Q&A: CITY OF BOSTON


Michelle Kwasny is the Senior Design Research Lead at IDEO Cambridge, and Lauren Lockwood is the Chief Digital Officer at the City of Boston. The Boston.gov site had outgrown its existing structure and needed an overhaul. The user experience was mired by the fact that Boston City Hall has nearly 50 different departments, each with its own microsite, navigation and content standards that feed into a centralized site. Michelle and Lauren discussed how the project unfolded.

Interview by Stefane Barbeau | 05.11.2017

Stefane: The website is fantastic. How did this happen?

Lauren: Ha! Well, I joined the city two and a half years ago specifically to develop its digital services, including the website. The web revamp was not just design related…it needed to be rebuilt mechanically too. The old site was very governmental-looking and working, so to speak. Rather than embark on an upgrade, we decided to reimagine what a digital front door should look like. We broke with convention and approached the project in two parts: user experience and technology. The tech was addressed AFTER we identified what was necessary for the users.

We ended up with IDEO because we felt they would be a partner beyond completion of the work. We needed lots of education in order to make this service into a living, breathing entity that could evolve. We were all less concerned about appearance, and wanted more education and capacity to learn and apply principals in the long term.

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IDEO involved us in every step of the way. We got to hear from constituents themselves because we were in on the interviews. We discovered that content and writing was a big issue. We needed to move away from traditional government language, and even internally IDEO helped us start to use words like human and beautiful.

Michelle: Yes – the thing that made this project really work was breaking it in half. Other orgs tend to get in practicalities right off…we were able to have the city step back and think and apply a proper process to determine what the users’ real needs were. This includes the public who are looking to pay parking tickets, but also city staff who need to keep content current. There are so many departments and they all had micro sites.

Lauren: I was really impressed with the whole team. We started with a pilot site that allowed us to really show what it would look like.

“We were able to have the city step back and think and apply a proper process to determine what the users’ real needs were.”Michelle: They all got on board when they saw the potential. It became a big team effort.Stefane: Do you think the process of redeveloping the website has impacted the organization in broad ways?

Lauren: One of things in the contract that was great was an ‘extra week’ months after the official completion that we could use to go back and ask about things that were not anticipated. I think the capacity to do this has helped staff see the value of iteration. I’ve really emphasized the reality, in a good way, that the website is never done. It’s an organism that grows over time. Also, we were able to demonstrate the idea that innovation doesn’t have to happen around the edges. We did this on a core piece of technology. This massive project has helped shape the culture at the city. Here’s an example: it has shifted our org structure from project managers to PRODUCT managers who handle new projects as necessary in relation to the core product.

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Michelle: What helped is we started with a bunch of looking-in interviews. This got everyone involved and they gave their two-cents and contributed. This turns out valuable insights, and it also helps prevent ‘organ rejection’ once something is in place. We want to have partners ‘learn to fish’, not just give them a meal, right? We wanted to set the city up to be able to do this same sort of thing on their own after we were gone, rather than having to rely on IDEO time and time again.

“This massive project has helped shape the culture at the city.”Lauren: Pre-IDEO we had two people on digital team. They were generalists, content managers. After IDEO, we brought on a designer and social media person, then a dedicated content person, and then a developer joined. Now we’re up to six people. Yes, we’ve learned to fish!

Stefane: What about money? this worked so well… it must have been expensive.

Lauren: It’s public information. The budget was 1 million. 700K on tech, 300K on design. Comparisons to other projects helped us make the case. We also rolled other things into this to to help justify it. But we did not have a hard time making the case; we were buying something that would educate us. It’s so much more than visual design, and everyone understood that going into it. There was no question about whether the redesign was necessary – it was clear we were doing our constituents a disservice by not tackling it, especially since all other aspects of people’s digital lives are SO well designed. People have high expectations.

Michelle: For IDEO, we always search to create positive impact. We were willing to take this 10-year-old site and start fresh. We wanted to be part of this. For ROI, it’s the feedback that actively happens on the site. that’s a great way to show ROI. after this past year since the site has been live, it has really helped confirm how necessary it was.

