Customer Stories

Code for America and UX at the scale of the USA

Jennifer Carney Writer of things, interviewer of literal and figurative rock stars.

As we near one of the most pivotal elections in our nation’s history, citizens are complaining more loudly than ever that their government doesn’t care about them. But in a world where we have the internet in the palm of our hands, what if the truth is that the government does care about its citizens, they just haven’t figured out how to build a product for the people of 2016?

Enter Code for America. Called the “Peace Corps for geeks,” Code for America (CfA) handpicks Silicon Valley’s best and brightest to make local governments as responsive as Google Maps. CfA offers a tech solution so government services can match today’s American citizen – from socioeconomic position to where they are as a digital denizen.

CfA is an effort to cut through the red tape and make government more accessible.

The inherent flexibility of CfA’s “civic tech” model is win-win both by design and through design. As Code for America’s lead designer, Daniella DeVera wants to make sure all products are built for the ultimate user experience: to serve the most people at scale.

The former Appleite knows what it takes to design products for the general public. But designing for people on the margins of society, who are the majority audience for the “civic tech” products CfA builds – like Clear My Record (giving people with past low-level criminal records a second chance) and ClientComm (connecting parolees with case managers via text to increase compliance) – challenges what typical App Store-ready UX is accustomed to.

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“Above all, we want to give our users a dignified experience,” Daniella tells me at the Code for America headquarters in San Francisco. “A lot of people come to the products we build because they need help. It’s already so hard to ask for help, so we want to respect that in how we’re designing the product experience.”

In product, a little empathy can go a long way. It becomes absolutely essential when you’re designing a product for people who rarely use a smartphone. Or who don’t speak English. Or who have to choose between bills or groceries.

Empathy is just the jumping off point for design at the scale of an entire country. Creating a product that is accessible to literally every citizen is not taught in art school, nor in computer science courses. But it’s required work when building the apps for “government as a service.” Both Daniella and Code for America are transforming the day-to-day frustrations with government services into tech that actually cares.

Digitizing the public sector

Code for America’s headquarters has a look that’s part startup, part city hall. The mid-century furniture and 21st-century LED Star Spangled Banners call to mind a more unified, civic-minded time. So why can’t that time be now?  

Code for America’s Founder and Executive Director, Jennifer Pahlka, is probably best known for her TED Talk, “Coding a better government.” It’s with her idea, that government should be run more like a tech company, that she founded Code for America. Since the org’s founding in 2011, CfA staff and fellows have designed dozens of civic apps for over 100 local governments.

The idea that tech values applied to government could be a force for good does smack of Silicon Valley hubris. But let’s face it: efficiency, user-focused design, and responsiveness are all things government could be doing better. CfA is bringing the best minds and talent together to figure out how to modernize government and that, inevitably, means many tech-focused solutions. 

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Code for America started as the Fellowship program, so it was a bunch of small teams working on local problems in the governments that they were working with,” says Daniella. This baked-in fragmentation of the CfA experience presented the first product design challenge for Daniella.

“It created this disjointed design aesthetic across the organization. That’s also a result of Fellowships being approximately a year long; you have a new group coming in every year that are working on different things, with so many specific instances and no broad cohesion.” That’s not sustainable for an organization dedicated to enhancing communication and engagement, and proving their value to a constellation of state and local governments.

So her first step was to bring some focus to the well-intentioned chaos; she decided to finish the designer toolkit her predecessor started. This toolkit keeps design consistent and on-brand, and helps government partners more easily see the through line of all of CfA’s products in state and local governments.

That was just the beginning. When Daniella was called to design a critical app to help people get food assistance in California, she saw a chance to take the unified design vision of Code for America and put it into practice.

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Helping the hungry millions

One of the products Daniella and the Code for America team have been working on is an app for the State of California. In that state alone, over two million people are eligible for but not using CalFresh, the state’s food stamps program. The goal of GetCalFresh is to close that participation gap by streamlining the application process.

The reasons why people aren’t accessing the benefits they’re due are many: language barriers, lack of awareness, and the most challenging barrier to overcome – stigma.

Building for millions of people who may feel stigmatized for even using your product is not something most designers encounter. One reason why two million people are going hungry and not using food assistance could be due to the fact that the “product” isn’t “user-centric” – in fact, the way food stamps were designed has only perpetuated these bad associations.

Food stamps used to come in paper booklets held together with industrial-type staples that made tearing the stamps out an ordeal. It was impossible to be discreet and easy to feel humiliated. That is, if you made it through the bureaucratic gauntlet of applying for them at all.

Over the years, the paper stamps became a debit card, but the process of applying for food assistance remained ostracizing, monotonous, and confusing. For GetCalFresh, Daniella knew that these complicated feelings had to be addressed compassionately in myriad languages, delivered through a visual interface that works for the many cultures and ethnicities that make up America today.

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While Daniella knew she was designing for the multitudes, at first it didn’t feel like freedom. Quickly she learned that when designing for the government, there are a number of constraints that can feel like obstacles, and Daniella had to figure out a way around the proverbial red tape.

“I never had a class on all of the constraints I’d face when designing for the government,” says Daniella. “The ADA (American Disabilities Act) guidelines came up for me at Apple because we were designing documentation. But if anything has a government label on it, if you’re using a government URL, there is a long list of constraints you have to work under. Which is understandable and the way it should be.

