Competitive Analysis, Persona, Site Map, Concepts, Site Map, Wireframes, Prototype
UX Designer, Researcher
4 one-week Sprints
Sketch, Axure, Google Docs, Pen & Paper
In 2013, President Obama signed an executive order, The Open Government Initiative, that made open and readable data the new standard for government information. Despite this, it is difficult for citizens to receive information about their government and elected officials. Government websites are also typically outdated and difficult to use.
For a student project, my team of five designers was tasked with creating a new microsite for the City of Chicago that streamlines the way citizens access relevant information related to budget, city council, government services, and how they communicate with their elected representatives. Overall, the goal was to make the government’s relationship with its citizens more transparent.
Understanding Government Transparency
Keeping the challenge in mind we dove into research and competitive analysis with the following goals regarding the transparency of information provided by the government:
How do citizens find information related to the city budget
How do citizens find information regarding government licenses, permits and inspections, etc
How can we improve access to annual budgets and expenditures, tax income, revenue, budget allocations, etc.
How do citizens find information related to city council meetings and voting history on key resolutions, ordinances and initiatives
How do citizens find and communicate with elected representatives
Looking at the Landscape
Finding information related to permitting is quite difficult on the City of Chicago website. The process of getting a permit can be long and tedious and requires heavy time-commitment to visit city officials and present your portfolio containing all documentation to be approved.
Contrary to that, it’s fairly easy for citizens to find information on their elected officials, city council meetings, and voting history. In terms of finding information related to budgets, it can also be difficult for citizens to sift through long budget documents, especially if they have never read them before.
We choose to focus on three direct competitors, Reform for Illinois, Sunlight Foundation, and Civic Federation, and three indirect competitors, Countable, USA Facts, and DataMade. All aim to provide transparency to their users in some form. Our direct competitors focused on issues of transparency in Illinois, while our indirect competitors tackled more on national issues.
Identifying the Opportunity
What Others Are Lacking
We found that although the information provided through these sources is synthesized and easier for the users to understand, it is not always cited and is sometimes biased, despite best efforts to remain transparent. Also, we noted that all of these sources didn’t provide information regarding permitting and licensing in Chicago.
What Our Product Can Provide
We saw an opportunity to provide citizens of Chicago with synthesized and truly transparent information on permitting and licensing that is cited and unbiased.
Talking to Users & Gathering Insights
Once understanding where the opportunity lied, we set out to speak to 4 SME’s and 6 users in order to get a better idea of what issues they are facing.
Learn more about experiences and feelings towards government websites
What governmental resources citizens are using, and how they find information about these resources
Understand how people use permitting resources
Learn what resources citizens are using outside of the government sites to get information
Government sites are difficult to use and often aren't visually clear
Users have difficulty finding information on government sites
Users don’t hear back from officials they contact about government related issues
What We Asked Users
We asked users a variety of questions, but here are the top 3 questions asked:
Have you ever sought out information about the Chicago City government?
Have you ever tried to find information on permitting in the past?
Can you tell me about your experience trying to obtain a permit?
What We Learned
Users care about their community and want to comply with city regulations. They want to see their neighborhoods continue to improve and they want to have a voice in what is happening in their neighborhood.
Users find the permitting system convoluted and difficult to navigate. Some even hire professional to obtain permits for them which added to the cost of their project. There is a ton of material for users to sift through in order to get a permit and it’s typically hard to understand.
Users are frustrated by Alderman’s lack of transparency & consistency in the permit system. Users frequently brought up issues of corruption in the process of speaking to the Alderman. Though we found this to be a huge issue, because it is a part of the government system, we knew our product couldn’t solve directly for it since we can’t the government's inherent structure or system.
Synthesizing Our Research
Based off our insights we created a problem statement, design principles, and persona. The problem statement helped us to define the specific Chicago residents that were dealing with permitting issues and what their needs are surrounding that, while our design principles gave us the foundation of different attributes our product needed to have. Our Persona helped us hone in on a Chicago resident that deals more heavily with permitting and what their goals and frustrations are.
In identifying the trends of our research, we scoped in to highlight property and business owners who deal with permitting and what their goals are surrounding managing their property.
Chicago property and business owners are frustrated with the lack of clarity in the city’s permitting process. They need a digital tool that streamlines the current permitting system so they can manage their property or business in compliance with City regulations.
