Oct 07 2020

USDA's New Playbook Aims to Improve Digital User Experience

The guide is meant to help designers craft better websites for citizens to use.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government had made improving the customer experience of its services, especially its digital tools, a key priority. Indeed, the White House placed customer service high on its list of priorities, with “Improving Customer Experience with Federal Services” as a top cross-agency priority (CAP) goal in the President’s Management Agenda.

Improving the customer experience is also at the heart of the Centers of Excellence the General Services Administration has been running to help agencies modernize their IT. Now, the Agriculture Department, the lighthouse agency for the CoE effort and the agency seen as a leader on enhancing customer experience, has launched a digital strategy playbook to help serve as a guide to doing so.

The guide is specifically aimed at the USDA’s component agencies as they seek to improve services online. But as more government services migrate to digital versions amid the pandemic, it can also be a useful tool for agencies outside of the USDA.

Simchah Suveyke-Bogin, the USDA’s chief customer experience officer, said last month that the playbook is designed to give user experience designers a concrete way to meet the goals set out for them.

“We ended up understanding that there is a place that people need to go and a place that needs to be a little bit more clear of what to do and the direction to take,” Suveyke-Bogin said in a virtual conference hosted by the GSA’s Technology Transformation Services, according to Federal News Network.

USDA Seeks to Lay Out Digital Service Best Practices

The playbook says that it aims make it easier for UX designers to make and keep their websites focused on “providing the best experiences to your customers: the American agricultural producers and consumers who rely on your sites.”

It outlines the multiple mandates websites must follow and helps designers find resources and expert advice to meet those mandates.

There are seven criteria the playbook outlines:

  • Research: Designers should get a better understanding of what their customer needs. They can use this section to “learn about methods to gain insights into your customers and keep them at the center of your design and development efforts,” the guide says.
  • Analytics: Improve metrics to make better data-driven decisions. Designers should follow USDA’s Google Analytics standards to fix common issues, improve site performance and generate more useful reports.
  • Content: Make it easier for customers to find a website’s content. This section is aimed at letting designers perform content audits, update content strategy and make content more findable with search engine optimization.
  • Accessibility: Remove barriers to content and reach the widest possible audience. Designers should remove technological barriers through accessible and responsive web design.
  • Design and Brand: Build a unique website for the agency that looks “USDA Official.” Designers can use this section to “create a visually distinctive website” that still meets USDA brand and visual design guidelines.
  • Development: Designers can use this to better understand guidance and use code libraries to build and update their site.
  • Social Media: This includes specific USDA guidance for managing social media channels to amplify the agency’s news, mission and goals.

In addition to the PMA, agencies now need to follow mandates set out in the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, which, as Federal News Network notes, “set deadlines for agencies to adopt electronic signatures and migrate away from paper-based processes.”

While some agencies have accelerated those efforts during the pandemic, government still generally lags behind the private sector on those fronts.

Amira Boland, the Office of Management and Budget’s federal customer experience lead, says agencies are “closing the gap” and working to improve the customer experience.

“There’s a growing recognition that experience matters in government, even though we are a monopoly provider in many cases, and that people have to pay their taxes every year,” Boland tells Federal News Network. “That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be thinking about the customer experience that doesn’t help us deliver a more effective and efficient government.”

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