Gotta Get Mobile: Citizens Drive Changes in .Gov Web Design
More than one in three visitors to Federal Websites use mobile or tablet devices today, following a national trend that saw mobile Web usage surpass personal computers for the first time in 2014, and has continued growing since.
Many Federal agencies are unprepared for the shift, however. Some have recently updated their sites to be mobile-friendly, but others are scrambling to update systems developed before mobile was a significant concern.
The heat rose last April, when Google changed its search engine to give preference to mobile-friendly sites. At the time, the government IT news site NextGov tested two dozen of the government’s largest Websites using Google’s mobile friendly webmasters tool. Eleven sites failed, including defense.gov, DHS.gov, IRS.gov and VA.gov. Nine months later, defense.gov is the only one of the four to pass the Google mobile test today.
Upgrading Websites is a challenge to begin with, and adding mobile to the mix is just one more wrinkle to be ironed out. The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has been working on its site update for more than a year, focusing on mobile first and using responsive design technology that will adapt to different screen sizes on the fly.
At the same time, the General Services Administration’s (GSA) 18F organization is working with the White House U.S. Digital Services group to develop government-wide standards for Federal Websites. The draft U.S. Design Standards, which are voluntary, aim to provide federal IT developers and industry partners with a roadmap and toolset to help spread clear design and navigation standards across all government sites.
“When the American people go online to access government services, they’re often met with confusing navigation systems, a cacophony of visual brands, and inconsistent interaction patterns,” explained project leader Mollie Ruskin, announcing the standards on an 18F blog post.
The new standards include open-source user interface (UI) components, a visual style guide and industry-standard guidance for accessibility and design.
At USCIS, leaders pursued responsive design because mobile was what their constituents wanted, says Jeffrey Levy, chief of E-Communications in USCIS’ Office of Communications. The new site will give mobile users access to all the same features and functions as the desktop version, which isn’t the case today.
“You get a layout that works on any size screen so you don’t have to maintain two servers, two web sites,” he says.
Responsive design is part of a broader strategy to make it easy for customers to get answers to their questions and apply for services without requiring help from a representative in person or on the phone. The more customers can help themselves with routine matters, either online or using automated phone systems, the more time representatives will have to resolve more complex issues that require human intervention. Toward that end, USCIS launched a virtual assistant feature in December. Named “Emma,” it helps Web visitors quickly answer questions and locate information, easing call center workload.
Improving citizen Web services to be as simple and intuitive as consumer sites, such as Amazon or Netflix, is a major goal of the Obama administration. Executive Order 13571, Streamlining Service Delivery and Improving Customer Service, declared in 2011 that “government managers must learn from what is working in the private sector and apply these best practices to deliver services better, faster, and at lower cost.” The order emphasizes the need to offer online and mobile solutions and to reduce “the overall need for customer inquiries and complaints.”
In contrast, citizens’ expectations for government service have declined steadily. According to an American Customer Satisfaction Index report released last year, citizen satisfaction with Federal government services plunged in 2014 to its lowest level since at least 2007.
“Overall, the services of the federal government continue to deliver a level of customer satisfaction below the private sector and the downturn this year exacerbates the difference,” the report states.
Alan Webber, a research director with IDC Government Insights, says government agencies don’t benefit from the competitive pressures seen in consumer markets. The Social Security Administration, for example, is the only source of information about your benefits, so there’s little natural incentive for the agency to upgrade its online services.
For the public, Webber says, this plays out in diminished expectations. “We have the expectation that any engagement or any interaction with government isn’t necessarily going to be easy,” he says. “We want it to be easy, but it is not necessarily going to be that way.”
New Federal Standards
Changing those expectations is the driving force behind a joint effort of the General Services Administration’s 18F organization and the White House’s U.S. Digital Services group. The pair introduced in September 2015, a first-ever effort to provide federal IT developers and industry partners with clear design and navigation guidance for government sites.
Much of the guidance in these draft Web Design Standards incorporates open source designs, code, and patterns from other civic and government organizations, including:
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Design Manual
- S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Design Patterns
- gov Style Guide
- UK’s Government Digital Service’s UI Elements
- Code for America’s Chime Styleguide
- Pivotal Labs Component Library
“Like any true alpha, this is a living product,” Ruskin wrote in the 18F blog. As a result, the 18F and U.S. Digital Services team will continue to test its UI decisions and assumptions with real-world feedback, letting the standards evolve over time. Designers are encouraged to explore the U.S. Web Design Standards, contribute their own code and ideas, and leave feedback on GitHub. The project team will use this input to improve the standards and make regular releases over the coming months, according to Ruskin.
Designers seeking other sources of insight and best practices can also look to the Content Managers Forum and the Social Media Community of Practice, both managed by GSA; the Federal Communicators Network; and the Federal User Experience Community, Levy says.
The new U.S. Web Design Standards do not come with a mandate or requirement; their use is entirely voluntary. But already some sites have begun to incorporate the standards, including a voter registration portal for USA.gov accessible at vote.usa.gov. USAJobs.gov has also incorporated some of the design standards into its own system, according to 18F officials.
Whether or not every agency website should have the same look and feel or be distinctive in its own right is open to debate. Some say yes, others no, still others argue for a middle ground in which a basic set of building blocks, such as a narrow selection of available fonts, is used to establish a modicum of order and consistency. But even that is easier said than done, Levy says. Changing the font on websites can require programming and layout changes, which cost time and money. Within USCIS alone, he says, four or five platforms would have to be changed just to standardize fonts.
Putting the User First
Simply changing fonts on existing sites may not be worth the effort. Rather than look back, the place to put current effort is in future improvements that not only meet, but exceed customer expectations.
David Simeon, chief of USCIS’s Innovation and Technology Division and myUSCIS Product Manager within the agency’s Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate, says any site redesign needs to start with the customer.
“We start with user research, interviewing customers, understanding their needs and motivation. Then we determine what types of products [USCIS can develop] that would suit those needs,” Simeon says. The web development teams are made up of USCIS designers and contractors.
Once initial apps are designed, usability testing helps ferret out problems.
Simeon’s team has worked with Levy to build tools and applications for the USCIS website and add new capabilities to the my.uscis.gov page, enabling customers to check the status of their cases, or determine what options and benefits are available to them by entering information into a pull-down menu.
Based on that information, USCIS narrows the benefits and options to their specific needs and give customers links to various resources to begin the application process. For instance, by identifying themselves under Explore My Options as a citizen, a Green Card holder, an employer, a foreign national or an “individual without lawful immigration status,” customers see a customized menu of choices appear to get them the information they need more quickly.
Other new tools help users complete citizenship applications and study for the citizenship exam, maintain appointments and receive text-message alerts. Coming soon: A secure message app will let visitors communicate online with immigration officers.
All of these improvements evolved from research, including the site’s emphasis on mobile devices, Simeon says. “We had to go responsive because mobile is the way they access the Internet.”
Now Simeon’s team is working to improve the citizenship e-filing experience so customers can submit immigration applications and petitions online. USCIS conducted usability testing for a new naturalization form by using real applicants from around the country. “They have given us pointers about what works and what doesn’t work,” he says.
The objective, UCIS E-Communications chief Levy says: “Help people to use our online resources in the way they think of it, rather than forcing them to think of it the way we think of it.”