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Designing Government Services for Everyone: Erica Deahl on The Role UX Plays in Creating Better Services

Erica Deahl

When it comes to diversity of workplaces, Erica Deahl has experienced it all. From agencies, to presidential campaigns, to her current job as principal designer at Khan Academy, she believes in the power of good design to change people’s lives for the better. It was this drive that led her to become the lead UX designer on the U.S. Web Design Standards project, creating a library of design guidelines and code to help government developers and designers create trustworthy, accessible, and consistent digital government services.

At Adobe MAX, Erica will share insights into how UX design can revolutionize the way we interact with our governments in her talk, Designing Government Services for Everyone: A United UX for America. In her words, “In order to design a better immigration process, or to help teachers support students at different levels of learning, it’s critical to start by understanding the experience of the people relying on those products and services.” We asked her to share more of her story.

Why was it important to create the U.S. Web Design Standards?

In government, there are designers and developers in hundreds of agencies working to solve problems that are often very similar. Our team’s goal was to make it really easy for them to make good design choices. The U.S. Web Design Standards enable government teams to prototype and ship websites quickly, and they make it easier to share best practices for UX design and accessibility.

As teams across government have adopted the Standards, the sites they’ve shipped are accessible and use consistent UX patterns, which is a huge benefit for the people relying on those services.

What are the key UX design considerations when designing for government services?

In government, it’s mandatory for digital services to be accessible for everyone. Complying with accessibility guidelines is just a starting point–when you’re making design decisions, you have to constantly question whether those decisions will impair someone’s ability to use and understand the service. And you have to validate those choices by testing products with people in a wide range of accessibility contexts.

But accessibility isn’t the only constraint–there are sometimes legal or technical requirements that prevent you from choosing the clearest design direction, so you have to find workarounds that are both clear to users and legally compliant.

How important is consistency across government websites and apps?

People shouldn’t have to understand the complex organizational structure of government in order to benefit from the services it provides. Many government benefits require people to interact with numerous different agencies or departments, making the experience of seeking a benefit frustrating and disorienting. Establishing a consistent user experience throughout that journey makes it easier for people to understand and trust the process, and get to the outcomes they need faster.

Why is it important for you as a UX designer to work on government and public service-related projects?

There’s a huge amount of work we need to do to improve delivery of government digital services. Lots of agencies still rely on legacy systems that don’t work very well, and that means that the millions of people who rely on their services suffer. It also means that there’s a massive opportunity–even incremental design improvements make an enormous impact.

We need designers to help address those problems because designers are trained to learn about, understand, and empathize with the challenges faced within agencies and by the people they serve, and to design solutions.

Designers have an incredible opportunity to make a difference in government, and they don’t have to make a career sacrifice to do that work. Over the past few years, organizations like 18F and USDS have done some amazing work to build talented teams and enable designers to leverage their expertise on problems of a scale and complexity to rival the most exciting private sector opportunities.

To learn more about Erica Deahl and her work creating the U.S. Web Design Standards, check out the case study on her website or catch her talk at Adobe MAX.