Our vision at Ad Hoc is to close the gap between consumer expectations and government. As more of our daily lives move online, it’s crucial that online government services be usable and accessible to everyone, but it’s also important to clarify the distinctions between consumer expectations and emulating what popular commercial websites are doing so that agencies can focus on enabling the best outcomes.
When we talk about closing the gap, we’re referring to the expectations individuals have around the efficient and effective delivery of services. People have grown accustomed to sites and tools that are intuitive and easy to understand, with navigation structured around their goals and intentions. This means that they can easily find what they’re looking for, and that it’s straightforward to accomplish their intended tasks. People expect the websites and digital tools they interact with to just work without waiting for a page to load, getting errors submitting forms, or sites crashing mid-flow. People also expect feedback on their actions, such as confirmation that they completed their task correctly or redirection and assistance if they didn’t. Essentially, users expect to interact with modern and predictable user interface patterns that are served to them with reliability, security, and efficiency. They expect that kind of intuitive experience from the government just as they would find on commercial sites and apps.
The original launch of HealthCare.gov is still the most well-known example of government not meeting consumer expectations (and the subsequent rescue is the origin story for Ad Hoc), but we encounter similar examples every day, from frustrating interactions with our DMV to figuring out how to report local potholes. Digital services such as these are critical to meet the needs of people in their everyday lives, and as such it’s critical that they just work.
What closing the gap doesn’t mean
While Ad Hoc’s work takes inspiration from technologies and user experiences pioneered in the private sector and strives to meet those same expectations for usability, it’s important to remember that the end goals of government service delivery are not the same as those of commercial platforms. There are many parts of private sector experiences and their metrics of success that are not the right templates or baselines for government agencies. By digging into the intended outcomes of government agencies, we can delineate where it may not be appropriate to use commercial sites and services as benchmarks. Put simply, the primary goal of most commercial websites is to turn a profit, while the primary goal of government websites is to inform people and deliver services to them.
|Commercial site goals||Government service goals|
|Direct users to products they are most likely to purchase||Help people discover what services exist and access the service they need|
|Engage customers to spend more time on the site (to spend more or read more ads)||Enable people to complete their tasks quickly and efficiently|
|“Upselling” - Encourage customers to spend more than they initially intended.||Get people what they need, no more and no less.|
|Sign up for mailing lists to increase engagement with the brand.||Enable people to spend as little time engaging with the government service as possible so they can get back to their lives.|
These differences enable us to take a critical eye to aspects of commercial sites that should not be used to close the gap with government services.
Features meant to encourage more time on site
Many commercial websites are making money through “engagement.” Basically, the more time users spend on the site, the more likely they are to read or click on ads, which in turn fund the company behind the website. The reason they prioritize engagement is because that’s the activity that fuels sales; it’s a behavior that helps them meet their profit goals. But government services don’t have — and should not have — a goal of increased profits. They’re not selling ads. So they shouldn’t be using the same measurements that the private sector uses. In fact, we need to turn that expectation on its head. For government services, our goals should be to reduce the friction — both time and effort — required to complete a task. The less the general public needs to engage with and think about government services, the better we’ve served them.
If the task or information is presented clearly, we might see less overall engagement. Search engines, such as Google Search, now pull key information such as address locations and factual answers into their search results pages. So if a government site is built well, and the content is clear, it’s possible that people can get the answers they need to some basic questions without ever visiting the site at all.
Similarly, if the site’s content is clear and well organized, we might also find that more people are able to find the information they need on the first page they visit. If that happens, we might see the bounce rate — the percentage of people leaving a site after just one page — increase. This is counterintuitive to the way the private sector measures success. It also means we can’t always rely on quantitative analytics to tell the whole story of whether or not a page is successful.
Email marketing and features meant to bring people back to the site
Commercial sites put a great deal of emphasis on email marketing, and for good reason — done well, the Return on Investment (ROI) can be high based on the increased revenue. However, government sites are providing services people need, not selling them things. While email reminders about important deadlines or opportunities may be beneficial to some constituents, building a large email list should not be an end in itself.
Our goal is to reduce the amount of friction for someone who comes to a site to make a payment, sign up for a service, or search for essential information about a city, state, or federal government.
Most people will only need to visit a government site a few times a year at most. This means they may be less familiar with how to navigate those sites and have much more uncertainty around how to get what they need. If we build those experiences to have interruptions — such as to complete a survey or request a visitor’s email — this could have the negative effect of derailing the flow for our user. We have seen the confusion and frustration experienced in user testing when a modal appears in the middle of someone trying to navigate or understand a service. Once again, the goal of government services is to provide the context for a simple and clear path where someone can be successful in their interaction without feeling that they are also stepping into a web of marketing.
Similarly, government communications departments should be realistic about how wide an audience they might have for their agency news and press releases. The majority of people seeking government services don’t want to or need to stay abreast of the latest going on within the agency, so it doesn’t make sense to highlight press releases and mailing lists for those audiences.
Calls to action that funnel users
While it’s important to all digital services that users can find what they want to do quickly and easily, government sites should not be funneling users into a specific “preferred” action. These kinds of calls are common on marketing websites that need to measure success with click-throughs and purchases. But on a government site, the agency should not be defining the user’s end goal. Rather, the site should enable the user to find the information they need and understand the actions (if any) they need to take before taking action. In Design for Safety, Eva PenzeyMoog posits that it is crucial to “Measure transparency over conversion” noting that “Conversion metrics measure movement, but not comprehension.” Thus, if the funneled action is not helping the user get the information they need or access the services they’re looking for, that should be seen as a failure.
The latest design trend
Because government services need to be accessible to everyone, we must ensure that the layouts and interactions we’re building are:
- Intuitive from the outset
- Designed and built to include a diverse range of abilities and environments
- Built upon best practices and refined through user testing
Often, design patterns that are ubiquitous on the web are less than useful on our government sites. An example of this is the design pattern of “continuous scroll” which is commonly used on social media sites such as Instagram as well as some e-commerce sites to list products. This pattern encourages users to explore more content by simply scrolling down the page as more content appears — seemingly magically. However, this pattern can be problematic for users looking for specific information, because it can cause them to:
- Lose their orientation of where they are within an endless sea of items (versus knowing “I’m on page 3 of these results”)
- Be cognitively overwhelmed due to “no end in sight” of information
Our aim is to help people find exactly what they are looking for and get on with their day, and design should aim to enable those goals.
What government can — and should — do better than commercial sites
While government websites don’t need to match or outpace commercial websites on design novelty or retention metrics, they should aim to outperform on ensuring users accomplish their goals easily and efficiently. Government digital services should be leaders in:
Inclusivity and accessibility
These aren’t buzzwords for us. Inclusive and accessible design is integrated into our daily processes in order to provide truly usable experiences that meet users where they are. This includes going beyond compliance and maintaining an awareness of all users and their needs.
While the government extends across many branches and departments, these divisions work together on behalf of the public. Unlike commercial services that create “walled gardens” to keep users on their site, the government has the opportunity to connect services across department boundaries. People may have to click around to find their favorite shows on different streaming services, but they should not need to do the same to manage their benefits. Performance.gov has started pilot projects showing the positive impact of this interconnectedness.
Proactively help people
This interconnectedness can enable the government to provide information and services to people when and where they need them. At Ad Hoc, we have teams supporting similar problem spaces across different federal agency silos. We’re regularly on the lookout for ways that we can advocate for breaking down those silos, learning from and supporting each other. Whether that’s through shared research sessions or connecting service areas via related APIs, we find that by working together, we can help the government not only close the usability gap, but we can exceed consumer expectations in building digital government services that just work.