Improving Digital User Experiences in the Public Sector


When you think of the most pleasant experience you had online or with a mobile app recently, was it with a government website or a public sector application?

I would venture to guess the answer is...probably not. Accenture’s Digital Government Survey found that “poor website organization” was the most significant obstacle citizens face when using digital services. 45% also reported experiencing “poorly organized information that doesn’t provide clear answers to questions.”

Why might this be the case?

Resources. While some federal and state government agencies can afford to invest in large-scale technology projects, smaller nonprofits and local departments are far less likely to have the human or capital resources to create performant digital experiences (and optimize them as citizen expectations evolve). 

Diverse user segments. For a municipality, state, or country, essentially every resident within their agency’s geographic area is a potential user of their digital products. They come with different levels of technological literacy, speak different languages, and have distinct needs. A user visiting a city’s website, for instance, may be attempting to pay a parking ticket, request a business license, learn more about local tourist attractions, contact their elected official, or find a public transportation route. Creating clear pathways for dramatically different users to achieve a countless number of goals is certainly a challenge.

Expertise. To design a user experience that gives all citizens easy access to the services and information they need, an agency needs access to cutting-edge expertise in cloud solutions architecture, security, accessibility, interaction design, information architecture, content strategy, and more. These cross-functional teams are as important to a digital experience’s success as they are difficult to find in-house.

Despite all of these challenges, user experience is arguably even more important for government agencies than it is in the private sector. Over the past four years, Accenture’s survey found that there was an increase in the percentage of respondents who reported feeling less confident in the government information they got digitally, relative to the information they received by phone, in person, or by regular mail. 

On the flip side, 73% of respondents said that “improving digital government services would positively change” their overall satisfaction with the government, and 69% would be more willing to engage with the government if their digital experiences were better.

How can public sector agencies build trust with their users by improving their user experience? Here are a couple of ideas: 

Leverage user data to identify problems with your user experience.

Before you even approach your audience with questions about their experience with your app or website, take a look at your analytics. 

  • Are you seeing an uptick in your exit rate from a critically important category page? 
  • Are visitors to your home page using site search more than the navigation? 
  • What queries are coming up often in site search? How easy is it to navigate to those topics on your website or application? Is that information even available digitally?
  • When looking at a user heatmap, are users tapping or clicking on non-interactive elements? 
  • What’s the most common conversion path for your digital users? Do most users who convert consume a lot of content before taking an action, or do they move efficiently to the point of conversion?  
  • Are constituents using a particular device behaving any differently than other users? 

Pairing these digital insights with offline data such as customer service call volumes can give you a good understanding of where your experience can improve.

Survey your users and conduct user testing.

Surveying a significant cross-section of your users will help validate your internal stakeholder’s assumptions about what information is most important on your website or application. These can be as simple as a pop-up modal on your website or as formal as an interview or focus group, but the input from end-users is absolutely critical. 

At various points throughout your digital experience’s evolution, it’s also helpful to test how users are able to interact with your design. Asking users to complete a task or find a specific piece of content on your website or application is a good way to measure how clear and informative your category names are, how effective your navigation is, and how intuitive and consistent your interaction design is.

Build trust with your users by standardizing your site/app’s visual design.

For public sector agencies, there are plenty of reasons why the look and feel of your digital experience matters. 

First, the consistency of your design can impact how your users perceive your credibility and trustworthiness. For instance, if a citizen opens your mobile app to reschedule a date for jury duty and the visual design changes dramatically from the home screen to the form through which they’re being asked to submit personally identifiable information (PII), he or she may choose to avoid the risk of sharing data with a potentially unknown entity and opt-out of the process. 

Building and implementing a design system - or a standardized collection of reusable components such as fonts, header hierarchies, colors, icons, interactive buttons, and more - can create a level of consistency that users will accept as low-risk, authoritative, and legitimate. 

Secondly, research shows that users make quick judgments about the aesthetic quality of a digital experience’s design - oftentimes in as little as 50 milliseconds - and their initial impressions matter. Nielsen Norman’s “Aesthetic-Usability” effect concludes that beautiful things are generally perceived to be easier to use and more valuable than ugly ones.

Out-of-date websites or mobile applications signal to users that they’re risky, and at a time when trust in public sector institutions continues to waver, this perception can have devastating real-world consequences.

Improving the consistency and quality of a digital experience can be a powerful way to improve citizen engagement, satisfaction, and perceptions of efficacy. 

Conduct an audit of your digital experience for accessibility.

A recent CDC survey found that one in four U.S. adults reports having a disability. As your constituents become increasingly dependent on the internet, digitally-inclusive design should be a major priority. Luckily, as our team likes to say, accessible design practices improve the usability of your digital experience for everyone, not just users with visual, hearing, physical, or intellectual disabilities. 

Organizing your website or mobile app’s content in a meaningful sequence for screen readers and keyboard commands, entering alternative text for any image files, using high-contrast elements, and adding labels or helpful elements to form fields will make your experience usable for people with impairments and easier for those without them.

The criteria listed above are just a few of the checklist items listed in the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. For a more in-depth look at digital accessibility, download our Business Leader’s Guide to Accessibility today.

All of these strategies help achieve the ultimate goal of UX: reducing users’ cognitive load, or the amount of mental power required to use your website, web application, or mobile app. The faster users can learn how to interact with your digital experience, the easier it will be to find the information they need and complete desired actions. 

Not only will agencies have happier constituents, but they will also benefit from the decrease in costs associated with better self-service experiences.

Looking for ways to improve your government website or government mobile app's user experience? Connect with our team today!