When you think of well designed and easily accessible websites, government examples probably don’t come to mind first. You probably think of Apple or CNN, but that is what the VA Modernization Team is trying to fix. The team is part of the second round of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program, and their goal is to make VA websites easier to navigate, more streamlined and a cohesive visual brand. It’s a big job, but luckily they have Mollie Ruskin on the team. Before becoming a fellow, Ruskin was the leading creative projects at Reboot, a social impact service design and innovation firm. Ruskin shared the VA Modernization Team’s progress during an AFFIRM Innovation Panel.
“I have two major focuses on design that I do at the VA . There is the traditional sense of the word design which is the visual set of things. The other is essentially the application of design processes and thinking through challenges that are not historically design challenges. That can be policy areas, programs, technology. It is very interesting work but it is also less tangible, it often takes a little longer,” said Ruskin.
In terms of the visual design there are three vertices that Ruskin is working in right now:
- Brand. “The government struggles with this a great deal. Right now you can click through 12 different things on one agency’s site. As you stroll through the site you no longer feel like you are in the same place. It is a very confusing experience. We hire folks to make outstanding products that have a unique look and feel and for our everyday consumers, which in our case are citizens, they are faced with this inundation, this visual and content inundation. A lot of what I have been consulting and advising on is, how do we work on streamlining that process? A lot of the reason behind the visual diversity is the extent to which different projects are siloed. They have different managers. They have different teams creating them. We need to find a way to brand them together.”
- Raise the bar of expectations. “We are accustomed to seeing the gobbledygook of so many different things on a page, we have a low expectation of what we are going to receive. A lot of the work that I have gotten to do, is to say we should throw everything we think we know about what design should look like in government and let’s make it look like Apple or Coke. Let’s make something that people want to understand and explore. We can do this in a way that makes a unified brand or feeling for an agency.
- Help government deliver design that is responsive on different devices. Responsive design means making sure the design works first on your cell phone, then on a tablet, and then for your monitor. This isn’t just about transforming sites to function on different platforms, but it is also about understanding what users are doing on each of those platforms. We have to make sure that what we are delivering is serving them in places where you are accessing the information. At the VA we wanted to sort of throw out everything you would normally see in regards to open data initiatives in government. They tend to be laundry lists of information. Often in complex developer speak. Open data is fundamentally about providing information that is of the people back to the people. We wanted to create just a simple and accessible interface to get people understanding what this stuff means. For the Veteran community specifically there is a huge amount to be gained in terms of opening up information about services, getting people to build apps and directories, in a way we need to use design as a mechanism to deliver that message more effectively.
Process of Design:
“The second application of design gets talked about a lot less in the context of technology. This is the idea that not just building something cool and trying a whole new technology approach, but first making sure we have a deep understanding of what our users want. There is a tendency to have decided at the very beginning of a project, everything that the project will encompass. You have your contracts written out and identified the deliverables. Whereas we should start with a deep understanding and a commitment to spending time with your users, what are the problems they are having right now? Where are the pitfalls, not just technologically speaking? We need to let this type of information fuel the development of a technology because it is far far more effective than first building something and then finding out the very basis of what you built doesn’t work for your users. This is often called user centered design or human centric design,” said Ruskin.
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