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Responsive Web Design


Episode 85: Ministry of Social Development

Why go responsive for MyMSD, a service that helps people in New Zealand manage their benefits? Julia McConnell and Miriam Walker say their research showed people were likely to use low-end smartphones.

A lot of it was about what devices people could afford to own and what devices they could afford to run rather than some of the usual considerations for people debating whether a responsive site was the right way to go.

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This Week’s Guests

Julia McConnell

Design Practice Lead/MyMSD Product Manager

Julia has spent the last ten years working in government web and digital communications. Over this time government web in New Zealand has changed from a means to publish policy content to being an important channel for citizens to transact with government. Julia has been a part of influencing this change—demonstrating the opportunities of digital and benefits of user centered design.

Most recently she has been the business lead for MyMSD a new responsive web application designed with and for the clients of the Ministry of Social Development—one of the largest government agencies in New Zealand responsible for administering financial support for beneficiaries, students and senior citizens.

Miriam Walker

Director of User Experience and Strategy, Digital Arts Network

Miriam Walker is Digital Arts Network’s Director of User Experience and Strategy. She’s passionate about research and design methods for involving users and creating business value through design. As well as 15 years experience, Miriam holds an MS in Human Computer Interaction from UC Berkeley and BA/BSc in Psychology and Computer Science.

Miriam has experience of many industries including travel (Visit Britain, Tourism New Zealand), financial services (Deutsche Bank, ASB, Sovereign, HSBC, Investec Bank), education and ecommerce. She’s worked in high-risk environments including research and design of UK’s National Health Services system for managing deceased organ donor medical information.


Episode Transcript

Karen:

Hi, this is a Responsive Web Design Podcast, where we interview the people who make responsive designs happen. I’m your host, Karen McGrane.

Ethan:

And I’m your other host, Ethan Marcotte.

Karen:

And this week, we are thrilled, we are delighted beyond compare, it’s like we live in a socialist country. We are here today with Julia McConnell and Miriam Walker who are going to talk about MyMSD from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand. Welcome, we are so happy to have you here!

Miriam:

Thank you.

Julia:

Thanks, really happy to be here. Yeah, cool.

Ethan:

But before we get started, I’d like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, Media Temple. They’re an LA-based provider of web and cloud hosting solutions that caters to web developers and designers like you and I, as well as to creative agencies and large enterprises. Now, they’ve been around since 1998, so there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of them. I mean, heck, one of my earliest sites was hosted on Media Temple. They offer 24/7, award-winning support, that’s based right here in the U.S., available online or over the phone. And Media Temple has one of the highest customer loyalty rates in the industry. They’re incredibly proud of their focus on the digital design community and offer a whole suite of products that are just tailored to its needs. If this all sounds good to you, you can use the code RESPONSIVE when you sign up, and if you do that, you’ll get 33% off the first three months of shared or Wordpress hosting. That’s available at mediatemple.net. Once again, from Karen and I, we’d like to thank Media Temple for sponsoring the podcast. Thanks so much.

Karen:

Well, Ethan and I were both in New Zealand recently and we met someone on your team, and I had a very lovely dinner with her and she told me about some of the amazing work that you are doing, and so we are really thrilled that you can take some time out of your weekend to come and join us. I would love it if both of you could just start off by introducing yourselves, tell us a little bit about your role on this project, maybe tell us a little bit about what MyMSD is. Julia, why don’t you start?

Julia:

Okay, cool. So, I’m Julia, I’m from the Ministry of Social Development and I was the business lead for this project. My background is in digital design and communication.

Miriam:

I’m Miriam Walker, I work for a company called Digital Arts Network. We’re actually an international company, so I work for the Auckland, New Zealand office. And I’m the director of user experience and strategy, so my role on the project was to help plan the activities with the team and with Julia and her colleagues to make sure that we understood what provided better to MSD and to involve the users of the system right from the beginning.

We didn’t have to design things for a whole lot of different devices as we would for an app, but also we could reach both people who were using smartphones and also people with a range of other devices.

Karen:

So, talk to me a little bit about why MyMSD went responsive. Did you have any questions or concerns about using responsive as a methodology or using the mobile web as the delivery mechanism?

