User Experience

Building a Bureau-Wide Usability Collaboration Group: Lessons Learned from the U.S. Geological Survey

Sep 1, 2021

Excited to demonstrate the benefits and techniques of usability to USGS employees, Chung Yi “Sophie” Hou, a data and usability analyst contractor with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), formed the USGS Community for Data Integration (CDI) Usability Collaboration Area in December of 2019. This group is focused on “helping USGS tools and services be useful and their users be successful” and is one of nineteen areas within the CDI, a dynamic community of practice aimed at growing USGS knowledge and capacity in scientific data and information management integration.

“Usability gives us a process to help increase trust throughout every stage of developing government products and services, and facilitate the growth of trust over time,” says Sophie.

As a program analyst for the USGS National Climate Adaptation Science Center, I joined the collaboration group earlier this year and found that it is an excellent source of information, one that sheds light on a whole usability effort and community at the USGS of which I was previously unaware. I recently sat down with Sophie to learn more about how the group was formed and the lessons she’s learned from her experience leading the group. Below are some of her thoughts.

Holly: How was the USGS Usability Collaboration Group formed?

Sophie: Part of my original contract with the USGS was to help promote a user-centered culture at the bureau. I worked with my supervisor and colleagues to brainstorm potential avenues for doing this. One of our initial ideas included advertising me as a sort of resource or “help desk” for employees to come to if they needed usability support. That felt very passive to me, though. I thought, ‘how would someone know they need support if they don’t first understand what usability is worth and how it works?’ That’s when we decided a collaboration group would be a better route – so I could actually give demos and resources and show other employees what usability looks like.

Holly: Can you describe the structure of the group?

Sophie: In an intentional effort to not burn people out, the CDI Usability Collaboration Area meets twice a month, but only every other month, and each meeting only lasts half an hour. During the meetings, I typically either give a short presentation about usability (e.g. overviews of the user research or prototyping processes) or a demonstration of a specific usability tool or technique voted on by the group at a previous meeting (e.g., journey mapping or wire-framing). 

Additionally, I use the months that we are not meeting to provide “Resource Review” write-ups in which I summarize an article, video, or other usability resource for the group. I use these two options to encourage people to have synchronous or self-guided collaborations based on their availability or preference.

Holly: Why did you decide to structure the group the way it is, with the short meetings and resource reviews?

Sophie: Originally, I didn’t want to be the only one selecting the conversation topics; I wanted the members to bring their own questions or projects to discuss—more like a discussion forum. However, it was quickly brought to my attention how busy people are. 

There’s a balance between getting people excited enough to contribute to the group and chasing people down for discussion topics before they are ready to share. I do still hope that it will be more community-led at some point in the future. I plan to survey the members at the end of the year and adjust the format based on feedback.

Holly: What has been the biggest success of the group?

Sophie: Since I started the group, there’s been an increase in the number of people reaching out to me to ask questions about usability or to invite me to give presentations to their centers. The simple fact that people are thinking about ways to incorporate what they’ve learned into their own projects is something that I’m very proud of.

Holly: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in leading the group?

Sophie: I think, for me, the biggest challenge has been bandwidth. I would love to be able to dedicate more time to growing the group and supporting different usability needs throughout the USGS CDI community, however, leading the usability group is only one part of my job.

Holly: What are some of the lessons learned that would be helpful to others interested in starting a similar group at their own agencies?

Sophie: It’s okay to start off small. It can help to start with friends and colleagues in your organization who you know will support the effort and then build off of that. Be specific about the group’s purpose and don’t forget to do your homework and make sure you focus on activities [that] people in your organization will actually care about. 

Also, it’s okay if some people aren’t ready or don’t have the capacity to take on usability right away. You don’t want to be the reason that your colleagues are stressed. I think people should focus on usability because they care, not just because someone is making them do it.

Holly: How does usability fit into the mission of the U.S. Geological Survey?

Sophie: The USGS mission is to monitor, analyze, and predict current and evolving dynamics of complex human and natural Earth-system interactions and to deliver actionable intelligence at scales and timeframes relevant to decision makers. This statement really resonates with me. It’s important to understand:

  • who the communities are that we serve, 
  • what their problems are, and 
  • what the context is for these problems. 

There’s a convergence that can happen that allows us to produce technical, unbiased, high-quality science while also considering the social and emotional context to improve the user satisfaction of our science products. How do we do our science and also make people connect with it and understand that we care about their well-being? How do we make people feel like they are behind our work and allow them to think “this science is for me”? In this way, I believe usability is core to our work.

Holly: Similarly, how do usability and user experience fit into the federal government as a whole?

Sophie: Usability gives us a process to help increase trust throughout every stage of developing government products and services and facilitate the growth of trust over time. It’s crucial that we include different perspectives in our work. If we don’t ask and we don’t try to listen, how will we know what other people need?

To learn more about the USGS Usability Collaboration Area, please visit: