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Rethinking personas in government

National Archives Digital Personas

Source: U.S. National Archives

Personas are an important tool used in human-centered design to help a service provider better understand the needs of the intended users.

Rather than basing service design on whimsical assumptions, personas aim to keep the focus on specific user types and their respective needs so that their particular tasks or problems can be effectively addressed and resolved in the context of real people needs.

Personas can and should be developed for any government service used by the public, from digital to in-person experiences, whether it’s an information-oriented website or application process. They are a fundamental component of human-centered public service design.

As 18F explains when describing the importance of personas, they “ground design in reality by forcing us to consider the goals, behaviors, and pain points of the people affected by our design decisions. Unlike marketing personas based on demographics or marketability, design personas describe how someone accomplishes goals.”

According to Usability.gov, effective personas:

  • Represent a major user group for your website
  • Express and focus on the major needs and expectations of the most important user groups
  • Give a clear picture of the user’s expectations and how they’re likely to use the site
  • Aid in uncovering universal features and functionality
  • Describe real people with backgrounds, goals, and values

Also from Usability.gov, benefits of personas include:

  • Stakeholders and leaders evaluate new site feature ideas
  • Information architects develop informed wireframes, interface behaviors, and labeling
  • Designers create the overall look and feel of the website
  • System engineers/developers decide which approaches to take based on user behaviors
  • Copy writers ensure site content is written to the appropriate audiences

Government agencies including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Government of New Zealand and others rely on personas as part of an increasingly growing human-centered public service design movement.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s must-read book, “Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech,” brought to light for me the unintended consequenses of traditional aspects of personas — photo, gender, age, hometown — how these can cause bias or confusion for service designers, and why they should be eliminated from the practice, particularly within the public sector.

In “Technically Wrong,” Wachter-Boettcher shares an anecdote of working with a client, and how the persona process they went through caused her to rethink these traditional components. At one point, one person suggested the CEO persona, a “fortyish black woman,” wasn’t realistic in their particular industry, while another person had a problem with one that described a “divorced black woman in a low-level job.”

Wachter-Boettcher writes:

But what they missed — because, I recognize now, our personas encouraged them to miss it — was that demographics weren’t the point. Differing motivations and challenges were the real drivers behind what these people wanted and how they interacted with the organization.

We thought adding photos, genders, ages, and hometowns would give our personas a more realistic feel. And they did–just not the way we intended. Rather than helping folks connect with these people, the personas encouraged the team to assume that demographic information drove motivations–that, say, young women tended to be highly engaged, so they should produce content targeted at young women.

Thankfully, our clients’ disagreement over the right way to present race turned into a rethinking of our whole approach. Pretty soon, we’d removed all the stock photos and replaced them with icons of people working–giving presentations, sitting nose-deep in research materials, that sort of thing.

I haven’t attached a photo to a persona since.

Sunlight Foundation led an excercise in open data personas with several cities and released an open data user personas spreadsheet in May. One of the participating cities, Downey, Calif., adopted an approach similar to Wachter-Boettcher’s (though still retaining age, hometown) that focused less on demographics, but more on user type and task.


Resident problem-solving (low-medium community impact, medium-high data skills): This person has a personal goal that they want to achieve, whether it’s improving the local ecological environment or getting a bike lane built in their neighborhood. They generally have a small-scale project or goal in mind, but they need information to make their case.

Effective use of personas must be taken seriously when designing truly inclusive public services. As more government leaders adopt human-centered practices into public sector design thinking processes, it’s important to hold deep focus on the intended objective of the end user.

Ultimately, practices such as empathy mapping, quantitative data reviews and engaging with real users are critical, however, simple elimination of traditional demographic indicators while creating personas could go a long way towards government best serving the public at large.

Insights from federal digital design leaders

U.S. Digital Service

Ethan Marcotte and Karen McGrane have been on a roll lately featuring federal government design leaders on their Responsive Web Design Podcast.

