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Gaming the System: User Experience for Governance

November 20, 2017


Government services are not always known for their seamless efficiency. If anything, people try to avoid them. When was the last time you heard someone say “What a great experience!” or even “It was so easy!” about a government program? That’s because public policies are designed for the inner workings, or what programmers call the “backend.” This is important, but it often comes at the expense of the “front-end,” or what a person comes to contact with.
So while much of the technical support in governance is poured into making a project robust and innovative, little if any attention is given to the users. Unsurprisingly, these programs flop. User Experience (UX) methods can be a solution to improve them. The key here is to focus on the users: citizens, and the oft-neglected civil servants operating the projects.

What is User Experience?

Let’s start by what it is not. It’s not exclusive to the digital world. UX can be applied to anything from a store, to a park, teaching, bicycles, and robots. It’s not about aesthetics either. Beautiful and original is not always easy or enjoyable. Neither is it solely about functionality, though if a product doesn't work, then people won’t use it.
UX is about meeting the needs of the user without fuss or bother. The goal is to improve the quality of a user’s interaction with a product, such as a website, making it intuitive and worthy of trust, and aligning it with project goals.
A good UX product is usable, desirable, accessible, credible, findable, useful, and valuable. The only way to know if the product you’ve designed matches any of these qualities is by observing users interact with it. The real challenge and reward of using UX in governance is in iterative testing. Testing early and often will save you money and will design for the actual users, not the ones you think you have.

UX in Public Policy

You might think that sounds wonderful for businesses, but it’s unrealistic in public policy. In fact, it’s exactly where it is most needed. The USAID Mexico Economic Policy Program (MEPP) works to promote transparency and anti-corruption initiatives. One of the top government complaints we constantly hear is that citizens don’t participate or interact with them. Poor communication of existing tools is partly to blame, but bad user experience also plays a role.
MEPP recently supported the redesign of Mexico’s Budget Transparency Portal using UX. In less than two months, we could measure tangible results with Google Analytics: Users remained in the portal for longer, jumping from an average session time of 2:42 minutes to 5:53 and returning users increased by 22 percent.
There is also the overlooked user who is just as important — the civil servant. When it comes to transparency, opening up information implies a whole lot of work on top of already existing tasks. For many, it requires learning to use digital tools to convert one format into another, upload files, and hours upon hours of scanning boxes of paperwork. This is unenjoyable compulsory work, the benefits of which they rarely get to appreciate. Often, their supervisor is only passing on orders, understanding little of what it is the civil servant is doing. What then, is to stop them from doing a mediocre job? Nothing.
This comes with heavy repercussions on the final product for citizens. Incomplete, badly organized, and nonhomogeneous formats mean the information available to the public is fragmented and insufficient. If that happens, it won’t matter how user-centered the design is for the citizen. The platform won’t offer the promised results. Disappointed users rarely come back.

Turning a Survey into a Game

MEPP produced a survey methodology with the Federal Commission on Regulatory Improvement (COFEMER) to provide coherent and reliable data about regulatory policies in each of Mexico’s 32 states. The aim was to produce a ranked indicator that will help these states improve local regulations. But there is a problem with this: asking politely will not suffice. Filling out a lengthy survey is tedious and time-consuming. Searching for, validating and delivering the required information represents uncompensated extra work for civil servants. We needed to improve the user experience. We decided to gamify the survey. We called it the LigaMR (Regulatory Improvement MR league).
Gamification is the application of typical game elements, such as points, competition and rules, to anything that is not a game. It is most commonly used in marketing, but recently has received attention for its achievements in education. It has also reached governance: Sweden famously created a speed camera lottery to reward drivers who stayed within the limit, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics created the “Run that town” game to raise awareness – and appreciation – for the national census.
Aside from gamification’s application in military training, it rarely has been applied to civil servants. Singapore has created educational games such as “Cents and Sensibilities” for officials learning about procurement. However, gamification has not really been applied in the context of efficient productivity. LigaMR is one of the first to do so.

Six Lessons of UX for Civil Servants

The name LigaMR was inspired by the Mexican soccer league, LigaMX. It worked neatly, because in Spanish liga can also mean link, and the survey was a website platform. When we first dreamed up LigaMR, we thought it would look just like the LigaMX, with soccer trophies and all the related insignia. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
1. Really Get to Know Your Users
Send them surveys and interview them if possible. We had this idea that our users lacked computer literacy and were diehard soccer fans. Turns out, they were proficient smartphone users, editing documents in Google Drive and Keynote, who preferred Chrome over Internet Explorer. Half of them don’t like soccer – baseball is more popular in the north of Mexico. “You are not the user, don’t design for yourself” became our mantra. We distilled the information from surveys and interviews into user personas. When you’ve constructed a person, it’s so much easier to design for them and not you.
2. Interval Testing
UX is sold as a continuous process of research, ideation, development and testing on minimum viable products (MVPs). In reality, few have the luxury to dedicate an entire team to this effort for weeks and months on end. Other strategies such as Design Sprints advocate for three to five days of intensive work. None of these methods work for public policies.
Technical teams work on a handful of projects on the go. LigaMR took more than six months to develop, with most of the time taken up by survey methodology. But no public policy project can afford to spend six months on a project only for it to fail the prototype tests. We did was what I would call interval testing. Instead of working our way up to an MVP using Jesse Garret’s seminal five plane strategy – the traditional route taught to anyone learning UX – we tested MVPs every two planes. Also, we didn’t wait to till the end of the process to begin the design. We tested it at every opportunity. And it paid off.

On the left are the insights we defined for Liga MR according to the sections within Jesse Garret’s five planes of UX (center). On the right are the tools we used, the colors denoting when in the process they were applied.  

3. Listen to Your User, but Follow Your Instinct
Users know what they don’t like, but they do not know what they want or need. Classic examples are remote controls – especially for cable TVs. If you asked a user, they would add more buttons with all the possible functions. In reality, people only use three buttons.
A similar thing happened with the LigaMR platform. During the first tests, users didn’t like the concept of the game. Those who had expressed concern regarding gamification were managers, not the civil servants who would be getting down to the nitty gritty – and who actually expressed excitement about the idea. Once they understood that the platform was closed to the general public, only accessible to them, the concerns lessened. We noticed that most of the users were competitive and games are the ideal channel to bring this out. In the end, gamification stayed.
4. Defend Your User
Governance projects invariably have stakeholders with different interests. Often these are not aligned with user needs. The most difficult and important part of UX in public policy programs is to defend against what they are pushing for. This is where documentation from MVP testing comes in to help. Near the end of the project, there was a request to change the formulation, order and number of questions. We were able to reduce these changes because we could quote user preferences.
5. Teamwork and Team Backs
In UX, it’s all about the team: you need diversity and commitment. LigaMR in MEPP had a core team of three public policy experts, one programmer and communications specialist. Different perspectives and expertise are key in making sure all aspects of a project are covered. These actors should be incorporated into talks from the very beginning; otherwise you’ll build ideas on shaky foundations.
6. Start with Champions
Convincing government counterparts to adopt UX is not easy. For starters, they have a poor understanding of what it is. Often solutions are sought as a band-aid to a problem. Their priorities lie in finished products they can showcase to the press and their superior as quickly as possible. Yet persuading them is worth it. Find government champions who are willing to take the risk and then use their results to sell UX. We have been telling people of the before and after of Transparencia Presupuestaria, and they love it. They also want those results. We can’t wait to begin sharing those of LigaMR.