A small team’s journey through digital maturity

How Digital.gov starts with real user needs
Jul 8, 2024

Digital.gov is where federal employees go for advice and best practices in human-centered web design.

So you might think that Digital.gov’s community feedback processes have always run like a well-oiled machine. But in truth, Digital.gov has faced the same challenges as many other teams when it comes to delivering digital services. Still, we are pleased with how our feedback channels have scaled, matured, and improved with effort.

By starting with small, attainable efforts, we are able to break down big, lofty goals into smaller, achievable tasks. Here are some ways you can follow in our footsteps.

Strong user feedback infrastructure

Today, Digital.gov uses robust community feedback operations, including a Touchpoints survey, data from the Digital Analytics Program and other web analytics tools, a user research initiative, and post-event and community-wide feedback surveys.

In late 2023, we worked with GSA’s Office of Customer Experience to design a large survey of our community members, which resulted in feedback from 504 people. We used the results to enhance our connection with and participation among community members. For example, we began hosting new events for specific communities of practice and working with community leaders to increase community members’ satisfaction.

Building the capacity for user feedback

Five years ago, community-wide surveys for about 8,000 members across seven communities would have been more than we could handle. Back then, we were a much smaller team; at one point only one person supported Digital.gov. As the team grew, we were able to strategically scale our customer feedback processes.

We started by implementing a simple Touchpoints feedback form that featured a “thumbs up/thumbs down” prompt on each page. Over time, we worked to add an open-ended text box for folks to tell us what they thought about a specific page on the site. We were able to organize responses in a spreadsheet, and outline standard operating procedures. It was an easy place to start because this kind of survey doesn’t require Office of Management and Budget approval under the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA).

Revising our feedback form made it easier to identify where to make improvements to site content. For example, we discovered low satisfaction ratings on blog posts that were more than five years old. In response, we created an alert banner that is automatically added to blogs that are more than five years old. The banner, which explains that links may be broken due to the age of the content, serves to improve user trust and reduces the number of customer support requests.

New policies brought new challenges

By the time the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued M-23-22, Delivering a Digital-First Public Experience in September 2023, Digital.gov was well-positioned to develop evidence-based strategies for implementing the new policy guidance. However, we had to work fast because the community expected us to respond as soon as the memo came out — and at that point, Digital.gov’s own staff was still reading and absorbing the memo’s contents.

“It was the ‘fly the plane while you’re building the engine’ problem that so many small teams face,” says Ammie Farraj Feijoo, product manager for Digital.gov at GSA’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS). Customer experience, Ammie says, best practices encourage “you be honest with customers about what you can provide. Don’t set their expectations too high; be honest about what you’re doing, when, and how. We had to be forthright and vulnerable about where we were in the process of responding to M-23-22.”

Thanks to the human-centered infrastructure the Digital.gov team put in place before M-23-22 was released, we managed to quickly conduct interviews with agency leaders who needed support implementing recommendations in the memo. “One thing we heard,” Ammie remembers, “is that users needed help understanding the context of the memo, including a focus on the big-picture goals, and the why.” We realized that government teams would be best motivated by focusing on the human needs and frustrations that the policy guidance seeks to address through its hundred-plus requirements.

Users can’t find what they actually need on websites. Leaders [in the digital space] need to realize this memo is about the people we’re here to serve. Our websites need to add value, be easy to use, fast, and accessible for our users.—Digital.gov community member

Helping the federal community adapt

This insight shaped a transformation in our team’s communications approach: “We stopped talking about the memo itself and started talking about what is being done for the public,” Ammie explains.

The post-memo user interviews were accompanied by a large content audit, which showed that many older blog posts already on the site contained evergreen content that could be adapted to help teams navigate the current challenges they’re facing as they pursue more user-centered approaches to government web strategy.

We responded by setting up redirects from old blog posts to new content. We’re also improving templates, adjusting Digital.gov’s information architecture, and — of course — publishing new content about M-23-22, other web and digital policies, and what these requirements mean for agency web teams and the public.

Start small and scale

Based on her experience at Digital.gov, Ammie hopes that other teams won’t let their current capacity control their aspirations for the future. “Don’t make the excuse that you’re a small team,” she advises. “Do what you can with what you have. Collect the data, analyze it, show what you can do with the right resources, and keep pushing the envelope.”

She believes that with hard work, other teams can follow Digital.gov’s lead to make strategic improvements inspired by real user needs when the stars align.