An app for citizens, designed with citizens

Over 1,000 people are already using IO, the Italian public services app. Here’s what we are learning and how the project is evolving, thanks to feedback from the testing phase

Matteo De Santi
Team per la Trasformazione Digitale
9 min readAug 8, 2019


Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano

photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

Allowing yourself a period of several months in which to test an app’s beta version on a small number of users might seem like a luxury before publication. Is it really necessary to spend so much time working with citizens to determine the effectiveness of an application that has already been designed and had its demo version thoroughly tested? After two months of testing the IO app, an operation which has involved the efforts of over a thousand citizens so far, we have an answer: not only is working with citizens essential, but it is indispensable.

In recent weeks, hundreds of people living in large cities (Milan and Turin) and small provincial municipalities (Ripalta Cremasca) were given permission to install the beta version of the IO app on their smartphone and use it to try out a handful of actual services. They were able to:

  • receive expiration notices (i.e. Identity Card renewal, transportation passes, payment reminders of various kinds);
  • make pagoPA payments (i.e. waste taxes (TARI), car taxes, school lunches, fines);
  • receive messages from the administration, including a summary of their personal information (i.e. personal data, properties occupied, cadastral data) and notifications (i.e. transit through restricted traffic zones (ZTL), confirmation of booked appointments, nursery registration).

As citizens experimented with the app’s various features, they communicated with our IO development team to report bugs and errors and provide feedback on the app’s operation, expressing opinions, comments, criticisms and making constructive suggestions.

How the process of reporting bugs, sending feedback and communicating with the Development Team works in the closed beta version of IO

During the first two months of testing, we participated in 405 conversations and received 458 bug reports directly from the app (which includes a function specifically designed to report errors). These activities provided us with an extremely valuable flow of information, which allowed us to verify that:

  • people using the app are generally enthusiastic and satisfied with how it works. As far as we’re concerned, this is the most important result because it shows us that the product works, that our ideas were correct and that the app really does meet the needs of citizens;
  • the majority of bugs have surfaced, which ensures the release of a much more solid version of the IO app later this year.
An example of real feedback received from a closed beta user: “I really like this app! It was easy to provide my data to make payments and I look forward to test it to pay the tax on waste”

The truly extraordinary thing, however, was that our roadmap evolved during these months of testing, thanks to citizen feedback. This is a radical paradigm shift: citizens are telling us what to work on, what features to develop, how to make the app better suit their needs.

This is one of the reasons we like referring to the IO project as a “positive anomaly” within the Italian Public Administration: it’s the first time that the development of an Italian public service has followed the innovative and participatory processes typical of a startup.

Goodbye post-its!

One of the results of this process has been the new system for organizing deadlines that we developed in recent weeks. Our efforts were inspired by the following input from users: why not link payment deadlines with a user’s personal calendar, so that all appointments with the Public Administration are visible in one place?

Photo by Kelly sikkema on Unsplash

Your wish is our command: all messages received through IO implying a deadline (i.e. payment due notifications) now come with a function that, with a single click, creates a reminder in your smartphone’s personal calendar. This is a small implementation, but one which fully expresses the IO approach:

  • it was imagined and designed using the needs of citizens as a starting point (citizens specifically asked for the feature in this case!);
  • it manages the obligations of citizens towards the State by reversing traditional roles: citizens are no longer the only ones responsible for remembering when to pay taxes to each individual administrative entity or for knowing when to register for a specific service. Now, deadlines can reach citizens through their preferred notification system. This is a change that (we hope!) will send all post-it notes into retirement and put an end to the printed reminders cluttering our refrigerator doors, reminding us to pay the TARI, submit money orders, pay school fees and so on.

There are many other examples of new features being developed on the basis of citizens’ inputs. Among them:

  • a copy of an individual’s fiscal code card (similar to a social security card), available within the app. A ready-to-use replica, which can be read via barcode by any enabled external device (i.e. in a pharmacy to receive discounts on medications);
  • setting up the app’s navigation bar according to the user’s geographical area of interest. This allows users to immediately visualize services linked to their Municipality of residence.
The birth of a new IO feature (copy a of a fiscal code card), beginning with user feedback.

IO at the service of enabling platforms

Citizen feedback isn’t the only kind of information we are using to improve the app before its release. The other main resource driving our recent work is the analysis of real usage data. This anonymized information allows us to see how each user actually uses the app, allowing us to:

  • understand how the product is being used;
  • recognize areas where difficulties are likely to be encountered.

This type of analysis makes it possible to collect key information that can improve the IO user experience by helping us understand what the critical issues are and how to improve them. We were surprised to discover that feedback also helped us improve the development of enabling platforms, by which we mean the components of the “Country’s operating system” that IO works to integrate so as to make their benefits more accessible to citizens.

