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Seattle shares results of user research projects to improve City services

City of Seattle staff recently shared results from five high-priority user research projects aimed at improving delivery of public services. These projects were completed through Seattle By Design, a pilot program that connected a cohort of volunteer experts with City staff to answer questions and make recommendations using best practices in user research. Seattle By Design is a partnership between U.S Digital Response (USDR) and Seattle Innovation & Performance. 

Five user research projects were completed during the 10-week program: 

Improving RainWise’s Participation Process – Seattle Public Utilities 

  • Background: RainWise is a rebate program that helps homeowners install rain gardens and cisterns to help manage stormwater runoff and reduce Combined Sewer Overflows. Participation in the program requires a significant time investment, and Seattle Public Utilities has heard that the complicated rebate paperwork and process deters people from participating. 
  • Approach: The team conducted 15 qualitative interviews with homeowners and contractors. 
  • Result: Staff gained a better understanding and awareness of where and when people experience challenges participating in RainWise. Strategies to address these challenges include better tracking of participants, improved customer support, and improved contractor support.  

Understanding Experiences of Seattle Residents Who Prefer Languages Other than English When Accessing Services – Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs 

  • Background: Seattle is a linguistically diverse city. Language access is crucial for immigrant and refugee community members who engage with the City of Seattle. This team’s goal was to identify barriers that prevent these community members from accessing city information and services.  
  • Approach: Staff conducted 10 qualitative interviews with residents and interpreters covering 5 languages, and led 2 workshops with community-based organizations and City public-facing program managers. 
  • Result: The team learned that residents who prefer languages other than English need greater access to translation and interpretation services to feel comfortable enough to learn about and apply for City services and programs. In addition to language assistance, the team also discovered key factors to access, such as a willingness to advocate for community members, a strong understanding of local government systems and social services, and cultural competence. This information will be helpful to inform Seattle’s Language Access program and policy moving forward.  

Identifying Ways to Engage Residents with Library Resources – Seattle Public Library 

  • Background: The Seattle Public Library sought to better understand disparities in physical collection use among Seattle residents in different race and income groups. To achieve this goal, the team focused on re-engaging patrons who had previously used the Library but had stopped during the pandemic. Understanding how to effectively connect with these individuals was crucial. 
  • Approach: The project team conducted seven qualitative interviews and consulted secondary research on market trends related to Library engagement before and after the pandemic. 
  • Result: This project provided the staff with initial ideas and emerging themes among Library users, along with a plan for continuing their user research. For instance, one observation was that patrons viewed the Library as more than just a place to borrow materials—they desired additional recreational and cultural programs, which would encourage them to spend more time at the Library. The team also discovered that the pandemic had significantly influenced people’s behavior, with some patrons shifting towards digital books instead of physical copies. The team is continuing their research to fully comprehend patron behavior and design effective strategies to re-engage residents. 

Understanding Challenges Faced by Capital Access Program Users – Office of Economic Development 

  • Background: The Small Business Flex Fund is a low-interest loan created to support small businesses. The Capital Access Program (CAP) helps eligible Seattle businesses by paying down 25% of their Flex Fund loan principal. 294 businesses received $6.9 million in awards so far. .  
  • Approach: The team conducted secondary research, held stakeholder interviews and workshops, held 7 interviews with service providers, and documented a user journey map. 
  • Result: Effective communication was the top issue for both applicants and lenders. Participants experienced challenges, such as insufficient correspondence during the process, confusion around increases in monthly payments, and a lack of adequate information and preparation time before the program launch. Enhancing communication is a key step for the next iteration of the program, which is still being designed.  

Improving the City of Seattle Business License Renewal Process – City Finance 

  • Background: Businesses in the City of Seattle must renew their business license every year. Renewals can be completed online or by mail. City Finance receives a high volume of mailed renewals, which are more time-intensive to process. Staff wanted to gain insight into why many business owners renew by mail, what hurdles business owners are facing, and whether adding a phone renewal option would be helpful.  
  • Approach: Staff collected 112 surveys, interviewed 4 city employees, and interviewed 10 small business owners for in-depth knowledge of motivations and pain points. 
  • Result: City staff heard that improving the online renewal experience should be the highest priority. Business owners had trouble using the online portal, which made them more likely to renew by mail. Business owners reported that they do not prefer an automated phone system to renew their licenses. This feedback gave the project team clear direction on how to improve the business license renewal process.  

The Seattle By Design pilot program was launched to help City staff better understand residents’ needs and improve the delivery of public services. Staff who participated in Seattle By Design have shared positive feedback about the experience, sharing, “The research helped us to avoid making decisions based on assumptions, which would not have been effective.” Another staff member reported learning “that the programmatic components we thought were creating barriers were less important than other issues residents were facing within our process.” 

While these five project teams work on applying research findings to their programs, Innovation & Performance will continue building capacity for future user research at the City. Innovation & Performance staff are evaluating the Seattle By Design pilot program through surveys and interviews with cohort participants to understand what improvements can be incorporated moving forward.  

USDR is a nonpartisan nonprofit that helps governments and organizations respond quickly and efficiently to support the critical needs of the public. In part powered by pro-bono technologists, USDR provides a surge of support and technical expertise embedded directly in governments across the country.  

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Service Design Project Lead Long Dinh.