The first episode, with U.S. Digital Service Designer Mollie Ruskin and Lead Front End Designer Julia Elman sharing insights into their design process and prototyping tools (OmniGraffle, Sketch, GitHub) and building the U.S. Web Design Standards, has excellent insights for those focused on this aspect of the civic experience.

Favorite quote from Mollie:

“I think that one thing that you have to just come to terms with in doing a project like this is that there are so many moving pieces and it’s a lot to keep track of all at the same time, and just to sort of like take a meditative, reasoned approach to that because it can be a daunting amount. I had been given that advice before I started, and it was about halfway through that I felt the zen of all of the pieces moving and realized that that was part of the beauty of doing this work, is that by us taking on this complex important problem, we were going to be making it easier for others moving forward. So, I would just encourage a can-do attitude and plow through those times where you feel like you’re building seventeen things all at once, because you will be.”

RWD has also featured designers from Vets.gov, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Department of State.

9 reasons why Vets.gov is the future of federal government websites

Source: Vets.gov

Source: Vets.gov

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a beta version of Vets.gov, and it’s the future of federal government digital development.

Here’s why:


Gone are the carousels, clunky blocks of information and seemingly self-serving updates on what the agency secretary is doing.

Instead, the user interface is focused on its core customer needs. There are limited graphics and calls to action, and the homepage especially shows discipline and confidence in its restraint, focusing on two user stories and popular, behavior-driven “Quick Links.”


This says it all:

“This site is a work in progress. We’re designing in the open.”

Secretary Robert McDonald explains why the agency is designing in beta. More on VA’s approach to beta and development methodology.


18F initiated HTTPS by default late last year, and this is important because it offers visitors the guarantee of a secure and private connection.

You can read more about HTTPS and why it’s important for government to adopt here, here, here, here and here.

No navigation

This is a bold and welcome move. No navigation menu and a focus on search and strong footer links shows confidence in design that emphasizes page-specific information with simple options to locate more or start from the beginning.

Digital Analytics Program

The General Services Adminstration’s Digital Analytics Program is an important effort to provide visibility into federal web traffic, and Vets.gov is participating in the program, as should every federal agency.

Active feedback

In the bottom right corner, there’s a feedback mechanism that allows users to give input on various aspects of the website.

“When you post an idea to our feedback forum, others will be able to subscribe to it and make comments,” says the site.

Having an open forum such as this allows users to see what’s been submitted and provides more transparency into the feedback. Most sites use a contact form which leaves the user wondering when and if it will ever be addressed.


The Vets.gov playbook provides all aspects of the team — editorial, design, development — with guidance to build a unified website based on core principles and processes.

Open source

The website has its own GitHub repo where you can download, fork, issue a pull request or add feedback. From the playbook, it appears it’s using Foundation and U.S. Web Design Standards for front-end development, both of which are open source.

Easter egg

Hidden in the comments of the source code is the Abraham Lincoln quote, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” While this is mostly interesting to me and anyone else who might be looking at the code, it’s an important, constant reminder to everyone working on this project why and who they’re building it for.

Congratulations to the team working on this. While the GitHub contributor list (go Danny Chapman!) is short, I’m sure there are many others behind it, and they should be proud they’re taking a bold step and setting the standard for how federal websites should be built.

USDS publishes design standards for federal government websites

U.S. Web Design Standards

U.S. Web Design Standards

The U.S. Digital Service has soft-launched new U.S. Web Design Standards to “create consistency and beautiful user experiences across U.S. federal government websites.”

The standards, similar to popular design frameworks like Bootstrap and Foundation, include a style guide and downloadable code assets aimed at creating a unified, mobile-friendly citizen experience and making it easier for developers to deploy across all government websites.

With the new standards comes a slight modification to play three of the U.S. Digital Services Playbook (“Make it simple and intuitive”) from “Create or use an existing, simple, and flexible design style guide for the service” to “Use a simple and flexible design style guide for the service. Use the U.S. Web Design Standards as a default.”