Julia:

Before we’d started this project, we’d done some in-depth interviews with the people that would be using the service. So what the Ministry of Social Development does, it’s a central government agency that provides financial assistance to people who are in need. So, it’s benefits for people who aren’t in work or in work support, and we also look after student loans and allowances, and pensions for over sixty-five-year-olds.

We knew that the people that would use the service were internet ready just because of the research we’d already done and that around fifty percent of the ones we were targeting used smartphones but weren’t working with us in that way. And they didn’t necessarily like the current online service for desktop, they saw it as quite clunky and hard to use on mobile.

We initially thought the project would be focusing on a mobile app solution, and that’s when we started talking with Miriam and her team about what to do here.

Miriam:

We had some kind of concerns and questions right from the beginning. I think we were a little bit dubious about some of the research that MSD had already done about the use of smartphones, and I’m glad to say we were proven wrong but I’ll admit to being dubious in the beginning.

We also were concerned about whether the app approach was the right approach because we were concerned about building something that was really hard to maintain, and we wanted to make sure that MSD had something that was easy to keep up to date and we felt that perhaps a responsive website was actually the best way to go. So, the advantage of a responsive website that we were looking for is that we didn’t have to design things for a whole lot of different devices as we would for an app, but also that we could reach both people who were using smartphones and also people with a range of other devices just in case that was necessary. And as we tell the story about the project, I think you’ll see how our thinking actually continued to change about what sort of devices people would be using and how, but the decision or recommendation to use a responsive website continued to get confirmed more and more strongly.

What we were learning is that actually it was quite a big financial barrier to using a computer that was sitting at home because people couldn’t afford to have home broadband.

Ethan:

I’d love to hear a little bit more about, with such a mobile dominant audience, how did that inform the way that you thought about designing for different devices when you started with a responsive approach? A lot of organizations struggle with what mobile means or what desktop means, that these users have different needs for these different contexts, so we have to sort of treat them a little bit differently. Whereas a lot of other organizations sort of think of them as needing the same information. Tell me a little bit more about where MyMSD fell on that spectrum.

Miriam:

I guess the question was not so much about whether people needed different information when they were out and about versus at home, or in different physical locations; there weren’t really any of those concerns.

But instead it was actually what devices do people actually have available to them and what devices can they use to access the internet and access MSD services given that they’re probably on very low incomes? And so, the driving factors were not around a kind of changing physical context and that wasn’t why we were changing our perception of what was required, it was actually around understanding what was financially viable for people. And along the way, what we were learning is that actually it was quite a big financial barrier to using a computer that was sitting at home because people couldn’t afford to have home broadband. They could much more easily afford to take their phone out and look for free WiFi or buy a data top-up when they had the money because that didn’t require them to have a fixed line or anything connected to their house. So there was actually a financial barrier to using laptops.

Also a phone for most people provides people with phone calls and internet access, whereas a laptop or a desktop would only provide internet access and wouldn’t primarily be used for phone calls. So, a lot of it was about what devices people could afford to own and what devices they could afford to run rather than some of the usual considerations for people debating whether a responsive site was the right way to go.

Julia:

One other thing to add around the devices people had access to was, with the phones, that they weren’t necessarily high spec latest smartphones that the people we interviewed and workshopped with had. So they were using small screens, using the phone’s browser, so we wanted to make sure it could be accommodated for those phones and on larger screens as well.

Miriam:

So, some of the low-end phones don’t have enough power to run an app, they’re not designed for people to install lots of apps, so we found a number of other barriers to apps as well as the installation on their devices. It was also that people might feel a little bit embarrassed about having this app installed, and so actually something that left no kind of trace visible on their phones was also more attractive.

May I talk briefly about the process?

One of the really powerful activities was something we called Magic Tool, where we asked people to imagine the perfect tool that will help them find jobs or manage their money better.

Karen:

Yes, please, absolutely. I was just going to ask about that.

Miriam:

I was just thinking that it would be useful to explain to you how we involve users through the process. So, MSD had done a number of research activities before they engaged Digital Arts, and when Digital Arts joined their approach in the process, one of the things we advocated was doing co-design workshops with people who receive this government assistance. So at those sessions, people were bringing along their phones but they were also doing activities to talk about their lives, how they engaged with MSD, and how the thing that we would create would change their lives.