“I have shifted into thinking that these aren’t necessarily a constraints, but starting points,” Daniella continues. “It’s like, here’s the starter package of color contrasts and legibility and other design elements. This work’s already been decided for you: you have to have size 16 type on your site, for example. Now where do you go next? It gives you perspective. It becomes freeing.”

And it’s impossible not to draw parallels to what GetCalFresh does with the work done by its human counterparts in government. That’s what it’s designed to do.

“One our favorite quotes about GetCalFresh is from an employee at a food bank that serves Contra Costa and Solano counties,” Daniella tells me. “She said, ‘In the time it takes me to fill out two paper applications, I can serve 10 people with GetCalFresh.’

“I think a lot of people forget that people are actually what make the processes of government and services work, and not just automated machines or computers. Freeing up more time for employees to help serve people as opposed to meta work – like paperwork, or getting IT to work– is a huge win for us, and for users.”

Helping government employees was another critical piece of the design. How to re-create what civil servants do for underserved people applying for benefits – translation, guidance, and compassion – is a different design challenge altogether.

Turning paperwork into purpose

In Silicon Valley, where so many companies promise “work that matters”, Code for America presented Daniella with not just a unique set of product design challenges, but also an opportunity to figure out how to how to better digitize our country’s bureaucratic systems.

At Apple, Daniella designed for registered Apple developers. It was straightforward. “We had a very specific user base at a very big company. But the government… that’s another order of magnitude,” she says with a laugh.

When Daniella began actually working on GetCalFresh, it quickly became clear that effecting bureaucratic change through design would be complicated.

There were big questions: How do you design a product that is normally a conversation with government workers? How do you turn advocacy into an online experience?

“One of the first things I realized when I started here is that there are two sets of users: the residents that you are building services for, and then the government stakeholders or partners who are the people actually managing and interacting with users every day,” she says.

“These aren’t products that you can just ship, get feedback from, and then iterate. You have two extremely important stakeholders to consider.” One group (residents in need) may not have ever used an app, and the other group (government partners) don’t actually use your product. That means relying on secondhand user feedback. And it means turning the act of filling out endless and intimidating forms into a positive user experience.

“There are so many forms that you have to fill out in your life,” Daniella says with a sigh. It may be impossible not to sigh when thinking about government paperwork. “So, how do I transform forms – which make up the bulk of all of our interactions with government – into something that makes you feel like you’re being cared for?

“At that point, it’s no longer just about color and where do you put your logo,” she continues. “Those things play into it, but the real challenge is more subtle: what’s the tone that you set with your product?”

Some of that can be addressed with copy and voice. From a design perspective, however, one must understand that the user isn’t interacting with a substitute for a paper form; they’re interacting with a substitute for a social worker.

All of CfA’s products must engage with marginalized people. That means that a designer working on a product like GetCalFresh, for example, must understand both how users ask questions, and how the product should answer. With GetCalFresh, both the web and mobile experiences are clean and sparse. This is by design, to present both the questions and the answers simply, without pushing the user away. What were once dense paper forms are now organized into a digestible, compact, and intuitive interface.

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“Getting your users the content in the best way for them is what matters, and so the design strategy is delivery,” Daniella tells me. “Get the users what they need and really focus on delivering that experience. Things should work visually and aesthetically, but the design should almost be invisible.” Paradoxically, this means that the design should make the users themselves feel visible.

Feeling visible is the first step towards helping marginalized people engage in society at large. And the first acknowledgement they receive is often from civil servants who extend a helping hand. GetCalFresh, therefore, would be successful if it augmented these government workers and empowered those it set out to help. To achieve a sort of informal formality is why Code for America includes the perspectives of so many different minds.

“I feel like we’re in such a unique place because we meet so many amazing people from government – all sorts of different technologists, but also government officials who want to make their governments better.”

As if knowing what cynical questions I want to ask, Daniella continues: “Perception is completely different than reality, too. There’s a ton of courage in government, actually, and we want to help spread that courage. That’s why we do what we do.”

Making government work in the digital age

Over budget.
Underwhelming.
Frustrating.
Obstructionist.

In an election year, there are even fewer positive associations with government in the public consciousness. And with Code for America’s work, there are no big splashes – just incremental improvements.

There’s no party when thousands of people can access food benefits, no special announcement at the Bill Graham Auditorium when an app launches that keeps people out of jail.

It’s said that products grow when there’s a light shined upon them. Since Code for America’s founding, federal government tech “startups” have emerged: the United States Digital Service (USDS) is the White House’s govtech startup, and 18F is spreading the idea of “digital service” as public service.

There’s even an angel investor group for civic tech in Silicon Valley now, betting on a sense of duty that technologists feel to use code to solve our country’s biggest problems, and to bring the US Government into the 21st century.

Daniella’s work isn’t as grandiose as the notions of civic-minded VCs, but that doesn’t diminish its impact.

“When I design, I’m trying to work on specific small problems,” she says. “But there are millions of people in government who are also trying to enact change.

“I think it’s really easy for people to not realize how much government impacts our daily lives, how wonderful the people who work in government really are,” she tells me. “Having absolutely wonderful government partners who are so excited about change, excited to get more agile, bring better technology, bring user-centered design into their governments… it’s so refreshing. The space feels very ‘open horizon.’ 

“If I can at all help them through my design, then that’s success for me.”

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Photographs from Code for America and by Warren Rachele, made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license

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