Meeting Emotional Needs to Optimize Agency Outcomes

By Jim Tyrrell

Imagine you were allowed to see, smell and touch chocolate cookies but were then asked to eat radishes. If you next had to solve a puzzle, would you perform better or worse than people who got to indulge their sweet tooth?

If you guessed “worse,” you’re right, according to the results of a famous study at Case Western Reserve. Put simply, frustration makes us less sharp. Or to state it more accurately, our capacity for patience can quickly be depleted.

That reality has implications for government agencies that need to deliver services, drive participation in public programs or simply engage with citizens. The more frustrated citizens become when interacting with your organization, the harder it will be for you to serve your constituents and achieve your mission.

That’s why it’s imperative for agencies to consider the emotional needs of users when designing digital services. By placing emotional needs front and center, you can achieve a more holistic approach to service design that has a better chance of driving the outcomes you want.

To realize that goal, take these five actions:

1. Empathize with your users. Many contexts in which citizens consume government service, such as applying for unemployment benefits, involve negative emotions. By recognizing user preconceptions, you can better identify ways to minimize frustration and promote more positive experiences.

2. Conduct usability testing. Invest in user surveys. Observe how users interact with processes to see where they get stuck. Can they use single sign-on to access multiple services? Can they fill in part of a form and come back later to complete the task? Something as simple as requiring people to print out or fax in a form might stop them in their tracks if they don’t have access to those capabilities. An upfront investment in usability can pay dividends by avoiding interrupted processes, manual interventions and missing data.

Usability testing can also uncover the root causes of problems. For instance, an apparel company seeing a decline in online sales might assume it needs a slicker website design or a smoother checkout process. But a customer survey might reveal the real problem is that favorite colors or styles aren’t available – and the solution lies in resolving inventory issues.

3. Look to retail models. Citizens are also consumers. As they’ve become accustomed to the speed and convenience of online retail, their expectations for all online interactions have climbed.

Retailers have invested in chief experience officers and entire functions devoted to customer experience (CX). Many agencies lack budgets to support such efforts. But they can still adopt a retail mindset. Look for approaches you can borrow from online stores to customize experiences for the user, simplify interfaces, remove cognitive friction, provide predictable workflows, and integrate data and processes.

4. Involve all stakeholders. The private sector’s CX efforts offer valuable lessons, but their focus can be too narrow. To optimize digital services, you can’t only involve CX experts.

Instead, you need the input of all stakeholders. That includes customer-service agents and their managers, agency vendors who support processes, and heads of business functions who oversee the people and processes that enable your mission. Involving users of your services or systems will give you a real-world perspective on the challenges citizens face when they interact with you. Their input can give you a holistic perspective and connect service delivery to your organization’s objectives.

5. Use agile development tools. Agile practices help software designers and developers collaborate and work faster. Many commercial agile solutions are available, but open-source resources also offer tremendous value.

The open-source community applies a collaborative, decentralized mindset to creating software and solving problems in industries and communities. Many minds make lighter work of addressing even the most complex challenges.

For instance, the Open Practice Library is an open source, community-driven collection of exercises and practices for individuals and cross-functional teams. The practices guide innovators in iterative product delivery by helping them craft a problem statement, define desired outcomes, and work toward metrics-based goals.

As the chocolate cookie study suggests, patience and cognition engage the same parts of our brain. If you use up a user’s cognition, you’ll have a less patient user. Avoid stressing out your users, and they’ll be easier for customer service agents to work with.

Designing digital services to address emotional needs increases the chance citizens will successfully engage with your organization. Those positive experiences and emotions can drive a virtuous cycle of better citizen services – and help your agency achieve better outcomes.

Jim Tyrrell, a senior principal solutions architect for Red Hat, has more than two decades of experience in software development and delivery. He has spent more than a decade exploring the intersection of design and software development.

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