While the International Trade Administration provides incredible service through its one-on-one advising, customer rating metrics are dropping by 15% annually.
The ITA services 30,000 customers yearly, but half of those services are single interactions that last under an hour. Only 14,000 customers work on extended projects with ITA’s 2,000 employees—which is only 7 customers per employee.
This model is inefficient and unsustainable for ITA. More importantly, it is unreasonable for clients that need quick answers and easy-to-use services.
Research has shown that creating a better self-serving digital platform would enable a stronger customer retention rate and save the ITA millions.
The International Trade Administration has six websites for one agency: trade.gov, buyUSA.gov, export.gov, stopfakes.gov, selectUSA.gov, and privacyshield.gov. Each site has its own look and feel to it.
Users found a lack of a cohesive structure between these sites, insinuating a lack of credibility and unity to the greater organization.
Navigating through these six sites to find what you’re looking for is a nightmare and users know. Many come to the site, can’t find what they’re looking for, and then leave. Some contact the ITA to help with simple tasks, but are unwilling to use the service again due to the bad experience. ITA employees spend their time teaching users how to use the websites, instead of focusing on other more innovative, challenging, and important projects.
This leads to, for example, users paying another company for the same exact data that ITA provides for free, simply because it’s presented in a digestible format.
Throughout my ten weeks at the ITA, I conducted user research with trade associations, scoped out ITA’s digital projects/plans, and, most importantly, synthesized my learnings into a 30-page web strategy report.
In the discovery phase, I learned that the ITA had little metrics or processes in place to gather continuous user feedback. My first step was ensuring that user research and user testing became a necessary and constant part of ITA’s website renovations. Additionally, we highlighted three core values of our web strategy: feasibility, usability, and flexibility.
The purpose of our interviews with trade associations was to determine how to make a better self-serving platform. The purpose of our interviews with ITA employees was to determine how to make their jobs easier, while prioritizing users’ needs.
Through these interviews, we created example wireframes and mapped out core functionalities that included a relational database, smarter search, embedded analytics, visual integration, and front-end information architecture. We even created a long-term roadmap and specific steps for ITA to take to make this project a reality.
ITA was looking for a quick win, but what we presented was a long-term strategy. It was crucial for us to show them that they should sustain what they already have, but, simultaneously, work to create something better. To get people out of their silos and get them to start thinking in a user-centered (versus an office-centric) way was the biggest impact this project had. I’ve noted some key takeaways from this experience, including advice on how to overcome challenges that are often pervasive in government:
Remember that who you are serving is the American public, not the agency leads.
While it is absolutely vital to connect to, empathize with, and build with (not for) the end user, it is equally important to inform stakeholders of the process each step of the way. This way, they feel ownership over the project and do not feel blindsided at the end.
Find the shiny object. Interview stakeholders and see what they are excited about implementing and incorporate their language/ideas into your pitch.
Make connections OUTSIDE the agency! Chances are, people have done similar work and are more than willing to help you. (In our case, I talked with people at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, who had undergone a similar website integration).
Understand the difference between “red laws” (which are written down and can be looked up) and “blue laws” (which are laws that people make up to simplify rules). (source)