  • Observing how payments are transacted over IO (over 500 transactions carried out so far) has given us valuable information on how to improve the experience of making payments with pagoPA. We used this information to develop several features that can be used even when using pagoPA outside IO. For example, we implemented a mechanism that significantly accelerates the time in which citizens can make a new payment should something go wrong.
  • By monitoring the data, we noticed that many users were having difficulty using the SPID authentication system, a necessary step when accessing IO for the first time. This prompted us to evolve the IO’s authentication system by integrating, for example, a release on biometric information and making this mandatory step quicker and easier. To prevent authentication errors, we collected error info and shared it with identity providers: valuable data for resolving errors and improving user experience.
  • We are also working to integrate the National Resident Population Registry (ANPR), which could, for example, help to inform citizens of the services available in their Municipality of residence and allow for the consultation and verification of their personal data in real time. This integration also benefits the enabling platform, which aims to develop an effective data interoperability model using the once-only principle.
  • One of the main objectives of the Electronic Identity Card (CIE) is to serve as a system for accessing online services. Even on this front, the IO project is literally leading the way: in order to make life easier for people, we have started a process that will eventually allow us to safely enter the app using only our CIE card. Once fully operational, this integration will allow ten and a half million citizens to authenticate themselves in IO simply by placing their card on their smartphone via NFC and entering the pin that was delivered with their CIE.
“I cannot access with SPID. This is the error message appearing on the screen”. A real example of a user-reported problem accessing IO via SPID

Our work is also making a positive impact on other projects related to digital transformation. The idea is to turn IO into a universally virtuous example of how to manage a public service project:

  • The app’s design was based on the Designers Italia design system, which focuses on researching the needs of citizens. Today, the Municipality of Cagliari has partnered with Designers Italia to develop the Website model for Italian Municipalities and is at this moment considering using the IO user interface as a model for the personalized sections of its website so as to maintain consistency with the app. This is an indirect way of making our recent experiences available to other projects in the form of a model that works mostly because it is easy to understand.
  • We are also trying to turn IO into a virtuous model of how to approach security and privacy issues in digital public services. We used the closed beta phase to develop new features on this front as well. For example, institutions can now “mark” messages containing sensitive information, which prevents them from being forwarded outside the app via email and keeps their contents from being shown as push notifications, further ensuring a higher level of security.

Becoming part of the IO project is easier than ever

Photo by Euan Carmichael on Unsplash

As we’ve seen, these months of closed beta have made it possible for us to better adjust the app to fit citizens’ needs. But this isn’t all we’ve been able to accomplish. Our experiences with institutions and the feedback we’ve received their technological partners have allowed us to make progress in other areas as well, especially those involving the processes and backend system allowing IO to function.

For example, we’ve started to develop an onboarding portal, which will allow Public Administrations to join IO autonomously and automatically . This will also make life easier for technological partners, who will be able to offer the same services to a greater number of institutions within a shorter time period.

Considering the large number of organizations contacting us to help make their services available through IO, this is a very important step forward. Further confirmation that the project truly responds to the needs of Public Administrations.

Because technological partners are the ones dealing with the technical side of integration with IO, we used their feedback as a starting point. Their needs are providing us with useful information on how to better develop of the new portal. Thanks to their feedback:

  • technical managers will be able to independently qualify themselves by indicating the institution they work for;
  • the institution will automatically receive a document asking it to validate that qualification with a simple digital signature;
  • the system will verify the digital signature, thereby enabling the technician to work on behalf of that institution throughout the integration process.

Thanks to this “lean process”, technological partners will be able to work flexibly towards the integration of IO as well as on behalf of different bodies. This is an effective way to minimize bureaucracy and support the increasing diffusion of IO throughout the national territory.

An app for citizens, designed with citizens

Our experiments with the IO project involve testing a method, a paradigm, which we hope will change the way Italian public services are designed in the future. From the Digital Team’s beginning, we have committed ourselves to ensuring our work is driven first and foremost by the needs of citizens.

Over the past few years, we’ve been updating you on how we intend to achieve this goal by:

  • applying the rules and tools of human-centred design;
  • paying attention to data research to understand how services are actually used;
  • involving users in all phases of the project: from conception, to design, to service development.

The IO project has allowed us to put this paradigm into practice, our efforts culminating with the “closed beta” phase: we are developing an app for citizens, with citizens. This has always been our approach and will continue to serve as a point of reference even after IO is released in online stores.



Matteo De Santi
Team per la Trasformazione Digitale

I design public services to improve citizens’ lives. Head of IO — The Public Services App / Chief Product & Design Officer PagoPA S.p.A.