This Week's IDEA

Listen to Customers by Asking the Right Questions

Four Questions to Help Discover What Customers Want and Need
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If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.—W. Edwards Deming
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Welcome to This Week’s IDEA, where we talk about one essential topic around 21st Century IDEA and share resources and tools that you can use to start making small, incremental changes to your websites and digital services.

According to analytics.usa.gov, there were over 14 billion sessions and 38 billion page views on federal websites in 2019. In the first three months of 2020, more than 50% of traffic was from mobile devices.

The private sector has raised customer expectations, so government services must be delivered in ways the public now demands and expects—quick, easy, secure, and accessible.

21st Century IDEA states that new and updated executive agency websites should be “designed around user needs with data-driven analysis influencing management and development decisions.” It also says that we should, “continually test [our] website[s], web-based form[s], web-based application[s], or digital service[s] to ensure that user needs are addressed.” (P.L. 115-336 §3(A)6).

This requirement really means that we need to listen to our customers and learn from what we hear—from the site’s creation through every update. We should use feedback to drive continuous improvement, making the site a little bit better with every update, and ensuring it meets customer expectations. So, what, exactly, does it mean to listen, and how do we design to listen?

W. Edwards Deming, whose theories on quality control sparked the renewal of Japan’s economy following World War II and launched the total quality management movement, encouraged asking the right questions.

What are some of the right questions that we can ask to discover what our customers want and need?


Four Questions to Help Discover What Customers Want and Need

Consider the following four questions, based on the U.S. Web Design System’s Listen design principle.

Q1. Who are my customers?

Like any business or storefront, government websites have key, target audiences for our information and customers who want to use our services.

Use common profiles or personas to better understand customer needs, and improve your site to meet those needs. For example, Code.gov uses four personas to inform their content and site structure.

Also, follow these tips for starting your customer experience journey. These are low-cost, low-lift actions you can take to develop a customer profile.

Q2. What tools can I use to gather feedback?

The good news is that there are several tools available to gather feedback. Here are a few tools to help you get started:

  • Digital Analytics Program (DAP) - An analytics tool for measuring digital services in the federal government. It also powers analytics.USA.gov, which offers a quick window into your website. (Note, M-17-06 requires DAP on all federal executive branch public-facing websites.)
  • Search.gov - A hosted search platform for federal websites, which helps you understand what your customers may be looking for on your product. (Note, M-17-06 requires a search function on all federal executive branch public-facing websites with content intended for public use.)
  • Customer Experience Surveys - OMB Circular A-11 provides a framework for product surveys to help you focus on seven dimensions of experience when you query your customers. USDA has published its guidance on how to create an A-11 survey.
  • 18F Methods - A list of research methods to help you bring human-centered design into each phase of your project, including potential tools for each step.

For any tool, take the time to understand the terminology and dive into the nuances of its data and methodology. And, as your team matures in its analytics capabilities, also consider using A/B testing, tag management, heat-mapping, and data visualization to make data-informed decisions.

Q3. What content is driving interest?

You need to understand the pages or pieces of content that are getting the most traffic (as measured by sessions or unique pageviews).

However, this metric only tells you part of the story. You should also study metrics such as the amount of time that users are spending on each page, and compare time spent to the desired activity for that page, to understand potential frustrations that your customers may experience.

Your agency is also likely generating content across several channels (e.g., social media, newsletters, blogs, and other sites) that directs customers back to your site. Ideally, content should encourage customers to follow a call to action or distinct customer journey… but customers do not always interact with content as intended. What paths are they taking to find your content?

To understand what content is driving customer interest, consider tracking your promotional campaigns, so you know what campaign content is driving traffic. You may also consider using tools like a campaign URL builder, the Go.USA.gov URL shortener, and analytics tools in social platforms to more accurately track the success of your outreach efforts.

Q4. Are customers finding what they need?

Use top tasks to prioritize the content or activities in your product that are most important to your customers. Build a product that works as intended, and helps your customers easily complete their top tasks.

Usability.gov provides a Task Analysis Toolkit with some detailed steps for prioritizing content and optimizing top tasks.

Analyze your search terms to understand customer pain points. If people need to search for something, that likely means they had trouble finding it on your site. A few years ago, the team at FTC.gov told Digital.gov exactly how they made changes based on such an analysis.

Help us identify the right questions that make discovery possible

When we listen, we learn. We’d like your help in learning what actions federal digital teams can take to improve how we listen to our customers.

In your words, help us complete this sentence. There are no right or wrong answers, and you’re welcome to submit as many times as you’d like.

  1. To build a greater understanding of the problem and the people it impacts, we need to _____________.

We’ll be taking your answers and using them to create content on Digital.gov to provide you with the guidance and tools you need.

Up Next

From the Field

Be a person. Don’t be a drone or some person in this big office building. Say, ‘my name is Tim and I am a Marine Corps veteran as well.’ That is empathy and about connecting with your customer. —Tim Hudak, communications lead for the Veterans Experience Office.

Learn how Tim and and his colleagues at the Department of Veterans Affairs are reaching America’s veterans in the digital space.

Do you have a 21st Century IDEA-related comment or question? Or would you like to give a shout out to your colleagues? Send it to us at digitalgov@gsa.gov, and we’ll work to incorporate it into the next newsletter.


All references to specific brands, products, and/or companies are used only for illustrative purposes and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. federal government or any federal government agency.