One of the really powerful activities was something we called Magic Tool, where we asked people to imagine the perfect tool that will help them find jobs or manage their money better. And through getting people to explore that as sketches using physical prototyping tools like Play-doh and by getting them to talk about it and act it out, we could see how this tool would make a difference in people’s lives, and it was very clear that people conceptualized it as something that was with them all the time. So it wasn’t about the physical context, it wasn’t about their changing information needs, it provided the same kind of encouragement, support, and practical tools all the time.

Those co-design workshops were also a really good way to see what people used their phones for, so we could talk to people about what apps they were familiar with, what they were comfortable with, how they used websites. And then to back the co-design workshops up, we also had a survey that we ran through MSD’s contact center, and that provided quantitative data around people’s devices and their use of websites to back up the qualitative data we were getting in the co-design workshops. So we had really great in-depth information from the co-design workshops and really good, but shallow, quantitative information from the surveys.

Karen:

I love everything you’re saying. I think this is such an amazing process and such a great story. Can you talk a little bit about once you started the prototyping process and once you actually started building, how did you roll this out? And given that you’re doing such great research with your constituents, perhaps once you got past that co-design process, how did you start rolling out and talking to them about the thing once it was actually built?

Julia:

I’ll talk to that since I’ve just been through this process. After the co-design, we had a big list of features for the backlog that the users had told us that they would find useful, so we then needed to balance that off with our business, so what was of value to us as far as encouraging people to use this channel and reducing our effort in other channels, as well as the technical feasibility. So we had this big backlog and wanted to get a minimum viable product out to start learning in real life as to what our users liked, didn’t like.

So we had an initial release, it took us around six months to set up a new platform and release the first version of MyMSD. We took that through a soft launch process, so limited promotion, invitation-only at two of our offices. We have a branch network of around close to 200 offices, so we had just a limited number of those inviting our clients to use the tool. We wanted to check with them whether or not what we were offering was easy to use for a starter and if the features that we were offering had some value.

So, that was seven months ago. Since then, we’ve had two other releases introducing more features, and those came from the direct feedback from the users. So initially the first release, they liked what they could do, which was view their next payments and appointments, but there wasn’t really a lot else to do in there. But we quickly got some feedback as to what would be useful and rolled that out two months later, then we saw a real spike in activity. We’ve only recently started promoting it more actively through the wider staff network and some targeted campaigns with the people that are likely to use it. So one of the key features we have there is letting us know if you’re working as well as receiving a benefit payment, and that is an activity that people who are working as well need to let us know weekly pretty much. So, we’ve had a real increase in activity and feedback since then.

Ethan:

As you were iterating on MyMSD, I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you managed design reviews and product reviews as it was improving over time. I’m specifically curious about any kinds of deliverables that the team was looking at. Was it wireframes, was it prototypes, and how did you manage that feedback cycle?

Miriam:

Digital Arts worked with a small team at MSD and the process we went through was to create sketches and then prototypes in Axure and then to usability test those with MSD’s clients or the people who receive government assistance. So, we went through—I think it was two, or was it three rounds, Julia?

Essentially the key features of a good responsive design that make it a useful tool for people were explored through this prototype.

Julia:

I think it may have been three, yes.

Miriam:

We went through three rounds of prototyping and then usability testing and taking what we learned from the usability testing and incorporating that into the prototype. And the prototype was done as a very low fidelity prototype; although it was in Axure, it was actually not incorporating MSD’s visual design and the branding. The purpose was to explore the types of content, the types of tasks people needed to be able to do, the priorities of different types of information. So essentially the key features of a good responsive design that make it a useful tool for people were explored through this prototype.

It was really, really valuable to have MSD’s clients, the people who receive benefits, in sessions, testing the usability, doing realistic tasks with us.

During that process, we were adding new functionality and content with each round of prototyping, but we were also improving the things we were doing. So in the first rounds, we focused on doing the things that were highest risk, most valuable, and where we needed the most insight from our audience. As we got further through the process, we got closer to a complete prototype, but we actually still included ideas that were tentative and exploratory even in the third round because we knew that MSD might not release all of those features at once, so there’d be further opportunities for exploration. So the aim was to get a clear idea of what the minimum viable product was, to understand the priorities of content, to design navigation, and to have that all work in a way that was essentially mobile first but could be explored as desktop website as well.

