translation services not adequate, or not prevalent.
  • Map/location finder are not intuitive or even usable by some.
  • Many pages are simply “information dumps” — laundry lists of links that overwhelm users.
  • Confusion over what can and cannot be done online.
  • Titles of pages are confusing, confusion over what page describes what.
  • People are expecting layman’s terms (but not finding them) for what they’re trying to get done.

The DMV web team suspected many of these key themes, but the feedback helped us see the real showstoppers for most users. We knew we had to start improving the situation right away, and now we had a road map to do so.

Members of OpenOakland providing feedback of completing common DMV tasks on their phones.

Members of OpenOakland providing feedback of completing common DMV tasks on their phones.

Getting to work

By late July, the Strike Team worked with DMV to fix bugs, refresh content on the most commonly-viewed pages and restructure the homepage by creating clear navigational channels for users, emphasizing what CAN be done online. The team and staff also improved access to translation services, which jumped by 300 percent only a week after the change was made.


Before: DMV website


After: DMV website

These were the first iterations of a larger redesign, with many more to come. As a result of this effort, we sensed the shift of energy within the team behind the DMV website. They were empowered, and are now driving forward their own ideas like streamlining content and improving customer service with a Chatbot (and eventually live chat services) to the department’s website.

Finally, DMV just launched a microsite dedicated to REAL ID — one of the most common reasons for interacting with the DMV. The new site features a user-centered design to let customers know when and how to get this important new form of identification before it starts to affect their travel in October of 2020.

A Growing Community

This was not the first attempt to crowdsource UX experts through a shared mission of improving the DMV online experience. In February, Luke Fretwell, founder of GovFresh and co-founder/CEO of ProudCity, shared his experience and suggestions after having visited a DMV by authoring Re-imagining the California DMV Website.

The interest to improve service delivery across all DMV websites led Luke to create CivicDMV, a community project working to re-imagine the Department of Motor Vehicles across the states with a focus on digital service delivery.


This is just another indication that the work is not done yet.

If you’re interested in sharing feedback and ideas check out the DMV’s site and send feedback to You can also engage with CivicDMV at because those concepts, ideas and criticisms will be used as we flesh out the new DMV website architecture during the next six to nine months.

This is just a start. We look forward to continuously re-imagining how DMV can serve as a prototype for active and open engagement with the public to better meet the needs of all Californians.



Jacob Roper
Code California

Communications pro, policy wonk and forever tech dreamer. Based in Sacramento. Views are my own.