Putting Users First: Human-Centered Approaches in the Data-Smart City

By Robert Burack • December 5, 2017

This article follows Ash Fellow Robert Burack's workshop "Human-Centered Approaches to Data & Digital Services" at the Data-Smart Summit.

Design determines—in both small and profound ways—our experiences in the world. Maybe you grew up in the city, near the park and a sunken meadow where you were allowed to play after school. Maybe you met other kids there who came to be your friends. Or maybe you grew up in the city, where there wasn’t a park in walking distance. Maybe you don’t remember seeing the color green much at all. Maybe you remember buildings instead, most with brick and thick glass. Maybe every Friday you went to the mosque, Sunday you went to church, or every weekend you went to the library, and maybe you looked up when you walked in, and maybe you saw a high ceiling in an open room, and maybe your sense of possibility grew. Or maybe you never looked up — maybe there wasn’t much to look at in your neighborhood — and maybe your sense of possibility shrank.

But design itself isn’t an actor; a building doesn’t choose not to inspire possibility. Rather, design can be thought of as the material and digital result of human decisions and intentions (or sometimes lack of intention). The decisions an architect makes, much as the decisions a policymaker or public sector employee might make, determine design and thus help to determine our experience. This is true not only for you, but for all other residents of a community, clients of a program, and users of a product, service, or experience.

In their new book, A New City O/S, Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman argue that cities must widely adopt a user-centric orientation that mirrors the private sector’s success in meeting customer needs through the framework of user experience (UX). While technology is certainly an enabler of the proposed moved toward “collaborative, distributed” governance — allowing for data-driven insights and the development of more responsive solutions — achieving user-centered government requires more fundamental changes to the ways in which our cities operate, and the methods by which they work to understand and meet resident needs.

For so long, and even now within city governments, the practice of problem-solving has followed these familiar steps: a manager or director might define a problem; subject matter experts would be consulted for possible answers; a team of city employees would sit in a room to discuss and brainstorm; and the team would determine a course of action implement the solution.

But this process had, and continues to have, profound faults. Government often misidentifies the problem, carries out the wrong solution, or runs into unintended consequences when it designs solutions for people—and not with them.

And because design determines the experiences we have in the world, these failures of process and design can have immediate and material affects. These lived consequences often dovetail with companion operational costs. In Pittsburgh, a planned upgrade of the city’s parking meters was initially cause for celebration. Hundreds of upgraded, multi-space meters meant access to new features aimed at making parking a smoother experience. But once the meters were installed, a design flaw became apparent: residents in wheelchairs found that they could not reach the buttons. While the contract between the city’s parking authority and the company tasked with their installation ensured the city was not on the hook for replacement costs, the city paid in terms of both employee time to remedy the situation and a loss of public trust — a relational currency between citizens and their government that has been diminishing, even for municipalities.

Missing in this and other decision-making and problem-solving processes is the perspective of end-users—whether they be residents or public sector workers—in all steps of the process. The emerging practice of human-centered design provides a pathway and approachable, compatible, scalable set of methods to engage end-users. Borrowed from the world of product design and development, human-centered design is a lens for problem-solving that public sector teams can use to build solutions and improve services.

For governments seeking to solve problems, there are four phases to a human-centered approach, each enabled through an approachable set of methods but often requiring the development of new skills. Learning from experiences like the parking meter upgrade, the City of Pittsburgh has incorporated these principles into its work.

Understand Context

Because the context of a problem nearly always involves the lived experience of those it affects, designers often equate understanding the context of a problem to developing empathy for end-users. But while building empathy is a valuable practice, it is not enough. Cities must practice strategic empathy, pairing the desire to understand with an intention to purposefully and collaboratively act on understanding gained.

Many cities are experimenting with interviews and observations as ways to better understand the context in which problems play out. This starts with understanding who is involved with or affected by a problem. The easiest way to visualize this system of individuals and groups is by creating a stakeholder map, identifying all the groups implicated in a problem and unearthing actors a city may not have spoken with otherwise.

