National Strategic Planning and Research Center (nSPARC) – Mississippi State University
Oktibbeha County located in north central Mississippi is home to Mississippi State University. With a population just under 50,000 the county government must perform vital work with very limited resources. Because of this, the county website had not been updated for decades.
The content on the site was out of date and much of it incorrect. Simple tasks required residents to stand in long lines at a maze of confusing buildings and offices. Trust between residents and the local government had eroded. Employees felt overworked and powerless.
As part of a larger project with nSPARC to help the county develop a strategic plan, we proposed a review of the county’s Internet strategy.
My role was to lead this part of the project. This would include UX research and design, UI design and CMS development and deployment, and training and outreach with all of the county departments.
The first step was to identify the key players in the project. These are the people who can rally the troops or create road blocks. They are everywhere in local government. Their position can change in an instant, so they must all be included in the process. It is vitally important to ask the right questions to get them on board and participating.
Interviewing members of each county department was rewarding in many ways. First of all, their answers revealed some great potential for this project to make their work more efficient. Mostly I came away with a new appreciation for the great number of dedicate individuals doing the business of the county behind-the-scenes every day. I realized that if this project could pull back the curtain just a bit that appreciation and trust could spread to every resident of the county.
Next, we catalogued all of the content related to county services found on the current site and other locations. We created a timeline of what time of year each service was active and how they were accessed. From there we were able to map out all of the touch-points where users interact with the county government.
We defined eight different audience types and created User Journey Maps for each. By diagraming each interaction for each audience type, we would be able to make sure that every entry point on the website would provide simple navigation to the content or service that would help the user take action.
With all of the building blocks in place in the Drupal database, we began to explore page layout and site flow through the production of wireframes. These diagrams would serve as our first lo-fi prototype to test our concepts and revise ideas.
At that point, we implemented the page layouts in Drupal and very quickly had a functional prototype to present to the key stakeholders. With their approval, we invited the most active online departments, including the tax office and chancery court, to begin testing the new system.
The greatest impact of our work on this site has been that when a user seeks to solve some problem that can be solved by a county service, they not only find up-to-date information, but they will find actionable information that will take them one step closer to the solution of their problem.
This system now allows each county department to manage content and communicate with the public they serve. Citizens are more informed and have better access to services, resulting in an increased level of trust.
Government work is vital and must be performed even when conditions are less than ideal. Technology can improve much of this work but only if it is employed in the right way.
The Internet has created many new avenues of communication and interaction, but on a grass-roots level it can be an invisible hurdle cutting off many from services they need. As UX designers we must always understand that our job is to help users solve the problems they face and make sure they have access to the right tools and instruments to achieve this.