The Power of UX Thinking to Transform Government

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
Cover Image for The Power of UX Thinking to Transform Government

What does User Experience (UX) have to do with government services? A lot.

How much do government agencies think of UX when designing their services? Very little.

Citizens need the government to help them with specific tasks, most of which are predictable, repeatable, and essential. So why does interacting with the government so often feel like talking to a brick wall?

There are an increasing number of UX professionals working at all levels to make government services better. Many of the obstacles facing them are complex and unique to the government. Well-meaning, but often onerous, bureaucratic regulations slow things down. There's little to no motivation to innovate. The user base includes pretty much everybody.

The result is usually a tedious experience that serves nobody particularly well.

This recent op-ed in The Washington Post made a strong argument for why the IRS needs $80 billion. It's no coincidence that one of the most successful digital products ever, TurboTax, makes it easier to file your taxes. There’s plenty of room for improvement.

But the majority of UX challenges the government faces run deep and they're not much different than what we see in other organizations: resistance to change, poor UX maturity, and a lack of investment.

Using the story of the IRS as an example, here are three fundamental (and not necessarily digital) ways that UX thinking can help transform government services.

Focus on a Cohesive Omnichannel User Experience

Why does the IRS need $80 billion? Just look at its cafeteria. The Washington Post.

Nielsen Norman Group says that omnichannel (or crosschannel) user experience is the macro level of UX. When executed well, it optimizes the end-to-end user experience. It helps users complete essential tasks as they move from one stage to the next and bounce across channels and devices.

TurboTax can only help you prepare and file your taxes. It has no control over what the IRS does with that information. In an ideal world, you'd have your refund in a matter of minutes. You'd see issues or errors flagged in real time. You could respond to audits or other IRS messages through the communication channel of your choice.

Government agencies are notorious for taking a one-size-fits-all approach. They don't have the time or the structure to handle information across different channels. They're slow and methodical, often for good reason, in the name of safety and privacy.

But we expect organizations today to be flexible. We're all used to switching between devices. We expect services to meet us where we are and allow two-way communication to troubleshoot problems and give feedback. We're less and less willing to jump through hoops set up by a bureaucracy.

Government agencies need to consider the full citizen journey when designing their services and they need to constantly innovate to support that journey.

To be fair, it's not only the government missing the boat on this. Have you ever tried to contact customer support for a major corporation? Most of the time it feels like you’ve slipped into a black hole. You dig through a website to find the elusive customer service phone number only to be handed off or told to send an email.

The IRS has a good start on offering a multichannel experience. The “Where’s My Refund?” tool provides refund information online or through a mobile app. The online account management tool has also improved over the years. But, as NNGroup points out, “multichannel is not omnichannel.”

It can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to craft true omnichannel experiences. But the cost is more than compensated for by the efficiency it creates for everybody involved. Imagine the time and effort that could be saved with a tax filing experience that tells you where you are and how to get to the next step, from beginning to end.

Invest in Building UX Maturity and Leadership

cut for most of the past decade, despite the agency receiving evermore responsibilities… - Why does the IRS need $80 billion? Just look at its cafeteria. The Washington Post.

Successful user experience starts from the inside. When processes are frustrating and inefficient, everybody suffers. Overworked and stressed employees have to struggle through an arcane day-to-day work life. Frustrated citizens have to wait longer for refunds (even if they can track the status). The government misses out on revenue from a backlog of 10.2 million unprocessed tax returns.

Investment doesn’t always have to be money or technology (though that certainly helps). The most important investment is in a user-centric mindset. The most efficient path from Point A to Point B is the one that meets the needs of users (or, in this case, citizens). It's also one that creates internal processes in service of that end goal.

Ironically, the federal government has been on the cutting edge of UX leadership at a high level for many years. Sites like and have become trusted places where UX professionals inside and outside of government can find UX resources and best practices. encourages the use of clear language in government communications in alignment with the Plain Writing Act passed in 2010.

But good UX doesn't happen without a commitment at the agency and team level. Even without the best technology, agencies can put effort into ensuring citizens find value in what they provide. This can lead to cost-effective solutions and processes, whether they're built in-house or with partners.

Programs like the United States Digital Service at the federal level and state-level equivalents like the Colorado Digital Service have laid much of this groundwork. The volunteer-run U.S. Digital Response arose from the needs of local agencies struggling to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. These are great examples of UX and digital professionals leading the effort to raise the bar for government services.

Nothing can replace the commitment to a user-centric mindset at a leadership level. It's the a prerequisite for building a good user experience into any type of service. We all have to start where we are and iterate from there.

Stay Flexible to Iterate and Innovate

scan text into a computer has been commercially available since the 1970s and has greatly improved in the past decade. Yet at the IRS, data from paper returns is still entered manually.” “Why does the IRS need $80 billion? Just look at its cafeteria.” The Washington Post.

The biggest risk of not investing in UX is falling too far behind the times. You risk becoming irrelevant and ineffective. In a competitive free-market environment, organizations must evolve or die. There are plenty of competitors ready to replace them. Government agencies have a monopoly on the services they provide to citizens. That can make it harder to invest in innovation and iterate on solutions.

It’s impossible to create an effective user experience in one shot. It takes a responsiveness and willingness to adapt to the changing needs of your users. If you don't evolve, you’ll end up like the IRS - using an outdated programming language to manually process paper returns.

Government agencies don’t have the best reputation for being innovative and agile. Changes need to happen at the policy, regulatory, and procurement levels as well as in the digital arena, to help them become more adaptable. Nothing revealed the need for more agility in the government than the Covid-19 pandemic. The good news is that governments all over the world showed an ability to react and respond to changing times. The harder news is that there is still plenty of room for improvement. Agencies need to take the lessons they learned from Covid and build those into their permanent procedures and policies.

Great Government Services Aren’t Created in a Vacuum

Sometimes the first step is admitting you need help. We’ve worked with countless organizations in the private and public spaces to identify what they’re missing and help fill the gaps. Whether we serve as thought partners, help identify gaps and build future state journey maps and service blueprints, or collaborate on actual designs, we have the practical tools and knowledge to help you find the quickest way to improve your product or service within the confines of government regulations.

Get in touch with us and let’s talk about how Drawbackwards can help you take full advantage of the resources at your disposal to make your government service work better for all your citizens.