6 Principles Of Digital Design For Civic Innovation

How the San Francisco Business Portal embraced human-centered design to encourage entrepreneurship.

Most of us approach our government interactions—visiting the DMV, filing taxes, getting permits—with an overwhelming sense of dread. With Obama’s dogged attempt to put a new face on the government’s digital presence, cities are grappling with ways to heed his calls locally.


In San Francisco, the Small Business Portal creates a blueprint for the process of starting a new business. A joint collaboration of the the Mayor’s Office, Department of Technology, Office of Economic and Workforce Development, Office of Small Business, and Tomorrow Partners, a Berkeley-based design firm, the Small Business Portal launched in November 2014 and includes everything a person needs to know about starting, managing, and expanding a company. It’s designed to streamline the nitty-gritty of entrepreneurship and even make it a little delightful. Since the Portal’s launch, traffic has exceeded expectations. There are on average 3,000 users and 12,000 pageviews monthly with a steady increase since the site’s inception eight months ago. Visitors come not only from the city, but from all over the country, proving that people are paying attention to what San Francisco has accomplished.

Tomorrow Partners applied human-centered design principles to shape the innovation strategy and build a website that makes starting a business as transparent, pain-free, and simple as possible. Other civic organizations—not just business portals—can glean useful lessons from San Francisco’s approach to this project.

The Challenge
Starting a business is no small feat. It requires creating a solid plan, securing financing, and submitting dozens of permits. Opening a restaurant, one of the most common business types in San Francisco, involves upwards of 24 different permits from multiple city departments. This was the meat of the Business Portal’s focus.


Jane Gong, Program Director of the Department of Technology, sought to remove the barriers of entry to opening a business. Initially, she wanted to launch a website where users could download and submit all the necessary permits for opening a restaurant. Through research and focus groups that Tomorrow Partners led, she learned that the entire experience needed a reboot. People didn’t know where to start, they didn’t know how long it would take, and they had to scour dozens of websites for information. What they needed was a single source.

Working in collaboration with the San Francisco government, Tomorrow Partners took an “inside out” and “outside in” approach to understanding the challenges. They unpacked the motivations of people trying to start a company. They also called in representatives from each of the city departments involved with permitting a restaurant and held a journey-mapping exercise to get a clear understanding of all of the steps involved and to show city officials what the process is like from the perspective of their constituents. “The exercise was important for understanding the pain points and looking for low-hanging fruit—the opportunities to reframe the experience through the Portal’s design,” Jeremy Kaye, a partner at the design firm, says.

The 6 Principles of Better Digital Design
Through this research, Tomorrow Partners and the San Francisco Business Portal established six key attributes for a building a successful interface. “They were filters for us to evaluate our design and establish clear guidelines for the various people developing content to ensure sure that we had a consistent voice,” Gaby Brink, the founder and chief designer of Tomorrow Partners, says.


Do the Right Thing
This set the overall tone of the project: Show that the city cares about the people who seek services from the government. This involved setting clear expectations and making the process transparent. For example, Tomorrow Partners designed the website so that users can clearly read through all the steps involved with launching a business and offers helpful tips how to craft a business plan, how to structure the company, and how to go about funding, among others.

Curate Content
Since the site would serve diverse audiences, the city needed to ensure that the right information was available on the site. Tomorrow Partners mapped out the steps of opening a restaurant like a journey with milestones and provided the necessary information for every step. Users don’t need to hunt for details, and they know exactly where they are on the roadmap.

Make It Accessible
Today, people access information in a variety of ways: computers, phones, tablets, and more. Tomorrow Partners wanted to ensure that the website is accessible from any of these tools through basic responsive design and redesigning the interfaces for some of sections of the site.


“We returned again and again to this idea of reframing what universal design means,” Kaye says. “It’s about using design to communicate effectively both visually and verbally through the layout and the user experience was a huge part of our strategy.”

Accessibility also extended to language. San Francisco has an international population that doesn’t necessarily speak English. Gong and her team rewrote every word for the website so it would be legible for all readers regardless of language fluency, education level, or business acumen.

Treat Constituents as Consumers
There’s an old phrase in retail, “The Customer Is Always Right.” Instead of seeing users as just taxpayers or voters, the site views them as customers that the city serves.


“We looked for reminiscent experiences that people have in real life,” Kaye says. “We thought about what people are used to, what they understand, and what resonates with them.

To that end, Tomorrow Partners designed some elements of the portal to feel familiar, like dynamic filtering, the search format found on consumer sites like Zappos.

“There are over 400 different permits and licenses that you could possibly need depending on the type of business you’re opening,” Kaye says. “We knew that other systems did not work, like troubleshooting wizards. Taking people through a decision tree doesn’t expose them to what they don’t yet know they need.” The minutiae can be so specific as requiring a special permit for open-flame candles.


The portal has a system of boxes that users check and uncheck until they arrive at the list of permits they need. “Give people a tool that’s familiar and intuitive,” Kaye says.

Dole Out Delight
Dealing with the government can be a tremendous source of angst. Tomorrow Partners wanted the site to be delightful. Simply put, it was making the experience of interacting with the city pain-free, simple, and, in some ways, enjoyable.

“There’s a level of fun—but not too fun—and a little bit of happiness in the Portal,” Brink says. “It’s human, not ‘government.’ It speaks to you about possibility and it excites you to start a business.” Some of this comes through the overall tone, like the playful writing of the Starter Kit blurbs that would be completely dry on most government sites. Throughout the site, users can read positive testimonials from people who have used the Portal and are met with actual photography of San Francisco businesses—no stock imagery—and playful icons and graphics.


Increase Trust
This principle was about making users feel like the government was working for them.

Tomorrow Partners worked to dispel the notion that interacting with the government would be a terrible ordeal. Reversing those perceptions won’t be easy, but the firm says things are moving in the right direction. “Design is a core ingredient to making that successful,” Brink says. “Technology streamlines some if it, but making a delightful user experience is core to it as well. The two go hand in hand. It moves beyond the website to inform how you interact with people when you walk through the doors of city hall.”

What’s Next
The first phase of the Portal was about making the complex process of starting a business more transparent—essentially disseminating information effectively. Gong knows that there are still massive improvements to be made. For example, you still have to download paper forms and submit them in person. Analog systems are still in place and the portal’s current iteration is mostly a navigation tool, albeit a sorely needed one.


What would truly bring the Portal into the 21st century would be a 100-percent online system that makes the application process as easy and intuitive as an online purchase. The portal is iterative by design—a cue Gong took from private software companies—and the next improvement for the Small Business Portal is in the works. A service where users can save in-progress applications is expected by the end of 2015.

“From a user perspective, most of the time government thinks about putting together a website, it’s copying from municipal code and pasting in some clip art,” Gong says. “For the first time we did UX/UI research. This needs to be the approach of all government websites. It’s time for government to take a step back and say we’re here to serve people and make sure that we’re accessible and responsive.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not mention that the project collaborators included the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, Department of Technology, and Office of Economic and Workforce Development.



About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.


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