User Experience (UX), Customer Experience (CX), and Human-centered design (HCD) aren’t just empty buzzwords – they are key to equitable technology. When organizations as large as government agencies fail to prioritize their users, they inadvertently create barriers to equity, waste resources, and breed dysfunction. Oftentimes, these technological oversights hurt the most vulnerable communities across our country, creating inaccessible thresholds that exclude underrepresented communities and minority groups from essential public services.
Many of us can recall the chaos that ensued when the COVID-19 vaccines first became available to the public. With limited supply of Pfizer and Moderna available in the early stages of the pandemic, many citizens raced to the internet in hopes of securing that golden ticket – a much coveted vaccine appointment. Despite following instructions from federal, state, and local governments to register for an appointment, many found themselves denied, a slot – not by government officials themselves, but by the tech that powers the online portals.
Here’s a Snapshot on How Government Tech Became a Barrier to Citizens during the COVID-19 Pandemic
At 8:57 a.m., my wife and I launched our browsers and went to the District of Columbia’s website for vaccine registration. I had recently become eligible to receive the vaccine in the District and was eager to join millions of other Americans by getting my shot. Registration for appointments started at 9:00 a.m. and my wife and I were on early—excited and determined to get an appointment. Forty-five minutes later, we were stunned, furious, and appointment–less. What happened in between was an extraordinary failure of government technology.
Repeated ‘page not found’ errors, multiple CAPTCHA errors despite entering it correctly, getting booted off the site halfway through completing the necessary form, being routed to the District’s security page for employees and contractors—we faced error after error. In the end, two educated, abled, resourced people with flexibility to sit in front of two computers for 45–minutes at the exact right time couldn’t get an appointment because of dismal government technology. To be clear, given all the resources at my disposal, I’m certainly no victim in this case. As frustrating as my experience was, the real question remains: how would someone who is not educated, abled, resourced, and flexible with time get this done? Additionally:
- What if they had to be at work without tech access at 9 a.m.?
- What if they didn’t have high speed internet access?
- What if they didn’t know to expect these frustrating errors and assumed it was their problem?
- What if they didn’t have a computer and had to try this on a smart phone?
- What if they use assistive technology that’s not built into this site?
This is a perfect, classic, and tragic example of government technology creating a barrier to equity. Who could possibly make this work and get an appointment other than the most resourced?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example. Government technology too often creates barriers to equity. This is why Excella wholeheartedly supports President Biden’s Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. The executive order mandates all agencies redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity, including the technology that supports government policies and programs. It calls on the U.S. Digital Service, the United States Chief Technology Officer, and the Chief Information Officer of the United States specifically to assist agencies in promoting “equitable delivery of government benefits and equitable opportunities.” It also forms an Equitable Data Working Group of federal leaders to help agencies improve federal data to better measure equity in federal policies and programs.
The executive order is appropriately grand in scope, mandating action by all federal agencies. It is also appropriately vague on specifics, leaving agencies to figure out what tech equity means in their context and how to achieve it. This is where the community of tech contractors and vendors who serve federal agencies must step in to assist—by helping our federal partners define what tech equity means and how to achieve it. Here’s Excella’s initial take on three critical areas of tech equity to address, based on our experience working with federal agencies and the private sector.
Design for Equity
Excellence in the user experience (UX) is key to success for any modern, digital solution and equity must be part of the process from the start. Great UX design starts with user research, usability testing and ensuring equity in the design. This requires engaging a user audience that is fully representative of the intended target population, not just the most convenient group to reach. Similarly, considerations for accessibility, resources available to the population, and 508 compliance must be included early in design rather than as an afterthought. Finally, when presenting data design must include responsible data visualization practices to guard against misinformation that misleads the very audience being served.
Eliminate Bias in Data, Analysis, and Intelligence
Data and the analysis of it are a critical component of tech equity, starting with ensuring accuracy and completeness in data sets. Data must be representative of the whole population being served so that decisions and analyses are free of bias toward one group or another. The data must also include demographics that allow measuring equity in policies and programs. For example, the frequent grouping of small and often marginalized groups into an “other” category make those groups invisible. All of this becomes even more critical with the power and increasing adoption of artificial intelligence systems that rely on volumes of data that must be complete, representative, and free of bias to produce fair outcomes.
Build Diverse and Inclusive Tech Teams
Possibly the most important and fundamental step toward tech equity is building diverse and inclusive tech teams. It’s well understood that diversity and inclusion in tech teams produce better outcomes, including more creative problem solving. Diverse and inclusive teams also enable more equitable solutions since they are more representative of the community and better able to design for equity and eliminate bias as described above. Building diverse and inclusive tech teams comes from investing in diverse talent pipelines sharing new ideas, and speaking up if they see inequity or bias.
President Biden’s executive order notes that “equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths. But for too many, the American Dream remains out of reach.” The executive order is a call to action for every federal agency and the companies that serve them. This is an exciting opportunity to use technology to eliminate inequity and strengthen our government in the process.
Article updated October 19, 2023.