In helping our users navigate the permit process
In providing info that is thoughtful of our users/needs
In providing info that is straightforward & easy to understand
Info is up to date and current
Our Persona, Ben
About Ben: Ben is a property owner or manager in Chicago. He’s remained very connected to his community and has even purchased several old apartments in Logan Square, where he now lives. He needs permits to do repair work but finds the permitting system confusing.
Ben's Goals: Ben wants to repair and maintain his apartments and obtain permits to comply with City Code. He wants to understand property limitations and allowances in regards to permits and licenses and how laws and political dynamics play out in reality. Overall, he wants to contribute to his community in a positive way.
Chicago's biggest disconnect is a disconnect that most people have to knowing how their government works.
Ben's Frustrations: There is no consistency with various permitting process and the amount of time and money it can take to obtain a permit can be frustrating. It's also difficult to find permit information and an overall distrust of alderman.
Ben's Motivations: Ben is motivated to understand permitting system so he can determine what is required of him as a Chicago property owner. In addition to maximizing his return on investment and using his property how he chooses to, he wants to comply with city rules and regulations.
Brainstorming to Create a Potential Solution
Keeping our synthesis in mind, we came up with 6 concepts which we then tested on 5 users like Ben. Here are four concepts that ultimately tested better:
My Permit Profile
This concept provided a way to see pending permits in your neighborhood and the steps property and business owners are taking in order to obtain those permits.
Users like that they could gauge project activity in their neighborhood and that they could have a visual means of seeing where their properties are within their ward.
This concept is a way to manage and review your registered properties and their compliance status(es).
Testers liked that they could manage their properties and check the compliance of those properties
This concept is a list of steps you need to take throughout the permitting process that helps users understand, schedule, and prepare for important dates and milestones.
Users liked that they could self manage their permit applications along with due dates in a step by step process.
Find an Alderman
The next concept was a way to search for the contact information of aldermen in the ward your property is located.
Users liked having the ability to contact their alderman, however they expected contact information to be provided to them without having to search.
Combining Concepts and Organizing the Site
After validating the four concepts and understanding what users were looking for, we explored how to bring different ideas together to form an MVP to test. We knew that a lot of these elements could work together, but we needed to prioritize what our users wanted and what tested well to dive in to what the actual architecture of the site would look like.
We first organized a discussion in which we each spoke on behalf of each of users. The purpose of this exercise was to understand what each user valued and to make sure that each of their voices were heard.
Next, we created a site map to understand the organization of the site and how each of the featured concepts would interact with each other. We decided that because the permit map concept had tested so well, that we would keep it on the home page so that users could interact with it as soon as they reached the microsite. We wanted to provide the user with a simple way to manage their permits and maintain compliance within their neighborhood, and also be able to directly contact their Alderman if need be.
Creating the Solution
Once understand the information architecture of the site, we sketched out what the main screens would look like in order to flesh it out before moving to Sketch and Axure. We made a conscious decision to make the product for web instead of mobile, because users it concept testing referred to the product more often as a website. They’d rather deal with permit related actions on a website. Below are some of the main screens of the site.
Users were able to view their properties and their location on the map
Testing and Feedback
Once creating the wireframes and adding interaction in Axure, we tested 5 potential users who were property and homeowners, with brief experience in the permitting process. The majority of our feedback was as follows:
Most users were unaware that the map was interactive. They simply scrolled past it until prompted in a later task in testing.
Many users expected that they could see an email address to contact the alderman instead of the website link. They wanted a way to directly contact the alderman.
Users expected to see more context about why a property had a violation. They wanted to be informed on what triggered it, when the inspection took place, and more details on what the exact problem was.
Some language that confused users was “Permit Applications”, and the “Check Compliance” button, where users were confused as to what they would see after clicking.
Below is a video of the final prototype with changes made based on the feedback above.
Due to the scope and time allotted for this project, there were some aspects of the product that my team didn’t have the opportunity to take on. Some future recommendations for the next team to receive this project are:
Further test the map concept and understand how users would like to interact with it
Make the product a one stop shop so that users can not only manage their permits and properties, but they could also apply to permits.
Test more users that are familiar with the Chicago permitting process and make sure that the language used it clean and understandable
As a visitor to Chicago, this project allowed me to get an inside scoop to what is actually happening in the city. It was interesting to hear from residents who have encountered corruption and frustrations with the transparency in their government. It gave me a new understanding of how necessary not only transparency is, but also clarity surrounding different topics connected to government.
In this project, I was able to grow my presentation skills and get more experience interviewing users.