A digital transformation and an adventure into the depth of government portals.
“Our role as a government is to make the life of our citizens easier and ensure they are happy and satisfied. We need to reach all the community segments and provide them with the best possible service“— His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
The UAE government has always been an early adopter of recent technologies and innovative, revolutionary concepts. Technology, automation, telecommunication and industrial science are at the top of the vast list of areas the UAE government is always investing in.
Today, the UAE is a hub of a complex, diverse eco-system in which people from almost two hundred nationalities reside and lead fast paced, achievement oriented lives. In an effort to help make these achievements — along with personal growth — happen, and happen swiftly, the UAE government took a step towards making mundane paper work and queuing at government a thing from the past.
“We want to be the central hub for all government entities”
Maher Al Mulla
E-Government Operations Department
Catering to a variety of cultural backgrounds, nationalities and age groups is most of the times daunting, and we know for a fact that building something from scratch is scary. You may or may not break something that is working, or fix something that wasn’t broken. Qualitative research and constant iterations early in the building process should be the main focus for any user centered design firm or practitioner, it may sound like common sense but you wouldn’t believe how tempting these things are to overlook.
Simply put, taking the guess work out of all the whats wheres, and hows of everything relating to moving, visiting, working and investing in the country at any point in time was the goal of building this portal.
The Google Ventures Design Sprint
For Government.ae, we followed the Google Sprint Methodology. Pretty standard, on paper, but when it comes to running a sprint with 30+ people split across UX designers, UX researchers, developers and stakeholders; things can get complicated. This was the first time we’ve adapted this methodology. Adjusting to a new way of working as a team was a challenge on its own.
Adapting the Sprint Methodology allowed us to streamline the UX process. For example, iterations were clearly spread out across sprints, as well as user testing sessions in the research phase. We had weekly catch-ups with the client in order to show our progress and we made sure that there was something to show for as a deliverable after every Sprint was completed.
We worked side by side with the government team over the course of four months to ensure both sides understand the users we’re creating a portal for. A few weeks of user research revealed a lot. Every time we get into the room with someone, they confirm or debunk assumptions we have already made.
We’ve set up an open ended questionnaire and posed probing questions to representatives of various demographics: UAE nationals and expatriates from countries all over the world.
Our questionnaire wasn’t specific. Qualitative research needs a fair amount of experience in the psychology of design. Asking a user why until you get to the bottom of something they said or brushing it off is the difference between mediocre and great user research. The takeaways from the user interviews allowed us to sketch out potential user journeys on the new portal.
Below a couple of examples of the initial user journeys:
The business requirements were stated clearly at the start of the project: Arabic first, translations into 50+languages need to be available, a mobile first approach and AAA accessibility. These requirements turned out to overlap with our user research findings during the questionnaire and therefore were at the top of the list moving the project forward.
We audited the existing government portal and came up with items we could keep and what items would be discarded based on our user testing sessions. We listed what currently is working, and what doesn’t work:
The output of this exercise was the feature list. This list established whether specific features for the portal — for example the location map- were usable, and interactive, as well as other features such as the UAE history’s timeline and polls where visitors of the portal can participate in decisions the government makes.
I was tempted to upload 500+ screens and modals, but this turned out to be quite a feat and would certainly negatively impact the length of this case study. Below are some snippets of the wireframes for the portal. We used the wireframes to do a very rapid paper prototyping user testing session to validate our structural decisions before we moved forward with testing digital prototypes.
The next topic we tackled is accessibility. How do you come close to a triple A accessibility rating in line with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)? the WCAG is a set of rules which need to be followed in order to ensure your webpage is accessible to people with disabilities. It was developed by a group of individuals from around the globe called “The Accessibility Guidelines Working Group (AG WG) (formerly WCAG Working Group ), which is part of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).” — (www.w3.org)
Making sure we achieve a triple A accessibility rating, we had to go through the W3C accessibility principles and read all of them carefully (and there are a lot, trust me). The vast number of guidelines were enough to push you out of your comfort zone as a user experience practitioner and force you to cater to more than the researched user persona(s) or confirmed criteria.
