Bureau Blank

Ideas + Execution

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The User Experience of Cities

Keeping people at the center of the city experience

Cities are complex combinations of communities, systems, resources and services. As residents, we all interact with the city and each other on many levels. As with any complex system, whether it’s an app, a website or your everyday life in the city, design can play a direct role in making your experience a good one or a bad one, an easy one or a difficult one, a useful one or a frustrating one.

In our work creating communications, design and digital projects for the GAIN sectors (Government, Academia, Infrastructure, Nonprofit), we’ve become increasingly focused on the city as the epicenter of social systems. Health, education, workforce, financial empowerment, infrastructure and the built environment: they’re all present in the city. And in many instances, they’re critical systems that we rely upon every single day, no matter what our career, economic status or level of education.

It’s been very interesting as a design consultancy to be thinking about the work we do, not just in terms of content strategy, user experience design or technology development for a website or campaign, but as actually helping to shape the experience of New York City residents. Our work has spanned communications design (explaining how to operate your small business within the governing law), services (finding mental health resources or tracking probation clients’ community engagement) and raising public awareness (about new laws that protect job applicants from discrimination).

Having worked across these different dimensions, we’ve built insights into what we see as key components of the user experience of cities:

Visual Design: in addition to helping to make complex content accessible and engaging, visual design can help build familiarity and trust in the city brand for residents and visitors alike.

Content: it’s critical from two perspectives:

  • First, what is the content strategy? How do we take the bulk of what is trying to be communicated and a) structure it into a clear narrative and b) define the key takeaways or themes that need to come through. 
  • Second, we think about information architecture or taxonomy. When dealing with complex or long-form content it’s important to define a framework for organizing the content – is it by category, over time or by application? How do the different content types relate to one another and how can we create a system of (visual) navigation or interactivity that makes the content work for the user and not vice versa?

Usability: intuitive, simple, a positive experience – not always the core values than come to mind when thinking about government services, but they can be. This is an area where lessons from the private sector can really drive a better experience. Whether in digital services or a retail experience, think about how to remove barriers and smooth the way for an easier, more efficient interaction.

The role of human-centered design thinking: what feels like second nature to a designer in terms of process doesn’t always happen in city or social impact projects. Design services and create communications for the people who live in the city, build an understanding of their needs, their context and their experience and let the insights from that process guide the creation or refinement of new services. Interview people across demographic backgrounds and go to them where they are. Let service providers from within the city absorb the context of “customers” first hand. Designing around the needs or perspective of the city agency only takes into account part of the interaction between city and resident and arguably it’s the needs of the resident that should be thought of first.

Over several years of work in our city, these components have been critical to the success of our work. In NYC, we’ve worked across agencies and organizations to keep residents and user experience at the center of design and service delivery. These agencies and organizations include:

  • Office of Digital Strategy
  • Small Business Services
  • Mayor’s Office of Innovation & Technology
  • Department of Consumer Affairs
  • Department of Sanitation
  • Economic Development Corporation
  • Department of Probation
  • Commission on Human Rights
  • Emergency Management
  • Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC

We see our work to improve the experience of being a New Yorker as part of a broader trend in which Cities nationwide and globally are thinking more like modern, technology and service-driven businesses (see alpha.nyc.gov as an example of start-up thinking in action in city government). Cities and their residents (provider and customer) arguably have much more at stake than the typical commerce transaction, especially when dealing in issues like housing, jobs, health or education. As a team, we like to work where design thinking, strong communication and user-friendly technology can have the biggest impact and the user experience of cities is a great place to put our skills to work.

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