Designing with San Franciscans

Lauren Jong
San Francisco Digital & Data Services
6 min readDec 3, 2018


A year ago I joined the San Francisco Digital Services, a new team in city government. We work with other departments to deliver their public services in the best way possible.

While user research is a key part of any design process, it’s especially important for us at the City and County of San Francisco. Many of the City’s existing websites are focused around departments, instead of the needs of the people who use them.

On the Digital Services team, we build with San Franciscans, not just for them. This means we engage people from across the city and make them the foundation of everything we do. When we design and develop services, our most important stakeholders are the San Franciscans who live and work here.

The challenge

So as we started to build a new city website, the visual identity had to reflect the city and people of San Francisco. To do that, we wanted to:

  • hear perspectives from a diverse group of San Franciscans and City staff
  • scale our small team for an extensive research project to talk to as many people as possible
  • involve other city departments in the design process

We brought this challenge to DesignMap, a local design studio who worked with us pro-bono. DesignMap came up with a plan to recruit staff from across City government to conduct the user interviews themselves. By getting City staff on the ground doing research, we could include their departments from the beginning. Plus, with their help we could reach the public at a greater scale.

There were a lot of things that could go wrong. What if our interview protocol couldn’t be carried out consistently by dozens of people with different backgrounds? What if no one wanted to participate? How could we possibly coordinate analysis with so many different researchers?

Training city staff as researchers

First, we put out an open invitation for City staff to come to a kickoff and learn how to do user research. DesignMap ran a hands-on workshop to teach the protocol and do practice interviews. They used research booklets that were a step-by-step interview guide, as well as a place to take notes and collect data.

Research booklets served as an interview guide as well as a place to take notes

Best of all, people came! City staff, many with no previous experience, overwhelmed us with their eagerness to practice user research. We drew people from over 20 departments. They had varied roles including social worker, analyst, communications and health inspector. A desire to try a new way of doing things united them.

Carrie, our Chief Digital Services Officer, welcomed people to the workshop

Collecting and analyzing the data

We sent them off for a few weeks to do 3 interviews each. In total, they had completed 113 interviews. We now had perspectives of both members of the public and some City staff.

In another workshop, everyone gathered the data on giant posters designed by DesignMap. With the posters, we could see trends immediately and start analyzing as a group.

Researchers marked qualitative data points with dots
Researchers wrote quotes and qualitative findings on stickies

Our methodology

The research focused on two topics — San Francisco as a place, and the public services we offer. We want the website to reflect the city. But we also realize that the identity of the city might not be the same as the identity of the City government.

Another important aspect of the research project was combining qualitative and quantitative methods. We used:

  • open-ended interview questions to gather quotes and understand the “why”
  • a survey with multiple-choice questions to get structured data and measurable trends

What we learned

Here are a few of the insights that stuck out to us. If you’re interested in all the nitty-gritty, let me know. I will leap at the opportunity to share!

Clusters of stickies for things they love

We asked what people love about SF and what’s challenging about living here. The answers to these often mirror each other. For instance San Franciscans value our diversity, but they’re worried about losing it. They love the sense of community and acceptance, but are concerned by growing inequality. (We also have a love-hate relationship with the weather 😉 🌁 )

“The city is starting to feel generic.”

Stickies organized by good and bad experiences with public services

We learned that people have had vastly varying experiences with public services. We may have a lot to overcome after a bad first impression. People want government services to simply “not suck”, but we’re hoping we can do better than that!

“I hope they can be better, but doubt it.”

Participants circled words that represented San Francisco

The survey part of the research told us the most valued attributes of San Francisco. Diverse, Inclusive, Progressive, and Compassionate were most picked from a list of 50 words. Pairing the quant data with interview quotes gives a deeper level of understanding, telling us what the attributes meant to people and why they valued them.

We also surveyed people about the most valued attributes specifically for public services — Easy to use, Accessible, Efficient, and Reliable. While we probably didn’t need to conduct interviews to know that our website should be easy to use, this was interesting given people’s modest expectations for government services. A more complicated word was “accessible”, since it had different meanings for different people.

One striking quote compared public services to Starbucks. For this person, being reliably good is more important than being revolutionary.

“It should be like Starbucks. I don’t need the best coffee, but I know what I’m buying and I’m out in 5 minutes.”

Participants drew dots along the sliders

Lastly, participants compared San Francisco and public services along a range of “personality sliders”. These were things like playful vs serious, or innovative vs classic.

The sliders pointed out areas where the identity of San Francisco might not be relevant for the identity of a city website. For instance we see San Francisco as being a rebellious city. But when it comes to getting something done with the city, people want service that is more conventional.

Public services should be more conventional

What’s next

We’re building a new unified website for the city, rooted in delivering services to people who need them. The insights from this research are the chief influence on how the site looks and feels. We’re excited to share our work in the new year!

This process showed what’s possible when we engage City staff in the design process. We can scale the impact of our research and bring different departments together. City staff get to be an early part of a greater city-wide initiative, and it’s an opportunity for them to directly connect with the people they serve.

There’s tremendous momentum we can harness from across the city to improve our services. So I’d like to finish with a huge “thank you” to all the staff who were part of this experiment!

And an extra special thanks to DesignMap, whose vision lead this project from an idea to reality.



Lauren Jong
San Francisco Digital & Data Services

Previously at City and County of San Francisco Digital Services, Google.