WRITTEN BY MAREN MAIER
Huge, the digital design firm behind NYC.gov shares how they help city governments provide better communication to their citizens
In 2011, the Brooklyn-headquartered digital design agency Huge won a contract to redesign the City of New York’s official website, NYC.gov. Since its launch in 2013, the new NYC.gov is not only lauded as a shape-shifting public web platform – the first responsive multi-device government site in the country – it has also become a beacon for cities who seek to usher public services into the new digital age. Out of Huge’s Washington, D.C. office, the agency works with a growing portfolio of government clients. We sat down with Kate Watts, Managing Director of the Washington, D.C. office to talk about what the future holds in the public sector.
C: Kate, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, and congratulations on the well-deserved accolades for NYC.gov. Is the new office in Washington, D.C. an offshoot of this success?
K: It was certainly a contributing factor. I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. but had been away working in New York City for many years. From a distance, it has been amazing to watch the District’s renaissance. It managed to attract a really diverse and talented pool of students, professionals, start-ups, and established companies. It is also the nation’s hub for federal and city government contracting, so all of this combined makes Washington, D.C. an attractive market for us. Since we moved here in 2011, we have seen an uptick of interest in design from the federal sector, and it has shown in our numbers. In just fourteen months, we have grown to 40 staff and revenue in the tens of millions of dollars.
C: What motivated your agency to seek public sector clients?
K: We are branding experts and passionate about helping organizations connect with their customers. Governments face the same issues as any other ‘brand’ and are also seeking the same outcomes – loyal patrons. But as the private sector keeps pace with digital advances, the public sector is lagging behind and dealing with a growing gap in service quality. Add to that a rising level of dysfunction in our political process, and it is not surprising that governments face an urgent brand perception problem. We see a huge opportunity here, and we want to lead the change. In Washington, D.C., for instance we would like to help shape a new brand for the city – to create a culture by and for digital natives.
K: NYC.gov worked well because the city had the right leadership in place, and they welcomed new thinking from outside sources. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also understood the power of the brand and even mentioned in conversations how “we need to brand the city in a different way”. He, along with the city’s Chief Digital Officer and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications laid the groundwork for a productive collaboration around a new brand concept – a more luxurious and full service city. We ran with it and turned NYC.gov into the city’s digital concierge.
C: Is there a pronounced difference between working with government versus for-profit clients?
K: While the work is the same, there is certainly a noticeable difference in work culture. The bureaucratic system of government breeds a palpable sense of risk aversion and hesitance. We often experience clients who are afraid of stripping out content or breaking rank, probably because of the pressures they feel to spend public money carefully. Ironically, we find this cautious approach leads to both overspending and spending ineffectively.
C: How do you demonstrate that a new digital approach is worth the investment?
K: The first thing we show is how they can build efficiencies with new digital software and save money over time. We also make sure they understand that digital isn’t just an add-on or a one off. It is often a resident’s first touch point with the city or government and at the core of the citizen experience. We recently convened a roundtable on civic design and had great discussions with Marketing and Communications representatives from USDA, DOE, the White House, and other government agencies. There is a general understanding about the need for change, but the first step is always building relationships with the right leaders inside government.
C: How do you begin your work for public sector clients?
K: We start each project by asking the client a key question: who is your audience, and what are you trying to solve for? It is surprising how often our clients don’t know how to answer this. More often than not, they respond by explaining their capabilities rather than defining the problem. Getting this right is the key to a successful project. We then dive into sketching, prototyping, and putting strong metrics in place. All of our projects use key performance indicators that measure engagement and share-through as a way to monitor cost efficiencies and brand health.
C: Can you walk us through the NYC.gov design process?
K: Sure. Once we had the problem defined, we established two key goals for the website: operational efficiency and connecting to the user. The original NYC.gov site was very fragmented, siloed, and designed around the organizational structure of City Hall. At one point, it even contained hundreds of different social media accounts linked from hundreds of different pages. The first thing we did was redo the site structure to map to users’ needs. We made it local and personal using data collected from the 35 million residents’ search behaviors on the old site. A user can now tell at a glance what is happening in their neighborhood – when alternate-side parking is in effect, garbage is being collected or schools are in session. Payments like property tax or a parking ticket can all be accessed from one place. Even Mayoral announcement are now live-streamed on the site. To ensure consistency in language and voice, we filter everything through one NYC.gov Editor-in-Chief.
K: Huge uses a hybrid process. We are collaborative up to a point but are cautious not to over-engage, as there is a point where shoulder surfing becomes inefficient. Of course we prototype for feedback, but many of our designers are also coders, and we are all city residents. The balance is about knowing when to pull users in for feedback and when to pull them out.
K: There is a tendency to think little skunk works in agencies or departments can create change, but I don’t believe this is enough to transform an entire system. It requires tackling the problem from various angles. One idea is to redesign the government contracting process to make it more accessible and competitive for design firms. Also, many contracts don’t evaluate design criteria when selecting candidates for bids, and often reviewers are unfamiliar with the benefits of design-led approaches. Another idea is to change job titles and job descriptions of designers in government. Right now, most designers are employed as ‘Information Specialists’ or something similar, but designers and should be openly recognized, valued, and prized for the skills they bring to the table. Finally, it is important to figure out how to transfer institutional knowledge of a design-led approach once a contract expires. This is something we are working on with NYC.gov.
C: What do you consider the biggest challenge for your ongoing work in Washington, D.C.?
K: One challenge is attracting the right creative talent – designers and digital natives who are interested in and capable of working in the public sector. When we first set up the Huge DC office in 2011, other design firms would tell us how they didn’t boldly present their government work on their websites, for fear it wasn’t sexy enough to attract good talent. We feel the opposite. We are proud of being a leader in the government space and are confident the talent will follow.
C: Do you have any advice for designers who are interested in public sector work?
K: Be a squeaky wheel. Be a hybrid. Design and code. Recognize the untapped creative and competitive potential of working in government and have the courage to chafe against the system. There are amazing pockets of innovation happening in DC, and now is the time to jump in ahead of the curve.
C: Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with our readers.
K: To follow their work in Washington, D.C. and New York City, check out their website at Huge (http://www.hugeinc.com/).