General Services Administration’s Martha Dorris


Where to start with customer-experience design

The General Services Administration’s Martha Dorris, who now directs the Office of Strategic Programs, has spent years helping federal agencies improve their citizen services. She recently talked with GCN Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider about the fundamentals of good customer-experience design, particularly when it comes to mobile technology.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Thinking about the customer experience is very much in vogue right now, but it’s a really vague idea. Where do you start?

First off, it’s worth noting that the government has had requirements and executive orders and [the Government Performance and Results Act] in place since 1993. So the idea of focusing on your customer is not a new idea, although it’s hard. It sounds easy, but it’s hard because it impacts every part of an organization.

This year, the administration created a cross‑agency priority goal on customer service. It’s a really exciting time to connect the importance of customer experience to the world of technology and digital services.

So where do we get started? It’s like the customer experience life cycle: Who are your customers? How do they want to get information? What’s the experience you want them to have? What drives their experience in terms of both their hardcore satisfaction and their perception?

For example, is your customer the 35 to 40 million students who are interacting with federal student aid? Or is it the 20‑plus million veterans who are getting services from the Department of Veterans Affairs?

If you take the veterans example, you can’t just say, “My customer is a veteran.” You have a veteran of World War II. You have a recent Iraq/Afghanistan veteran. When you break those down even further, you start to see how certain segments of your customers would actually want to interact with you differently.

Doing some third‑person research and interviewing customers on how they currently work with you — what are those drivers? — and developing some personas are really a good place to start.

Then you can start mapping the journey of what are their needs and how would they interact with you. You map what those pain points are, what the emotion is when they’re going through that process, how many times they’re touching your organization. And within that organization, what are those touch points?

Then as you’re going through it, you think through from a mobile perspective, where are the mobile moments? Where does it make sense that you provide that service or the ability to conduct that piece of business with that agency in a mobile way?

It’s a very discrete function that they’re trying to accomplish in a mobile way. One example is in GSA we have per diems, so if you’re traveling then you can go online and you see what is a per diem rate for that area. The IRS mobile app on what’s the status of your tax refund — that’s like the No. 1 question people are asking, so being able to do that in an easy way through an app makes sense.

How do you start to draw that journey map? Is that done with brainstorming and coming up with personas to represent the audience? Or are you using focus groups?

VA went through a process of going across the country and actually interviewing veterans to come up with personas. You take all those interviews, and you come up with behavior‑based personas. Then you come up with scenarios for how that specific person might be interacting with your organization.

You should actually have real customers involved in it so you understand the emotions that customers are going through when they’re trying to get a benefit, schedule a medical appointment, whatever it is they’re trying to do.

Then you take all that and eventually you can draw it all out into a chart, where you can see in one place all the organizations that are touched, what the process is, what the emotions are and where the pain points are. You pull that out and extrapolate — what are some actions we can take that are going to resolve, improve, help that pain point?

How do you go about measuring success? Does it depend on each project, or are there key metrics that should always be a starting point?

I think any time you’re measuring, you want to make sure you’re measuring what you really want to accomplish. But a key metric for every customer experience would be: Were you able to complete the task that you came to complete?

There also are perception measures, things like overall satisfaction and user loyalty — would you recommend that app to somebody else, and would you come back and use that app again?

Then you can go into more key performance indicators. In the beginning, you may want to see how many people are downloading an app, what’s the usage of it, and is that growing over time? Then once you have a certain number of people using it, how many people are continuing to use it?

Then there are technical things like how long does it take to load the app, is the system up, and then at the very end, what is the user experience?

And as you’re building it, you should be testing it every step of the way to make sure that your design is meeting the users’ needs. So you’re not getting to the end of it and having to rebuild something that’s going to be costly when you could have caught it very early in a design stage.

You mentioned the importance of having real customers in the mix. Who else should be part of this conversation? Who are the stakeholders?

Within an agency, it would be your technology shop — especially if you have a digital services team — and the program. The program should own that app, and then they should have the resources around them to help build it. And then it should all be tested by customers.

Are there hallmarks of a good customer-experience process or effort that you look for when you are brought in for a conversation? Are there clear signals that something is primed for success — or obvious red flags?

I think a red flag would be, “We built this mobile app, and we’d like to go out and let people test it,” as opposed to “We have a team that has built it and iterated it and done very short sprints along the way so that we’ve made sure to test throughout the process.”

If people don’t have customer input, they’re in trouble because mobile apps are expensive to build and to maintain. And people are starting to get more selective about the apps that they want to put on their phones.

You really want to make a meaningful, valuable resource that enables your customer to be able to get the job done.

Are there other points you think are important to mention that I haven’t touched on yet — anything that someone who is about to embark on this process should know before they start asking questions?

I think people need to keep it simple and make sure that they really understand who their customers are and what their expectations are because we’re all short of resources and we want to make every dollar count.

Is this a situation where you need to bring in a customer‑experience team or consultant, or is it something mindful project managers and developers could do themselves?

It depends on the agency. Some agencies are creating their own digital services teams, and this is the way they operate — agile, user‑centered design, short sprints, all that. When you have a team like that, you’re OK.

For me the bigger issue is: Do you need an organization that focuses on the customer in a holistic way? That’s the ideal situation.

But it comes down to this: I think if you have the right resources internally and you have adopted those kinds of practices within the agency, then you should be fine. You may need technical skills or mobile app developers. It could be that you can design yourself, but you need a contractor to help you develop it.

We’ve done some things at GSA to help agencies test mobile apps. When an agency would want to test something on many different mobile platforms, we solicited people from across government and they’ve loaded an app on their phone and tested it for that agency.

It keeps an agency from having to go out and invest in a lot of different types of technology when you can just pull people from across the government to actually do usability testing, which is a really effective way to test.

There’s also Open Opportunities, which is a platform that allows you to do micro‑tasking, so agencies can actually put a task on the Open Opportunities platform and request that people help them do some of these kinds of things.

And we’re in the planning stages of a customer experience summit. So we will have lots more to come.


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