Meet a Changemaker: Anita Cheng at the San Francisco Office of Digital Services
We are thrilled to introduce Anita Cheng, content designer at San Francisco Digital Services, as part of our Meet a Changemaker blog series. Read about her behind-the-scenes work on the new city website, how community feedback informs strategy, and her impact on San Francisco residents.
Can you briefly describe your team and your role?
I’m a content designer at San Francisco Digital Services (SFDS). We’re a 26-person team that designs digital solutions for San Francisco City and County departments. Our goal is to help residents get the services they need. We shouldn’t have to force our residents to learn how government works to get the services they’re looking for!
My job is to help make sense out of confusing government processes such as applying for a cannabis business permit. I look at the entire process and then decide how to split up the information in a way that is actionable, useful, and not overwhelming for the user. This could look like a well-designed, simple permit form or a website where the content is easy to understand and well-categorized.
What does civic innovation mean to you?
It means trying something different from what’s been done before in government. It’s a different flavor of innovation because most of the time, civic innovation is not really about the technology itself. It’s not really about things like bringing virtual reality or blockchain into government. It’s about bringing iterative learning processes from the technology sector into government.
In government, there’s such a resistance to changing up the way things have always been done. People are afraid to “move fast and break things,” like they say in the startup world. And they’re right to be concerned. Government has to be very thoughtful of any downstream consequences, intended or not. Many of our residents cannot afford to have things be broken when they need them.
However by using many tried-and-true methods in user-centered design like user research and agile methodology, we can shorten the time it takes to get community and government staff feedback on our work. We can make sure that whatever we create can be used by the people we aim to help. A huge part of why I love working at SFDS is because we’re so thoughtful about the innovations we introduce. We always have reasons for why we do things.
What are some important projects you’re working on and how are you applying innovative approaches?
When people ask me what I do, sometimes my reply really is, “Weed!” It’s a great opener at networking events. The reality isn’t quite as alluring, although no less interesting to me. I wrote the cannabis permit application [for the Office of Cannabis] and am working on explaining the entire application process in a way that residents can understand.
I’m also overseeing the migration of the Office of Cannabis website as well as the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) website over to [the new City website] sf.gov. I was MOHCD’s “User Experience Team of One” before moving over to SFDS, so I already have a lot of knowledge about how their services and the department works.
It may not seem new and flashy, but the fact that we’re doing usability testing on sf.gov, the cannabis permit, and MOHCD’s services is pretty huge. And many technology-focused departments in the City (including the Office of Civic Innovation!) are breaking down silos and encouraging us all to work together.
It’s always inspiring to walk into work, knowing that I have so many people at my back who are ready to collaborate! I try to do the same, especially since I have a lot of visibility into what my partner departments are doing and what other teams at SFDS are working on. We can go farther together than if we were on our own.
User feedback is vital to the work that Digital Services does. What were some surprising observations you gained when testing a product with residents that later informed your final deliverable?
I’ve learned a lot about how to write forms by testing the cannabis permit application with users. The requirements are often vague, but the questions have to be specific enough so that the Office of Cannabis will get the information they need to determine if a business is officially ready to sell cannabis.
From user interviews, I’ve also learned a lot about what the cannabis permitting process looks like from the applicant’s point of view. For example, we assumed that because the staffing requirements were simple, the applicants should fill out the staff form early on in the permitting process. We later found out from interviews that many applicants didn’t have any staff because they were new businesses. It’s changed the order of how we present the application forms. We now put necessary information up front and place the last actions, like staffing, last.
Talking to users will uncover a lot of things that you didn’t know. Once you know them, improvements can seem obvious. But first you have to learn what they are.
How does your work impact the residents of San Francisco?
Whatever I write will potentially get in front of hundreds of thousands of people at once, which is pretty awesome.
When I was at MOHCD, my content helped people apply for affordable housing. For one annual program, the redesigned content helped increase the number of applicants by 34%!
Anyone applying for a cannabis business permit will come across content I wrote, although that’s a smaller, more specific audience.
One very recent achievement is that I introduced and wrote the headline “Help protect immigrants in San Francisco” in direct response to the potential ICE raids in late July. The headline is on the sf.gov homepage right now and I’ve heard feedback from all over that it’s such a great thing for San Francisco to stand for. I’m still riding high from it today. I’ve been telling everybody, “This is what I get to do, I love my job!”
About San Francisco Digital Services
San Francisco Digital Services (SFDS) works with other City departments to improve public services. They use technology to make it easier for people to get things done.
SFDS is working on critical issues like affordable housing, small businesses, legal aid for immigrants, and more. Their team is also rebuilding the city’s website from the ground up. This means taking a service-led approach so that anyone using the site can get what they need.
SFDS work goes beyond websites. They are re-thinking how public services are designed, by understanding what their users need and building with an agile approach.