An overview of my favorite approach to getting government services in front of real users, and making use of the feedback as quickly as possible.

As you may have heard, some folks have had a hard time trying to conduct usability testing in the Federal government (and other governments!). Not only can it be easy and fun, I have a *favorite* easy and fun approach to conducting usability testing — which I’m excited to share with you today.

For the feds: This process does not require PRA review by OMB or even your agency PRA Officer! It’s on less than 9 people, and it’s nonstandard oral communication, and it’s observation! Three exceptions, when even one of them would do!

Step 1: Decide what you’re going to test.

This may seem obvious, but this…


Or: The Burn Pit: Why we shouldn’t burn it down and what we should do instead

You may wonder why so many federal government services are clunky and confusing —so much so that some people feel like they need to hire a lawyer to help navigate the service successfully. It can feel like no one has ever conducted any usability testing at all on government services before they went live. It may also feel like a form hasn’t been simplified or improved in years. These things, unfortunately, are often true.

But why would any service not go through the most…


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The kind of portal that we need

Only if it will take me to another dimension. Otherwise, no.


The U.S. Federal government is the largest employer on earth, with the biggest budget. We also sometimes have actual “website business hours” listed on government services. For example, as I write this, the FAFSA form, the key for many families to access college, is “unavailable due to scheduled maintenance,” as it is every Sunday from 3–11am ET.*

There are children — little ones — across the country who get their only access to food in a normal day through the hard work of Federal programs and services, and there is so much work to do to make those work better…


A bunch of excited (and confused!) folks have reached out for advice as they think through possibly joining government service. I’m juggling a few things at the moment, so wanted to share my high-level advice. If you need more advice, search some of these terms on twitter to find lots of folks working on these issues who are super friendly and helpful!

What do you care about?

This work is… not easy. The best way to prepare to make it through a day where you realize that a single person is the only thing keeping a critical system serving Veterans running is to make sure…


This advice is written with love for people facing a nightmare. This is not a condemnation of the doctors and nurses and aides who are doing their best in an impossible situation — this entire situation is a condemnation of policymakers who know exactly how to stop the spread and are not.

If you came here for this advice, it means you’re likely in the midst of a horrific experience, and I am so, so sorry. I’ve been there, and I’m rooting for you. A member of my immediate family contracted covid through community spread early this spring while hospitalized…


I’ve found so much comfort in the memories of others (Em, Jen, Carl’s family, the Code for America Brigades), that I’m compelled to share in hopes it helps you if you’re struggling with losing Carl, too.

Carl Lewis, my friend, and founder of Code for Savannah, passed away last week. He was 30. And the world really needed him.

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Photo courtesy of Jen Pahlka

Sometimes I meet young technical men who are white who come to civic tech because they have the misimpression that they’re needed to “save” the world. It doesn’t occur to them that many, many people care about these issues or have…


By now, you’ve heard of the Hawaii False Alarm, and about the blowback and blame as people try to sort out how this could have happened. In government circles, however, there have been empathy and knowing cringes. It is the norm, not the exception, that government systems are confusing and hard to use. Horrible mistakes happen when people use clunky government systems — they just usually don’t make the news.

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An actual punch card with a line of COBOL programming on it. By Rainer Gerhards

In fact, the last time a government technology failure was so thoroughly plastered across the news was when healthcare.gov failed to launch. At the time, I was working for the…


During my five years working on tech in the Federal government, the most frustrating rumor I heard was that, for Feds, “It’s illegal to do user research.”* Because of that rumor, very few services from the Federal government are built using the critical insights and feedback of the people who rely on those services.

If you’re a design professional, you may be squinting behind your cool glasses and saying, “wut.”

If you’ve tried to get help from the Federal government, you may be saying, “Figures!”

If you’re a Federal employee, you may be saying “Wait, that’s just a rumor?! I’ve…

Erie

America’s foremost technologist named after a Great Lake. Now @CodeforAmerica! Co-founder @techladymafia + @usds. Former @harvard @whitehouse @cfpb.

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