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Customer Successes: Considering the User in the Design Process
 
City Web Site Hits Jackpot with User-Centered Approach

A User Experience Success: The City of Las Vegas

Misha Vaughan

Authors: Vito Loconte, Oracle Applications User Experience, and Misha Vaughan, Architect, Oracle Applications User Experience
October 25, 2010




In 2004, Joseph Marcella, the CIO/Director of Information Technologies for the City of Las Vegas, had a big problem on his hands. There were endlessly long lines at every counter in the Las Vegas city hall, and the city Web site seemed to be generating more customer service calls rather than providing citizens with a timely answer to whatever query brought them there in the first place.

 
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The solution to this problem was a lengthy Web site redesign project, which incorporated a user-centered approach -- the same approach Oracle's Applications User Experience team embraces. Since the redesign, the City of Las Vegas now has a measureable increase in Web site use and a noticeable decrease in customer service calls. The city’s site has since been recognized by the Center for Digital Government as one of the top city government Web sites in the nation, and in 2008 won first place in the city portal category of the center’s Best of the Web awards.

Photo courtesy of the City of Las Vegas

Joseph Marcella, left, and Greg Duncan, right, accept an award for their work on the City of Las Vegas Web site at the Center for Digital Government’s Annual Best of the Web Awards in 2007.

The Root of the Problems

When Marcella first began examining the issues faced by the City of Las Vegas, which is an Oracle customer, he considered two potential solutions: either create a multi-functional, self-service kiosk at city hall, or give citizens a logical alternative to making the trip there in the first place. He chose to explore the latter of these two options: a logical alternative in the form of redesigning the old Web site. Marcella ultimately came to the realization that everything the city delivered was an electronic process or good of some kind, and in order for this to be presented in a cohesive manner, he needed a single source, a single vision, and a consistent approach. “If you’re in government, you’re here to deliver services. It doesn’t matter if it’s private or public sector, it needs to be usable,” Marcella said. In order to accomplish this goal, Marcella recruited eGovernment officer Greg Duncan to help him redesign the City of Las Vegas Web site. Duncan, a user advocate, had previously taken usability training in a prior job in the form of a short, two-day class. This class effectively changed his perspective and approach to solving problems pertaining to users of all types of services. His was such a fundamental change that it was actually one of Duncan’s first actions as eGovernment officer for the City of Las Vegas -- to bring in a team of usability professionals and give the whole organization a new perspective on how to provide a service to the public--a user-centered perspective.

 
 

Integrating new services in the City of Las Vegas Web site

Parkfinder: When Geographic Information Meets End User Needs

Author: Misha Vaughan, Architect, Oracle Applications User Experience
October 25, 2010

What happens when a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist gets inspired to solve end user needs? He dreams up an application called Parkfinder for the City of Las Vegas. Anthony Willis, Sr., describes the impact of thinking about end user questions on how he now delivers GIS data for Las Vegas on the Web.

Anthony Willis, Sr.
Anthony Willis, Sr.

GIS is organized as a central service in the City of Las Vegas. The team supports the city’s decision-making about one of its most precious commodities, land, by producing needed maps and reports, as well as custom desktop applications.

The GIS team manages data on zoning, land use, and city infrastructure, such as parks, sewers, and traffic signals. The team also manages applications that notify neighborhoods about construction in their areas and track graffiti and other neighborhood blight issues, called Neighborhood Indicators. “With Neighborhood Indicators, for example, the GIS team does a lot of analysis to determine where there are neighborhoods really having trouble and where we should put resources,” Willis said.

The challenge of GIS software was that the user interface was extremely complex. Then the game changed. In Willis’ words, “Then Google maps fired a shot across the bow of the industry, and it was a wake-up call.”

Following the department’s eGovernment methodology of “starting with what users are trying to accomplish” rather than “what data can I provide,” Willis set about to build an application designed to solve the problems of everyday citizens, who had questions like: “How do I find a park that …?” The impetus for the project came, not surprisingly, from an internal push to put PDFs on the Web site with park information.