Work on the standards began earlier this year with the pattern library and, as I’ve mentioned before, the federal government could realize millions of dollars in savings by simply re-purposing a unified framework instead of re-inventing the design wheel. Much like what Bootstrap and Foundation have done to exponentially expedite development and go-to-market launches for countless startups and their products, so too could the U.S. Web Design Standards for federal government digital services.

Update from 18F:

White House moves to a more integrated, mobile-friendly blog

Photo: White House

Photo: White House

The White House continues to roll out a better mobile experience with a newly-designed White House blog.

Of note, the layout is responsive and the daily schedule is now integrated into the daily “What’s Happening” feed. Would be interesting to start seeing a feed of all things White House (YouTube, Twitter, etc.) somewhere.

I particularly like the fist-bump photo on the feedback page, much like what I incorporated into the footer of my White House homepage comp.

More on the new changes from White House Creative Director Ashleigh Axios here.

Talk to the hand: New Covington logo breaks government convention

Source: City of Covington

Source: City of Covington

I’m a huge fan of government re-branding to modernize away from the antiquated look of the traditional seal, mostly because I believe it can play a huge role in citizen sentiment and how employees see themselves and their roles as public servants.

The City of Covington, Ky., takes a bold approach on this front with its new “Covington’s Alive!” re-design.

Opinions in the “Brand New” comments section vary and, sure, the icon could be co-opted by clever designers, but it’s great to see a city getting creative and bringing personality into the citizen experience.


Philadelphia launches alpha city website


Source: alpha.phila.gov

Philadelphia has launched an alpha version of a new phila.gov.

The new site, located at alpha.phila.gov, is powered by WordPress with a custom theme that hopefully the city will open source at some point in the future.

To me, the site is perfect as is. It completely abandons outdated web features, such as the homepage carousel, gratuitous mayoral photo or city skyline, heavy graphics and department-centered focus on information presentation. The only change I’d recommend is going with standard casing (and not all-caps). In general, I love that the style is flat, light-weight, text-based, and works perfectly on all devices, much like what we designed for GovPress.

The text-based approach with limited, page-appropriate content and prominent search on each page shows restraint that we typically don’t see in government websites.

If WordPress is replacing the technology powering the current site (.asp), that’s another big win for the city.

Kudos to Philadelphia for winning on both the technology and design fronts with this.

Take a look at the site and share your feedback.

City icons and Vocativ’s livability index

Vocativ 'Livability Index'

Image: Vocativ

Vocativ published its 2014 Livability Index of the 35 best cities for people 35 and under, and the best part of it is the montage of city icons they created for the piece.

I’m a big fan of cities creating a brand strategy and modern, friendly logos, much like Colorado did, and Vocativ did a great job highlighting the iconography of the featured cities.

My favorites are Reno, Kansas City and, of course, San Francisco.

What are yours?

Introducing GovPress


After several years of talking about and conceptualizing, and months of development, I’m proud to formally (and finally) announce the release GovPress, a simple, elegant WordPress theme for government.

Since we launched version 1.0 just a few months ago, it has been downloaded more than 30,000 times from WordPress.org by governments, nonprofits and educational institutions around the world.

For those who’ve been following our work on this project, the original iteration was called GovFresh WP, however, we renamed it GovPress for the formal release so that it met WordPress branding guidelines and could be included in the official WordPress theme gallery.

The entire process of bringing GovPress to market has been an amazing experience, getting feedback, questions and, especially, thank you notes from people all over the world. I’ve learned a ton about building a solid civic hacking project and will soon write more about this so that it may help others working through their own ideas.

Finally, I can’t thank Devin Price enough for all his support in making this happen.


.gov designer: Lou Huang

Lou Huang

.gov designer is a regular GovFresh feature profiling the people behind public sector design.


Lou Huang
Fellow, Code for America
Creator, Streetmix

When did you first become interested in design?

I’ve always had a creative streak. When I was growing up I was always drawing and building things. I was really into LEGO and drawing maps of fake cities, and I always thought I would go to college for architecture… so I did. My dad, an engineer, wanted me to major in computer science. I didn’t do that, but I was also growing up at the time the Internet and web design was becoming popular, so I dabbled in it.

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