Blog - How to give citizens a great customer experience: part one

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How to give citizens a great customer experience: part one

A city’s website is much more than an online brochure—it’s a critical engagement tool.

Jen Travis | January 29, 2016

Imagine you’re trying to pay for a recent parking ticket online. Or you’re looking for a park with a picnic shelter for an upcoming BBQ with friends. Or maybe you want to take your kids to a nearby public pool, so you need to know open swim times.

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Chances are, you’ve tried to do any one of those things (maybe via your mobile device), got caught up in a website rabbit hole that wasn’t mobile friendly, felt frustrated, and gave up. Wash, rinse, repeat.

In the past, city services weren’t in competition with the free market, so they usually didn’t worry about things like website design or user experience. They focused on making sure their information was factually accurate and available—not whether it was accessible or easy to consume or interact with.

But the proliferation of mobile has forced cities to think more specifically about the experiences they provide, because while they aren’t necessarily competing with other cities, they are competing with consumer expectations for digital experiences (that mimic those of their favorite brands like Apple, Starbucks, Amazon, and others).

More and more public sector organizations are realizing the web is no longer an online brochure. It’s an important engagement tool that can both provide necessary customer service and help fuel behavioral change—at a lower cost than call centers, service centers, and outbound public service announcement campaigns.

But to deliver a better customer experience, public sector organizations often have to rethink and transform their cultures and processes, as well as the way they think about their citizens (i.e., their customers).

The cultural shift toward customer-centricity

In our work with public sector clients, we start by understanding the cultural and institutional barriers to a customer focus. By talking to department stakeholders, leaders, and constituents via team, group and individual interviews, we’re able to identify points of friction within the organization.

A city government’s website both provides necessary customer service and helps fuel behavioral change.

Then we conduct user research and usability studies with their customers to paint the picture of these barriers from the customer’s point of view. Needless to say, this kind of data can be very eye-opening. By understanding the problems customers encounter, from where they get stuck looking for information to how they want to consume it, organizations can prioritize the experiences that are most important to their service standards and mission.

Next, we help clients identify gaps between their people, processes, technology, data, and governance. Developing strategic plans to bridge those gaps is critical to transforming into a customer-centric organization.

Want to know the number-one gap we see our public sector clients grapple with? A shared language for the services they provide.

Understanding taxonomy: developing a shared, customer-facing language and site structure

Internal jargon is endemic to most organizations—and that’s especially true in the public sector.

Imagine how frustrating it is when you’re trying to look up a city service online, but can’t find it because the city calls it something else. And then you finally come across a kernel of useful information, but can’t find more information on the same topic. That’s because most of the time, each city department has its own unique site with separate information.

Internal jargon is endemic to most organizations—and that’s especially true in the public sector.

That’s where taxonomy and information architecture come in. Taxonomy is a way of classifying something so it can be easily grouped with like items. Think of your local library: it has books classified by genre, author, topic, etc. Each of those classification systems is a taxonomy.

When a library groups all children’s books into one category called “Children’s Books,” for example, it enables me to easily search for this term and find all the books classified as such. But maybe I want to browse all the library has to offer for children. I might go to their website and look under the tab that says “For Children” and find all kinds of things, from classes and programs to books and activities.

That is information architecture: the way content is organized to be easily found. Taxonomy and information architecture work hand in hand and are critical to enabling customers to find information and engage with your site. The trick is to create a customer-centric taxonomy using words your customers actually use, not internal jargon.

With one of our municipal clients, we worked to carefully categorize citywide services into multiple taxonomies. We tested them with internal stakeholders and customers and fleshed out a governance strategy to help them apply the taxonomy and structure to content across their departments. We then leveraged our customer research to recommend and test a customer-facing information architecture and user experience strategy that would enable customers to find the content they are looking for, no matter which department site they came from.

The result: a city-wide taxonomy and information architecture that both makes it easy for the average resident and visitor to find what they need and provides flexibility for each department’s unique services and structure.

Creating content that customers want

You've built a user-friendly taxonomy and site architecture: now what? Read part two to learn how to create content that’s relevant, useful, and engaging—and how to continually test and refine it over time.

Jen Travis is a brand and digital strategy consultant in Slalom Seattle's Customer Engagement practice. Jen is passionate about helping companies create brand-defining customer experiences across their organizations. Follow her on Twitter: @travisjen.


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