It was really, really valuable to have MSD’s clients, the people who receive benefits, in sessions, testing the usability, doing realistic tasks with us. And I know that Julia and her colleagues also found it really insightful and it was really useful to confirm that we were on the right track.

So, we built the prototype in Axure. Unfortunately Axure’s not the greatest tool for exploring the way a design responds at different breakpoints, but it does help us to do a really focused design with the priority of the content really clear, and so long as we do mobile first, it can actually be a very effective for moving very, very quickly with our prototyping.

Julia:

What I’d just like to add as well is we’ve moved from the prototype into high fidelity delivery of MyMSD. What we started with with that prototype has informed everything we’ve done since, but we’ve continued to test it with our stakeholders internally as well as the clients or the people that are using the service as well, which has really guided the product that we’ve been releasing.

Our real goal is that our clients are using it and are positive about it, that our staff feel confident actually promoting it.

Karen:

Well, that’s a great lead-in to my next question, which is to ask how do you measure or define success now that this product is out in the wild? How do you look at your data or how do you take feedback from clients and other people in the organization to see whether it’s working?

Julia:

When we released it—this was a new thing for our organization, so we wanted to set some success factors to be able to measure that. To start with, our real goal is that our clients are using it and are positive about it, that our staff feel confident actually promoting it. Our previous online service perhaps didn’t have as many good selling points and our staff, they weren’t actually confident themselves in selling it. And being a new platform as well, we wanted to make sure that it technically was working and was able to sustain the activity that we were hoping for it.

We’ve been measuring uptake and registrations for the tool; it is a login server, so you need to already be a client of the Ministry of Social Development to be able to access it. So we log in, we can see the types of activities through the statistics and analytics that the users are doing in there, and where they may be dropping out through some of the steps for some of the features. The other thing we’ve been doing, because the product is evolving, we’ve been out testing the next iteration with clients directly to get their feedback through usability testing and just general feedback and understanding of their internet behaviors. We have a mechanism to email us with general feedback, as well. Yeah, so that’s how we’re doing it. The product itself, as we’re saying, is still being worked on, we’re not finished with it, it’s not over, it’s something that we want to continue building on, providing value to these people as well.

Assume nothing about your users. We went into this really to bust some assumptions about the clients or the people that use the ministry’s services.

Ethan:

Well Julia, Miriam, I can’t thank you enough for coming onto the podcast to share with us a little bit of MyMSD and the design and development behind it. But before we let you go, I’ve got to ask, do you have any advice for our listeners? If somebody is listening to this podcast right now and they’re about to start a responsive redesign, what’s one thing that you’d like for them to take away and keep in mind as they start their work?

Julia:

My learning is to assume nothing about your users. We went into this really to bust some assumptions about the clients or the people that use the ministry’s services. People assumed they didn’t use the internet or weren’t able to, or didn’t have access to the different types of devices that we were accommodating with this responsive web application. So actually going out there, talking to people, understanding their needs is really, really important and I can’t emphasize more what a difference it’s made to this project.

Miriam:

I think the combination of co-design workshops to expand the pool of ideas we were exploring, and usability testing to help iterate and evaluate was really powerful. Both those ways of involving the audience meant that we got a much more believable conversation going with the business about why it was important to do responsive and why it was important to involve users, and also it ended up in a much higher quality product.

Karen:

Well Julia, Miriam, I really have to thank you for taking time to talk about what it sounds like is a really impressive product and a really genuinely helpful tool for so many of your clients, and also an amazing story about how you got there. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Julia:

Thank you, it’s been a real privilege to talk to you.

Miriam:

Thank you very much.

Ethan:

Thanks to everyone for listening to this episode of a responsive web design podcast. Thanks also to our sponsor, Media Temple. Go to mediatemple.net for easy to use hosting and 24/7 customer support.

If your company wants to go responsive but you need a little help getting started, Karen and I offer a two-day onsite workshop to help you make your responsive design happen. Visit responsivewebdesign.com/workshop to drop us a line—we’d love to hear from you.

If you want even more from us, you can sign up for our newsletter, subscribe to this podcast, and read full transcripts of every episode at responsivewebdesign.com.

Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll be back next week.


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