A baker can tell if their product is popular – people either buy it, or they don’t.

But in government, it isn’t so simple. Citizens must pay their taxes, for example, even if the service isn’t as smooth as they would like.

Agencies exist to serve citizens, so they do need to know how to improve. This is especially true with digital services. How can you tell if a mobile app is necessary, and reaches the desired audience? How could a payments system be redesigned to make it simpler?

GovInsider caught up with Mark Lim, Director of Singapore’s Government Digital Services, to discuss four steps to make services more user friendly.

Methods to meet user needs

The GDS uses many different techniques, but Lim highlighted these four: user research, information architecture, interaction design and usability testing. All four tie together to help officials create services that match citizen needs.

First, Lim explains, the GDS team will conduct user research. This is done both with citizens, and also with internal staff to gather their suggestions. This will “re-frame the problem if necessary,” he explains. Users may have a completely different idea of how a service should work.

Next, the team will create an information architecture. This is the “blueprint” of a service, Lim says. Citizens are given cards with different functions and types of information written on them. They will then have to sort them into the different places they should appear on the site. GDS can use this feedback to change how a service works. For example, passports may appear under immigration, but users may expect it to appear under a category called travel.

Only once they have planned how a site should work do they start building it. This is the third step – interaction design. A specialist team uses “cognitive psychology” to design a prototype. This will incorporate design elements that are proven to achieve objectives (a big red button might encourage someone to click on it).

However, Lim adds, “we can never be too sure until we put the prototypes through the rigour of usability testing with the users themselves.”

This is the fourth step. The GDS will test out their prototypes to see if they are on the right track. During usability testing, the target audience is asked to carry out a list of tasks while their behaviour is observed. This can be done at a special lab facility, or remotely by utilising an eyeball-tracking tool. Either way, “facilitators can spot which areas of a site captures users’ attention,” Lim says. They will then put the most important information in those areas.

Examples of apps or services that were built using these methods

A good product starts with good requirements, Lim says. “In the development of MyResponder mobile app, proper user research was conducted to ensure users were positioned at the centre of the design.” His team invited three groups of public users with different backgrounds to join the focus group discussions. “From there we identified some of the pain points that users were experiencing.”

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Meanwhile, on the OneService mobile app (pictured above), Lim’s team built a special test version of the application to record users’ screen interactions, clicks, facial expression and verbal feedback. “Through inviting volunteers to use this version of the app, important usability issues surfaced before the production version was submitted to the appstore and playstore,” Lim explains.

And on the National Day Rally Portal project, the GDS combined user engagement analytics and eye-tracking to design the portal. They had a specialist number of techniques, including A/B testing – where two different versions are tested on user groups – to see which version worked best.

There is – in fact- a fifth step for user testing, which is fundamental to the whole process. “For product design and development, we do not just launch the web or app, we continue to monitor its performance and usability in order to have continuous improvement,” Lim says. That way, services can be constantly updated to meet the latest user needs.

Their techniques may sound complex, but the GDS performs them for very good reasons. Most government agencies should be trialling them. After all, they can make interacting with government the best thing since sliced bread.