Testing New Ideas for the U.S. Census

 Team members setting up for usability testing at the Harvard Science Centre

Team members setting up for usability testing at the Harvard Science Centre

Finding flaws in websites is commonplace -- there are entire companies focused on it. But it is harder to find a real solution that meets the needs of people.

Our Harvard student team in a class on technology and innovation has the opportunity to do just that by helping design a better data portal for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Existing Prototype

After spending the last few months observing and interviewing people that use Census data, we started testing the Census Bureau’s existing pilot website, and proposing our own paper prototype alternatives.

 The landing page of the US Census Bureau’s beta website - data.census.gov

The landing page of the US Census Bureau’s beta website - data.census.gov

Test

Our key objectives for usability testing were to understand the following:

  • what users thought of the data.census.gov site in general;

  • how well the search functions worked;

  • the kind of queries people ran on the Beta website; and

  • whether users would prefer some of the alternatives, including as a branched, guided search.

By enticing hungry college students with cookies, we were able to observe around 20 students try using data.census.gov to search for everything from income data in Cambridge to historical demographic data in Philadelphia. These students generally had STEM backgrounds and were comfortable working with data portals. Or so they thought.

Learn

Only around 30 percent of users tested could find the data they wanted. The search tool proved most problematic. Instead of making the search more intuitive, it often retrieved results vastly different to the search terms and prevented them from applying other filters.

 Results of different queries:“Poverty in Cambridge” produced the correct table, while “Poverty, Cambridge” and “Poverty, Cambridge MA” produced different results. Users were unlikely to enter the exact search query the Census was after.

Results of different queries:“Poverty in Cambridge” produced the correct table, while “Poverty, Cambridge” and “Poverty, Cambridge MA” produced different results. Users were unlikely to enter the exact search query the Census was after.

In contrast to census.gov, users said they liked the feel of the beta website but did not find it functional. Users were reluctant to click webpage links to Census factsheets, even when they were relevant, because they looked like online ads. They also asked for clearer prompts or guidance when trying to navigate the site.

That’s when we tested our prototypes for search tools, asking interviewees to select between a guided search, a search bar, and a drag and drop table. Using low-fidelity paper prototypes produced more honest feedback as there was less pretence or gloss getting in the way of core functionality.

Prototype

After their experience with a broken search function, users were overwhelmingly supportive of a simpler guided search which asked "I am looking for _(topic)__, within __(geography)___ , at __(further geography filter )___ level, broken down by __(additional criteria)____." The options in the drop-down menu would narrow based on the selections made in the prior step.

 Paper prototypes of alternative search functions

Paper prototypes of alternative search functions

We also observed that there was no way for the US Census Bureau to gain feedback from interviewees on their user experience. A simple “is this what you were looking for?” button after the search paired with capturing search queries would help the Census better understand user behavior and design accordingly.  

Repeat

 Our digital prototype for a guided search

Our digital prototype for a guided search

Armed with our latest findings, we will continue to iterate on our guided search prototype to deliver a more user-friendly and functional search feature for Census data. We’ve already built a digital version of our initial paper prototype. Check-back in a few weeks to see how we progress.

Arjun Bisen, Ayush Chakravarty, Carissa Chen, Daniel Drabnik, Tony Thumpasery

The Census Bureau’s Website: Looking for a Needle in a Haystack?

Valerie Selo, a local nonprofit grant writer, grew frustrated trying to figure out which data the U.S. Census Bureau’s website contains. Having spent hours searching fruitlessly for data about the low income population in her community, she gave up and turned to Wikipedia.

Valerie is not alone. As Harvard students working to help the U.S. Census Bureau, we interviewed over twenty people that use the Census website. Most of them were frustrated with the confusing layout of census.gov, and many were also frustrated trying to understand what data Census actually has.

 Visitors to the Census website are greeted by a cluttered and often confusing landing page

Visitors to the Census website are greeted by a cluttered and often confusing landing page

How can the U.S. Census Bureau make it easier for Americans to find the Census data they need? Our student team, as part of a Harvard Kennedy School field course taught by Professor Nick Sinai, is seeking to answer that question

To Understand the Problem, First Understand the User

 A summary of the team’s research plan

A summary of the team’s research plan

To start, we developed a three-part research plan to interview and observe people that visit census.gov, as well as review secondary research. Each team member separately interviewed at least five people, either asking them high-level questions about their use of the Census website or conducting a usability test.