Willis challenged this starting point. His suggestion: “We need to replicate the conversation had by the person who mans the desk at Leisure Services. A lady sits at this desk with a map, and addresses, and makes recommendations over the phone. We went and talked with her and said, ‘You get a phone call, and they say what? And you do what?’” Parkfinder functionality was based directly on those conversations. “We really focused on the scenarios,” Willis said.

Upsetting the Apple Cart: Lessons Learned in Building Parkfinder

“Parkfinder was the first time we did an application for end users, and it has served as a model for everything else,” Willis said.  He added that his most important lesson learned was to embrace change. “Never be too nervous to turn the apple cart over,” Willis said. “We still have all of our traditional ways of doing GIS.  But how we deliver it has completely changed.  We’ve turned that upside-down.  We were in control. Now we are going to let the users be in control.”

Anthony Willis, Sr.
Image courtesy of the City of Las Vegas
The Parkfinder application, above, is designed to answer the key questions citizens ask about City of Las Vegas parks.
     
 

Poor Layout, Complex Language Complicated Old Site

There were many challenges with the city’s original Web site. Two of the main problems were the level of difficulty the user faced while navigating through the site, and the convoluted nature of how the information was ultimately communicated to the user.

The old site was laid out in the same way as the city’s physical departments, which were very segregated and very specialized in the services they provided. When this structure was translated to the Web, users were forced to figure out which department was in charge of the service they needed before they could get any information on that service or be able to use that service. After locating the correct department, users had to sift through acronyms and internal jargon. Even the names of some of the departments seemed unnecessarily complex. For example, the Parks and Recreation department was called “Leisure Services” which proved to be confusing for users.

Image courtesy of the City of Las Vegas

This combination of a poor Web site layout and the complexity of the language used to communicate information to users were the main contributors to a complicated user experience.

Duncan knew that he needed to get content contributors and editors on board with his plan for a user-centered approach before the redesign. First, he teamed up with Heather Curry, the city’s Public Information Officer, whose department is responsible for approving all Web site content. She shared the same perspective on usability that Duncan had. But the city employees who were contributing content to the site were accustomed to the way the site was laid out and didn’t see a need to change it. When the idea of a redesign was proposed, the Web site’s contributors wondered why they should make it easy for citizens. “We have no competition and they have no alternatives,” Duncan said, describing the response he heard from many city employees.

This revealed an elemental flaw in how city employees thought about the services they provided, pointing to the possible stimulus for the design of the original site. Employees didn’t want to change because they had a solid understanding of the different departments within the city, as well as what each of the departments did. Citizens, on the other hand, were perhaps not only unaware of the fact that there were different departments; they were also unaware of the role, or responsibility, of each of the departments.

Creating Simple, Concrete Goals

Duncan knew from prior experience that the focus needed to be on the end user, who is a non-technical member of the community, and that the design ultimately needed to meet the user’s expectations. Three goals were important to his campaign:

  • Make it easy to find existing services and information.
  • Make new services easy to use.
  • Integrate services into the Web site where needed.

To help get the ball rolling, Duncan enlisted help from the usability professionals at Delphia Consulting to offer a fresh perspective on providing and communicating services to the citizens of Las Vegas. In a two-day class for content contributors of the Web site, this usability team introduced the idea of user-centered design and the importance of keeping the goals and tasks of the user in mind throughout the design process.

Marcella said the class changed his perspective. “I originally thought this was a frivolous pursuit because I’m an old-timer and I’ve been doing tech forever, and tech isn’t done that way,” he said. He added that the majority of the content contributors had a similar view. But after the class was over, Marcella and Duncan said that many of the employees said it was the best class they had ever taken, and that everyone needed to take this class.

Rebuilding the Web Site

The redesign of the Web site actually started during one of the usability seminar sessions, when the team of usability professionals asked attendees to brainstorm some terms in an attempt to figure out why people might come to the city’s Web site. An example of this can be seen in Figure 2, below. This started out as an exercise to get the employees to think about how Las Vegas citizens would use the Web site, but the results of the brainstorming session actually ended up becoming the impetus for the way users would navigate through the new site.

