Written by Greg Bartlett, Solutions Engineer Lead at CityBase
Creating a digital city hall like my.indy.gov goes much deeper than putting forms online. Since partnering with Indianapolis and Marion County at the start of the Shift Indy initiative, our goal at CityBase has always been to work together toward a civic experience that is more intuitive for Indy households and businesses, and more efficient for the staff who keep government running.
We continually strive to capture better data and improve ease of use, including when someone is accessing services from their mobile device. A bad form submission when someone is requesting a service online — for instance, contesting a parking ticket or applying for a property tax deduction — has many implications down the road. Making forms easier to fill and submit from any device improves the accuracy of the data collected, and it provides a better user experience (UX) for constituents.
If a person submits a form incorrectly, that submission might be missing information necessary to handle the request, or it may be routed to the wrong agency entirely. Even worse is if a confused constituent takes the time to fill out and submit a form they didn’t need in the first place. This can all lead to delays in processing a request, and the internal costs of correcting and redirecting the process.
A constituent may think their request is well underway, but the process of correcting inaccurate data or filling in missing gaps may only be getting started. The result is a poor experience for the person who thinks their government is being unresponsive, since they don’t understand what’s taking so long. Not to mention the staff time wasted on what might have otherwise been a simple business process.
6 Ways to Improve UX
To avoid bad form submissions and create easier access online, my.indy.gov uses a number of best practices in UX design.
- Soft redirection – Directing the user to a more appropriate digital service.
A good example of this is Indy’s Write to the Mayor digital service. From talking with the Mayor’s Action Center (MAC), we learned they receive many requests that other agencies handle as their main business function. While the MAC can support these requests, a person may have their issue resolved more quickly by writing directly to the agency that oversees those matters. The digital service now nudges people toward other services that may answer their requests directly. This kind of redirection is considered “soft,” because the user can still submit the initial activity.
- Qualifying questions – Using questions to confirm the digital service is applicable, and the user has legal standing to submit.
Some interactions with the government can be confusing to constituents. Often a term will have a specific legal definition that impacts the process. For instance, in Marion County there are two types of property assessment appeals: an objective appeal and a subjective appeal. To avoid having a person fill out the entire form before realizing they selected the wrong one, the form begins with qualifying questions that make sure the person is using the right digital service for their request. These questions can also help soft redirect a person to the correct form.
- Placeholder text – Text within an input field to provide the user with additional direction or details.
You’ve likely experienced this for things like submitting your phone number or credit card information on a site with good UX. Rather than let you input free-form, the site will indicate exactly how many numerals there should be and what format they should take. Many people scan forms quickly as they write in their information. Placing the text within the form field increases the chances that a person will follow those instructions. It also reduces the amount of thought it takes in order to get it right. Remember: the goal is to make things quick and easy for constituents.
- Lookup from data source – Using data sources to instantly look up information for form input.
Even better than making suggestions with placeholder text is to literally fill out the form field for the constituent. This is done by integrating a form directly with an underlying database. So, if someone begins typing in “200 East Wash…” the form will automatically suggest relevant addresses in the database like 200 E. Washington St, Indianapolis, IN 46204. Look-ups can even be used to simultaneously retrieve data from multiple databases. For example, to combine real estate parcels, the property tax database can be queried when the address database is queried. This combination returns the property owner name in addition to the address, so the user can easily confirm the correct parcels are selected.
- Conditional field display – Showing or hiding form fields and instructional text depending on the user’s selection.
This is generally done through the use of Yes/No questions, where the selection dictates what will be shown next. For example, if you are applying for a mortgage deduction, the form will ask if you have filed for other mortgage deductions on different properties. If you select yes, a new question will appear to ask which county the other property is located. If you select no, you don’t see that next question. Remember that people scan forms quickly. It can be overwhelming or confusing to see many form fields for questions you don’t have (or need) the answer to.
- Provide a lifeline – Giving the user an easy way to communicate with the agency when there are question or concerns.
People will inevitably have questions when filling out a more complex form. We try to anticipate the areas where there may be confusion or additional questions, and provide a direct point of contact. This is done by placing an email address or phone number in those areas of the form. Additionally, each digital service on my.indy.gov is associated with an agency that has a “Get in Touch” information panel. This provides the office hours, phone number, and email address for the appropriate agency. To make it even easier for people (especially those accessing the website on their mobile device), phone numbers are click to call and email addresses load in the user’s email client.
By allowing residents to easily search, request, and apply for all services online, the Shift Indy initiative is transforming how people interact with their local government. The my.indy.gov website represents what it means to be an accessible, intuitive digital city hall.
For more information about Citybase, including blog posts and case studies related to the Shift Indy initiative, visit their website here.