From our research, our team grouped people into categories that we want to learn more about:

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The Community Leader

Profiles: Local Government Officials, Community Organizers, Community Advocates

Use Cases:

  • Getting single data points for grant applications to gain funding

  • Getting data used in public relations releases

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The Researcher

Profiles: Professor, Research Assistants, Students

Use Cases:

  • Creating data visualizations for research papers

  • Analyzing trends for research papers

  • Looking through data out of curiosity

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The Data Analyst

Profiles: Government Employees, Think Tank Researchers, Private Sector Analysts

Use Cases:

  • Creating data visualizations for internal organization use

  • Publishing research reports for companies or public

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The Developer

Profiles: App Programmers, Web Developers, Civic Tech Programmers

Use Cases:

  • Building products using data

  • Researching for consulting firms or political campaigns

After reviewing our research, we brainstormed possible improvements to the Census website, including:

●      Explain what data the Census has: Users do not know what data the Census has;

●      Simplify the search: Users like search tools but the current options are clunky and often deliver errors;

●      Harmonize and integrate data: Datasets are not easily comparable;

●      Focus on data presentation: Tables are not machine-readable and other visualization options should be created;

●      One API with clear documentation: 50 APIs are impossible to navigate and the documentation is unclear;

●      Integrate with Google Searches: Most people search for data through Google; and

●      Explore niche feature: Some community advocates said they wanted a neighborhood dashboard and some researchers said that they wanted to easily identify a control group.

 Team members Arjun Bisen and Carissa Chen run through a user flow

Team members Arjun Bisen and Carissa Chen run through a user flow

Armed with these insights, our team is now ready to begin prototyping improvements, as way to test our ideas. We are looking forward to seeing if we can help people like Valerie!

Arjun Bisen, Ayush Chakravarty, Carissa Chen, Daniel Drabnik, Tony Thumpasery

Making Sense of the Census

The U.S. Census, written into the U.S. Constitution and first administered by Thomas Jefferson, faces an important milestone in 2020: the first digital census, where respondents can respond to the decennial survey online.

But the challenge for the Census Bureau is much broader today—how does an institution as old as the country reshape itself for the 21st century?

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The 1790 Census (left) and a 2010 Census Form (right)

 

That is where we come in. Over the spring semester, our team of Harvard students will explore ways to make Census data more useful.

As students in DPI-663, a Harvard Kennedy School field class on Technology and Innovation in Government taught by Professor Nick Sinai, we’ll be working closely with a team from the Census, including Chief Data Officer Zach Whitman and Senior UX Advisor Drew Zachary.

Our student team has a diverse set of experiences and backgrounds:

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Tony Thumpasery is a Senior at Harvard College with past experience as a product manager in the technology industry. Previously, Tony worked as a Product Management Consultant at the performance management software startup Palatine Analytics and as a Product Manager at the social gaming company Zynga. After graduation, Tony will join Twitter as an Associate Product Manager. While he is sad that he will have to leave his Harvard friends in a few months, he is looking forward to experiencing California weather.

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Arjun Bisen is a Fulbright scholar and Master of Public Policy student at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to starting at Harvard, he worked as an Australian diplomat and aid program manager for seven years, focusing on Asian geopolitics, trade negotiations, managing large UN aid programs, and drafting Australia’s cyber and digital strategy. He also undertook a diplomatic posting in Cambodia. In his spare time, he enjoys art exhibitions and watching basketball.

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Ayush Chakravarty is a Master of Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. Previously, he worked at Yahoo as an Advertising Policy Analyst and as a consultant for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. He holds a BA in Economics and Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley, and is slowly adjusting to life in the Boston winter. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, drinking season beer, and reading old maps.

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Daniel Drabik is an Master of Public Administration student at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is a software developer with over a decade of experience working at startups and political campaigns. Previously, he worked on the Data Infrastructure Team of the Hillary Clinton Campaign, and he was the tech lead on Kickstarter’s international expansion, launching the company in their first nine international markets. In his spare time, he enjoys playing volleyball, making cocktails, and tinkering on his soon-to-be-released iPhone game.

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Carissa Chen is a Harvard College student with experience in legal technology startups, policy research, and non-profit management. She’s working as a founding member of a start-up applying technology to address women’s rights issues, a research assistant for former Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow, and a director for the non-profit Angel Heart International. In her free time, she likes to paint and write poetry. Her art and writing have previously been exhibited in the Hall of Nations at the Kennedy Center and the White House: www.chencarissa.com

Why make Census data easier to use?

The U.S. Census Bureau holds among the largest collections of information on people and businesses in the country. In addition to the Decennial population survey, the Bureau also collects hundreds of valuable demographic and economic surveys each year, all for public use.  

But like many institutions that hold a wealth of diverse data, the U.S. Census Bureau website isn’t always easy to access and use—in part because of the complexity of the information collected.

In fact, a student team from DPI-663 explored this subject in 2016, focusing on making income data easier to understand. Check out their user research, prototype, and final recommendations. We hope to build off their findings, while doing our own original research about how various groups use Census data.

Next Steps

The first phase of the class is focused on understanding what people need.  We want to initially focus on three groups of people:

  • Academic researchers, who help society make sense of census data;
  • Community advocates, who use census data to apply for grants to support their own community; and
  • Software developers, who use census data to build useful digital tools.

In the upcoming weeks, our team will conduct interviews to understand how each of these groups use census data.  Later in the class, we’ll brainstorm some ideas, build and test some rudimentary prototypes, and develop recommendations for senior Census leadership.

We’re excited to get started!

Tony Thumpasery, Arjun Bisen, Ayush Chakravarty, Daniel Drabik, and Carissa Chen