Most of it may sound pretty standard, common sense, but I personally did not think I would need to account for “content not to cause seizure” in any design process I’ve been involved with for example.
A few things we needed to look at:
Examples of tools and practices which can assist in improving accessibility:
This tool ensures the reader can select a text to be read aloud
Contrast between background color and text — the higher the accessibility rating, the darker the tones for text
High transparency for backgrounds — along with the video on the homepage ensures improved readability when a background has an image
When you visit the portal for the first time, and you are to for example renew your driver’s license you want to do this quickly and efficiently.
What you’ll need is the index. The index is built with an A-Z overview of all the services provided by the government.
*The index and other features in the screenshots below are as per the launch date. The features on the website are subject to change post-launch.
There is nothing related to the UAE you cannot find here
Given the vast number of nationalities this portal was built for, we wanted a quick and easy way to make information accessible to everyone. Having the content translated professionally in 50+ languages wasn’t an option for the first release, and we were tempted to believe most of the visitors will find their way around in English, but making assumptions kills innovation when it comes to problem solving. Instead, we sought Google Translate as an added feature, next to the Arabic and English language pages.
Google powered automation
This would have been a last resort if we were building this a few years back, but today, Google Translate is extremely powerful and ensured easy access to the pages in more than 50 languages. We’ve provided character limits to make sure the interface doesn’t break or overlap depending on how long text might be in a certain language.
I validated that by sending links with task(s) (figuring out what issuing a visa requires) to my friends around the globe. Dutch, Indian and a few other languages, translation was at least 95% right, All done, successfully with no issues, they said the translation was “seamless”
Example of a landing page in Hindi
Two of the challenges our user interview participants faced is finding out what ministry they need to go to for a certain appointment and what the opening hours are.
We initially wanted to show a map of the country, as informative as which emirate is where and how many people live there. That was before user research. After looking into our user interview findings, it had to be switched to an interactive and informative element, a map that shows you government body locations like ministries, embassies, and police stations as well as points of interest in the UAE, such as beaches and malls.
Making sure you get to the closest by detecting your location.
Address, opening hours and phone numbers are available on click
“In 2000, we became the pioneers in the region and the seventh in the world to launch the e-Government project. Now we have taken a more significant step by launching m-Government,” Sheikh Mohammed said.
Everything was built in mobile first, as users predominantly visited the government portal on their mobile devices.
A mobile first approach has an important benefit.
According to the CMV Blog on codemyviews.com:
“Graceful degradation arose out of a need to have a design function on as many browsers and platforms as possible. Designers and developers wanted to take advantage of new technology without excluding users with setups that didn’t have support. The general conclusion was to create and serve up the best experience possible, and then account for each possible degradation and ensure that despite any shortcomings, the site would remain functional.
In terms of mobile web design, this meant that a full, standard website would scale back and gradually remove content and features as the viewport became smaller and the system simpler (no Flash support, etc.).”
In our case, removing meant downgrading, which is why we went on mobile first mode, it allowed us to avoid having to remove features due to lack of real estate on the screen.
Things I personally used to undermine as an experience practitioner is accessible design, there is more to it than voice reading paragraphs, having bigger text or an inverted colour blind mode, it is one of the fundamentals of designing for the web and there are many resources and examples to learn from.
“The efforts spent in the UX lab [helped] address all users’ needs and perceptions.”
Ragia Abdel Wahab
Senior Business Editor
The actual design work wasn’t the biggest challenge here, and it has never been on any other project we’ve built at RBBi. Catering for such diversity while maintaining the spirit and the feel of the country’s culture, as well as understanding the region specifics like climate, history, religion and language requires harmonising your design approach to these.
Examples on that would be the tone of voice and the terminologies we used, specially in Arabic, which was the main focus from a business side.
The following paragraph is an example of catering for the people of the country and the region, the typeface choice along with the tone of voice, both convey strength, authenticity and authority.
We as a UX consultancy were lucky to partner and work with the UAE government officials to make this portal happen, them being early adopters of the newest and most advanced solutions, as well as their knowledge and experience in digital were key to achieving the first to many scalable and widely accessible smart government portals.