First Rule of User Experience: You Do Talk To the User


“We assume we know what our customers want. But in many cases, we don’t."

If agencies want to improve their users’ websites and services, first they need to talk to their customers, agency officials said.

“We actually get out and talk to taxpayers,” said Michele Causey, Internal Revenue Service's director of user experience and design, at Government Executive’s Digital Citizen Summit on Wednesday.

Before the IRS makes changes to its services, Causey’s team uses research to understand what the different types of customer need. An individual taxpayer, for example, has different needs than a small business.

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“Without research, in my opinion, you cannot be successful,” she said.

The agency uses agile development, rolling out new features in iterations and then seeking customer feedback. The team created 35 iterations of the Get Transcript tool before it was re-released in the summer, Causey said, noting its satisfaction scores have steadily climbed.

The IRS plans to revamp its website with features like secure webmail and other self-service features, but the agency also acknowledges some customers prefer phone or in-person help. It recently rolled out a tool to schedule in-person appointments.

“We’re looking at improving the customer experience across all levels, not just online,” Causey said.

Customer surveys, A/B testing and web analytics can be powerful tools for agencies to identify customer pain points, said Jessica Barrett Simpson, Education Department's Federal Student Aid senior adviser for the borrower experience.

The Federal Student Aid team provides prospective college students and their parents information to help select colleges and process student aid applications, known as FAFSA forms. One of the group’s major undertakings is making FAFSA and loan-counseling information mobile friendly—though at first some within the agency were skeptical customers wanted that feature.

Simpson pointed to a generation gap between agency employees and their customers who are primarily kids about to graduate from high school. She used data on mobile trends to overcome the doubt.

“We assume we know what our customers want,” Simpson said. “But in many cases, we don’t.”