“…all other aspects of people’s digital lives are SO well designed. People have high expectations.”

Lauren: The status quo was not an option. We did need to be a bit scrappy to use IDEO’s time well.

Stefane: Is government stodgy when it comes to this kind of thing?

Lauren: Coming from the private sector I expected that. But I discovered that there’s very little wrangling necessary. Fundamentally, everyone wants improvements and fewer headaches and are okay with change. They know their users really well and they’re clamoring for solutions, they just don’t know how to get from A to B.

Stefane: Was there a startling discovery or a disaster along the way?

Michelle: I was surprised by the immensity of the existing site. 5000 URLs! All these alcoves of info. Plus the google analytics showed the #1 visited page was where food trucks go!

Lauren: Ha! Yeah – when we saw that we were surprised too. We looked at third party applications for food trucks and realized there were bots that were inflating traffic because they were looking for info on food trucks. it helped us understand that we needed to build a great API so that 3rd parties can get access to info.

Stefane: Did you ever have to bite your tongue?

Michelle: Not really. We were honest. We tell them what they need to hear versus what they want to hear. Taking them out on research helped them see what was right and wrong. Another surprise for me was when we went to Dorchester, Mattapan, etc and heard directly about the real needs of underserved communities…translation, for example. The city needed all of this info, and this was the only way to get it.

Stefane: How did you set priorities? how were decisions made?

Lauren: We did spring cleaning with each department. We decided what should be archived, re-written, we had to ask ourselves what could be dropped. We didn’t want to port over content for the sake of it. We launched with new content and waited to bring older stuff over bit by bit.

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Stefane: A good analogy is moving house, right?

Lauren: Yes. The only difference is not taking the same objects with you! We re-wrote all the content. That was TOUGH and really intimidating….most of the people here are not writers. So we quickly pivoted and had one person (James, a writer we hired from the Globe) take a stab at re-writing and then send it out for approval. This worked better. We brought the reading level from 12-grade to an 8th grade. Everyone here is really smart, so we had to be sensitive to that and those people. But the key was to defer to their audience and have staff understand that clarity for the USERS is most important. Focus on the user. We often let data win arguments. For example: don’t use ‘garbage day’, use trash day. More search terms are for ‘trash’, not ‘garbage’.

“…have staff understand that clarity for the USERS is most important. Focus on the user.”

Stefane: Is what you’ve done here a national first?

Lauren: No. other cities have done it. Philadelphia did it. The difference for us is that we went from kickoff to launch in 11 months. Philadelphia is still on a beta version, as of now, I think. It was good to have them do it first and we could build off that experience. I think we’re the first to do it this quickly, and also to go the extra step of  ‘open source’: if another city wants to, they can take our code. It’s all public, including the bad comments and repair tickets! We actually get input sometimes from developers for fixes.

Stefane: Why are you in MA?

Lauren: I’m from Idaho. School brought my husband and me here, and we stayed. We love it here. it feels the most ‘northwest’ to us. It’s a very livable city. We get lots of culture, but it still feels small-towny.

Stefane: What do you appreciate most about this project?

Lauren: Well, one aspect of working in the public sector is seeing that cities are collaborative with each other. No competition. They’re always talking to other cities, discussing problems, challenges, solutions. On the flip side, cities are a natural monopoly, so the private sector companies are pushing the envelope a lot more. I look to the private sector for inspiration. For example: our permit tracker is inspired by the Domino’s Pizza tracker. Of course people are using tons of apps every day and then come to ours, so we need to operate to the same standards. I used a lot of what I learned at startup cultures and applied it to city hall.

We have a LOT of support here in the city. We don’t have to pull teeth to get things done. Otherwise, it would have been much harder. We have a very eager team. The work is infectious. When they see awesome stuff they want to be a part of it. Once the seed is planted, and something is demonstrated, it’s infectious.Stefane: This is fantastic! Thanks so much Lauren and Michelle!

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