City employees speak to these groups and individuals to better understand their perspective. Tasked with helping the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works (DPW) automate its paperwork-laden process for filling potholes, analyst Tara Matthews spent a week observing DPW employees fill potholes and complete the associated paperwork. Before she could begin working with the department to design a solution, she had to work hard to understand the current situation; attentive and neutral, she thoughtfully trod the line between watching and asking open-ended questions. A simple “wait — what did you just do?” might yield new information. Frontline workers may have developed, over the years, their own approach to filling out the paperwork—an approach that would strike as unique to an outsider. Based on her experience, Matthews not only has new understanding, but new and helpful relationships with these workers and an appreciation of their work.

Define the Problem

Often, city employees come into problem-solving process thinking they have already defined the problem. The process of understanding context should humble us, revealing that there’s much more to learn about any problem. While city workers might have an inkling of what the primary problem is, using what we’ve learned through context research helps us to arrive at a problem statement that is often much closer to the situation faced by residents and other end-users.

Designers call the process of reviewing user research finding insights. A simple but powerful method for sorting what we’ve learned is Rose, Thorn, Bud (pictured below). Mining through our interview notes and audio, focus group results, observation notes, and the other resources from our efforts to understand and document perspectives, we pull out key information and quotes. Using a color-coding system and stacks of sticky notes, we are able to easily visualize roses and thorns—positive and negative feedback from the stakeholder’s perspective—as well as new ideas and opportunities, or buds. With all of our important information captured, we cluster our findings by theme.

Cluster by Theme

As a way of combining user-research and the definition of problems, Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services (DHS) works with a trio of Foster America fellows to employ journey mapping techniques. In this process, employees visually display how clients move through — and encounter pain points within — the systems and service access pathways structured by DHS and its service providers. Kinks or points of navigational confusion are more easily identified through a visual method, and the full extent of a complex client “journey” can be better understood.

Similarly, many cities are now using process mapping as a way to document and improve the way city employees work and achieve operational efficiency. While these methods are useful in identifying pain points, we must be careful to not let them become the lens through which we solve problems, as evidence suggests that lean methodology in particular may hamper innovation. In other words, if you focus too narrowly on tweaking a broken process, you run the risk of limiting your thinking and solutions and losing sight of ways to improve a system.

Prototype Solutions

A structured brainstorm is a good way to begin a prototyping process. City employees brainstorm all the time, but unfortunately our version often consists of sitting in a circle and throwing out ideas. This style often finds us abruptly judging what’s said — “that won’t work” or “we’ve tried that before” — which shuts down the imagination and bravery that fuels generative thinking. Small tweaks, such as having everyone in a group think individually and write down ideas before they’ve spoken, or having the least senior person offer a perspective first, help avoid these common pitfalls. Once ideas are captured, an instant and visual “voting” process (among your team and even among stakeholders) can help the best ideas rise to the top.

Once a solid idea or two is revealed, a prototyping process might begin. Aligned with the increasingly popular “agile” approach, prototyping means quick, small-scale tests of the idea or service, or the creation of early minimally-viable versions of the product or application. The idea is to learn and fail quickly and often, incorporating lessons learned in the design of subsequent prototypes. In the development of its popular Burgh’s Eye View series of open data maps, the City of Pittsburgh’s use of open-source RStudio enabled not only rapid changes to the mobile web application throughout its development, but the ability to easily make changes later on.

Launch and Iterate

Once a prototype is tested with end-users and a refined version is developed, the work shifts to getting internal influencers and stakeholders fully on board and developing constituency for the emerging product, improved service, or solution. Both the beta and full launch of the solution should include a planned out and proactive feedback system. After launching Burgh’s Eye View, the development team not only monitored and made changes based on feedback captured through the application, but visited 30+ community meetings to seek feedback from residents — both those who had used the application and those who hadn’t. Finally, documenting and publishing feedback-driven changes helps ensure you’ll continue to receive valuable insights and strengthens trust between you and end-users.

About the Author

Robert Burack

Robert Burack is a Data ​Fellow for the Civic Analytics Network. He is based in Pittsburgh where he works with the Chief Data Officer to further the City's open data and analytics efforts, and to support regional open data collaboration. Previously, he was a Fellow at the Richard King Mellon Foundation, where he focused on manufacturing innovation and helped to launch the nation's first accelerator for craft businesses. He has also served as Programs Director at Break Away, where he forwarded the development of shared community impact assessment tools for the service-learning sector. He has a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Michigan-Flint.