Roundarch Addresses Common Concerns Regarding User Experience and Federal Information Technology Programs

It is no secret in the Federal Government that focusing on user experience is not a major concern within government information technology programs. In addition, some of its tenets seem on the surface to run counter to conventional wisdom in the acquisition community. Many times, federal agencies face the constraints of the government acquisition environment and thus don’t believe that its programs can have the same look and feel as commercial programs.

However, in Roundarch’s experience as a digital design organization, the techniques and tools of user experience can most definitely be applied in government projects and can be made to fit within federally mandated acquisition practices, regulations and processes. We often find in major government programs there are very large opportunities to improve with a relatively low investment.

Here we address several common concerns that prevent government agencies from embracing user experience for information technology programs.

1. The Government is not selling anything, so user experience is not relevant.

In the private enterprise world, increasing revenue is only one of many quantifiable benefits of user experience. Other benefits that the government can enjoy include increased user adoption of cost-saving self service capabilities, reduced training and support costs, timeline length and risk—resulting mainly from reduced rework and defect resolution. There are many benefits specific to certain missions, such as increased recruiting leads for the military branches, reduced errors in military deployment that require rework and reduced supply chain cost through better visualization of data.


2. The Government actually needs more software developers, not “designers.”

Software programs more often fail not because they have too few developers, but because the developers build something that is inconsistent with the true success criteria for the program. The success of the program is almost always linked to enabling end users in some task, whether that is renting a car, scheduling a medical appointment or adding evidence to a case file. It is the role of the user experience professional to design a site or application focused on those end user needs. This will save development time throughout the project lifecycle.


3. “Iterative prototyping” sounds like it would cause “scope creep.”

Actually, most of the time the opposite is true and through a process of disciplined iterative prototyping scope is more effectively controlled. Sometimes the design team identifies features missing from the requirements that are actually critical to success and would have to be added as rework later in the project lifecycle. Sometimes the team identifies, usually through user testing of clickable prototypes and wireframes, features that add little value. In both cases, because the team is working with visual depictions of the functionality, it is actually easier to recognize when scope changes are introduced and then to facilitate their prioritization.

4. It does not matter because we can “require” our people to use the site/application.

There are relatively few systems for which the government can mandate usage and actually expect it to happen. And even in these situations, when the user experience does not compare well relative to expectations, the cost in backlash can be substantial. In most situations the government launches a new “tool” to replace something that already exists which may be a paper-based process or an online system of an earlier generation. Even if the new application is mandated the conversion will go faster and require less training and help desk support cost if the user base wants to use the new tool because there is something in it for them, like being able to do their jobs easier.

5. How do you ensure compliance with the requirements in the contract?

For most projects the team uses tools such as “requirements traceability matrices” and/or “scope maps” that map the design to the requirements under contract. Because the design documents are visual artifacts, user centered design makes it easier for program managers and delivery resource managers to identify changes or omissions in scope and thus react to them. In other words, the user centered design process and its design artifacts make it easier to manage scope and ensure compliance with the contract.

6. The “look and feel” is the easy part; anyone can do this.

If this is true, why is there so much variation in the quality of user experience among web applications? Any frequent user of the web can attest to the fact that some are uniquely useful and valuable to their users and some are impediments at best. Some of the most disparaged user experiences on the web, both within government and the private sector, were built by large, well-funded organizations who presumably were attempting to put their best foot forward.

7. We must focus on integrating the data.

Many government programs face tough integration challenges. This is often the result of building new technology silos for each information technology acquisition program. We see user experience as a way to address the integration challenges in the government. On the public internet, web applications frequently “mash-up” multiple back-end systems or “services” in a common user experience. This is an increasingly viable model in government as well.

8. We have to comply with Section 508 accessibility requirements, so we are very limited in what we can do on the user interface anyway.

Web development technology is advancing rapidly and it is now possible to implement a very elegant web user experience that is fully accessible. This can even include very advanced Javascript-enabled features that in the past could not be made accessible. It is simply no longer true that Section 508 requirements mean the team must design to a lowest common denominator. There is tremendous flexibility to meet accessibility requirements today and we expect that this trend will only continue forward with future releases of development platforms such as Adobe Flash, Adobe Flex, Microsoft Silverlight and HTML 5

9. We do not have time to do user experience since our delivery timelines are very short.

A user centered design process well executed by skilled professionals, will speed the project, not slow it down. This is especially true once re-work is factored in. When there is no focus on user experience someone still has to design the user interface. So that is generally done by a developer/engineer who is unfamiliar with best practices in interface design and who is not equipped with the right inputs from users to “inform” the design. The person is not using tools specialized to the task or creating the kinds of artifacts that can most easily be tested with end users and reviewed by stakeholders. So the design work happens anyway, but it is just severely handicapped.

10. We require CMMI Level X, so we are getting this level of support already.

The popular CMMI process quality certification does not require skillsets, tools or processes specific to the design of user experience. If a CMMI Level 5 certified software development organization followed its processes but did not incorporate user centered design and specialized user experience skillsets, they are likely to deliver a system that meets the letter of the customer’s requirements but serves users with a subpar experience and thus fails to achieve success.

In Roundarch’s experience with a wide range of private and public sector clients we have found that focusing on User Experience not only delivers better business/mission results, but does so in less time and at lower cost. Moreover – focusing on User Experience reduces the risk of simply missing customer expectations. The iterative, early prototyping and testing inherent in a well-run user interface project ensures that the features are on target with the expectations of stakeholders as well as the very granular needs of each user community. Unfortunately, today very few government information technology acquisitions include User Experience skills in their requirements or evaluation criteria. This represents a tremendous opportunity to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government and it is one we hope government organizations will avail themselves of.