Image by Vito Loconte, Oracle Applications User Experience

This diagram shows the result of brainstorming about the kinds of questions citizens asked of the City of Las Vegas Web site, for example: “Apply for a …job or permit or license.”

With a starting point for the new site in the underlying navigation, Duncan and the redesign team began to design the pages that would make up the site. Once they created some initial designs, they asked members of the community to test and validate the new designs in a process known as usability testing. The team, which again included Delphia Consulting, presented testers with a scenario, such as “Find information on getting a business license,” asked them to perform a set of tasks on the new Web pages, and observed their actions to understand where the users had difficulties.

The redesign team continued to perform usability activities throughout the redesign, where they would simulate a scenario or situation and ask participants to locate specific information or specific services on the pages. The team used feedback from the users to alter different elements of the pages or the interaction among multiple pages, and then re-tested them with another group of users to make sure the changes were logical and efficient. A variety of prototypes, which ranged from sketches on paper to high-fidelity prototypes presented on the computer to simulate the look, feel, and functionality of the final Web site designs, were tested.

Image courtesy of the City of Las Vegas

The redesigned City of Las Vegas Web site radically improves ease of use for citizens who need to use city services.

Employees, Customers Shift Attitudes

The citizens of Las Vegas praised the new site when it was launched in July 2005. But employees, who were used to the segregated approach of the old site, took a little longer to warm up to it -- until it began to have an impact on how they were working with one another. Marcella said new relationships and communities of interest began to develop internally as employees started thinking about their product from a new perspective, asking themselves questions like: “What’s my product, and how do I deliver it? Who uses it, and what am I supposed to deliver?” Individuals from different departments began to think about what other departments could do for them and their services.

The overhaul of the Web site prompted a number of other outcomes as well. One positive outcome was the education and the ensuing teamwork of the employees. Duncan said the usability class and the entire process made employees more aware about what it takes to supply information to their customers, as well as what it takes to actually convey the message that they want to convey. “It’s about a constant understanding of how the customer looks at us, not how we look at the customer,” Marcella added.

As a result of the redesign, there was also a noticeable decrease in the lines at each of the counters at city hall on a daily basis. The citizens of Las Vegas could now get many of their questions answered without leaving the house or tying up a customer service representative. The new and improved Web site gives citizens a logical alternative to getting in the car, driving down to city hall, and waiting in line to get information about the multitude of services offered by the city.

“The service that is used to report problems such as graffiti or potholes showed a 289% increase in usage in the first quarter after the redesign of the site.”

There was also a measurable increase in people who used the site. For example, the service that is used to report problems such as graffiti or potholes showed a 289% increase in usage in the first quarter after the redesign of the site. City officials believe this is a direct effect of the redesign, which not only enabled citizens to find the service more easily, but also made the service easier to use.

Award-Winning Approach

After the redesign, the City of Las Vegas Web site was recognized three years in a row by the Center for Digital Government for having one of the top government sites in the nation. Shortly after the new site was launched, in 2006, the site received the award for fourth place in the Best of the Web Awards. In 2007, Las Vegas took home third place, and in 2008, Las Vegas achieved the first place berth for the Best of the Web.

“We test throughout the development process with real users to make sure the service is put together in a way that lets people easily accomplish their tasks.”
– Greg Duncan,
eGovernment Officer

Duncan says the recognition is a direct result of the user-centered design perspective that the city has adopted. “We have continued to use this user-centered, scenario-based approach on all the electronic services we’ve delivered since the redesign,” he said. “We try to follow this approach for any electronic service we deliver – a new Web page, new software, or the mobile site we expect to launch soon. We start with trying to understand who will be using the service and what they are trying to accomplish, then design it to work better than the competitor. The competitor could be the current way of doing things, like the citizen calling or coming down to City Hall, or an existing technology the new service is replacing. Then we test throughout the development process with real users to make sure the service is put together in a way that lets people easily accomplish their tasks.”

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