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The Website that Tamed City Hall

During the run-up to Thanksgiving 2013, while much of America began to grapple with the frustration engine that was the brand new HealthCare.gov, Tomorrow Partners was in talks to create a government website of their own.

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San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee challenged them to help simplify the byzantine bureaucracy the Bay Area’s 65,000-plus small businesses faced in dealing with the city. Their solution: the San Francisco Business Portal, an online one-stop shop that makes finding vital information for starting, managing and growing a business as easy as ordering your favorite book on Amazon.

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Focusing on Human Needs
Launched in November 2014 after nine months of grueling development, the San Francisco Business Portal revolutionized the way local small business owners tackle everything from obtaining licenses and permits to meeting police and fire requirements, creating a business plan and raising capital.

“We actually looked at this from their constituents’ perspective first,” says Tomorrow Partners Founder and Chief Designer Gaby Brink. “So what are their needs? Not what are the forms they need, but when I start a business what are the pain points? What’s difficult? And really focusing on those human needs as opposed to the tactical requirements.”

The result is something extremely rare in our uber-hyperlinked world – a website that feeds you only what you need to know, one nugget at a time.

“Going into it we recognized there’d be a massive amount of information and a lot of different uses we needed to be able to address,” says Jeremy Kaye, a partner at Tomorrow Partners. “Really what we had to do was to get smart quick.”

Turns out you get smart quick about the inner workings of your local government by talking to civil servants…from every department.

Business-Portal-Tomorrow-PartnersGetting the City on Side
Launching or managing a small business can conceivably involve a dozen departments in your municipality, yet the people in those departments rarely have the opportunity to understand how their different functions come together for the constituent, which means that constituent really doesn’t see the big picture.

To create a smooth, snag-free path for small businesses, “We actually brought together people from 12 departments in one of our workshops, and these are people who have been there 15, 20, 30 years, but who had never met,” says Brink.

“They have talked to each other on the phone,” adds Kaye. “But some of them had never been in the same room together in all that time. We did an amazing work session where we brought all of these 29 people  together…. We had mapped out the whole journey for somebody starting or growing their business in San Francisco, we organized all of this information from the different departments in that way.

“So they saw how the work they were doing impacted other departments and the people starting businesses. We orchestrated a bunch of different exercises in eliciting information from them but also engaging them in the process, making them our allies because we knew whatever we did could not be imposed from the outside.”

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Assessing Public Needs
With the knowledge gained from these government-wide sessions, Tomorrow Partners set about identifying the different types of businesses there are: 85% of ventures easily fit one of 10 types (retail shop, restaurant, etc.). To get a complete picture of what was needed for the website, the firm then talked to the people who would use it – aspiring and existing business owners.

“We had deep conversations with them, either in their place of business or, in certain cases, on dining room tables where they were actually planning their new businesses,” says Kaye. “Just an incredible array of folks in San Francisco who were either deep in the process, planning on going through the process, or had been through it and were now looking to expand.”

This covered everything from restaurants to manufacturers, says Brink. “And some of the big takeaways we heard was, ‘It’s really difficult because I can’t see the whole process. I can’t see from beginning to end how long it is going to take, how much it will cost, how many departments I have to talk to…’ ”

This feedback was hardly surprising, but it was vital in informing Tomorrow Partners’ design of the portal – one that emphasizes transparency and an overview of the whole process from start to finish.

Having successfully gathered valuable insights from both sides of the equation, they set out to create a website that, in Kaye’s words, changed things “from a process that was City Hall-centric – set up to support the way City Hall works – to one that is small business owner-centric, putting the constituent’s needs first, without altering the internal workings of the agencies. This makes the process far more efficient and effective for small business owners, while not disrupting or necessitating new processes or technologies internally.”

Down the Rabbit Hole
The first thing you notice about the San Francisco Business Portal is the friendly, nonthreatening look of the site. Large images of actual small-business people in San Francisco grace the top. The first words you see? “Everything you need to succeed.”

From there you’re presented with three links: Start a Business, Manage a Business, and Grow Your Business. Click on the first and you’re presented with the nine steps you need to take – from creating a business plan to hiring employees – and links to important information for each option. And whichever step you’re on, you see a timeline showing you where you are in the process; the whole site works this way.

“What we knew was people in the process were overwhelmed by how much information there was,” Kaye says. “And we knew we would only succeed in this effort if we contextualized information for them in a way that was relevant to their needs at a particular point in the process.”

One element that made things easier on prospective entrepreneurs and City Hall was the creation of “Starter Kits”: 10 webpages that addressed the 10 most popular types of businesses, each boasting all the relevant guides, permit and licensing information and FAQs, says Kaye. It helped the client team “really focus their content development efforts as a result and launch the portal on time.”

The pièce de résistance, however, has to be the inclusion of a shopping-cart-style system that lets you add particular information to your own folder for later review at any time.

Says Kaye, “We knew that oftentimes, especially with a government department, people are a little loathe to give up personal details, emails, etc., to set up accounts when they’re not even sure they’re going to be proceeding or not.

“So this was a really ingenious way of doing what we needed to do – help people simplify the process and get what they needed and share and categorize the information – without having to sign up for an account.”

“You can actually email yourself the content or download some,” adds Brink. “Or you can just email yourself a link so that any time in the future you can click on it and it recreates the folder for you.”

You can also send that link to others involved in the creation of your business, Kaye points out. “There’s always advisers or partners or accountants or lawyers – somebody else that requires access to or knowledge of what they’re doing at some point. This was a very elegant solution to be able to share this with other people you’re collaborating with.”

While they admit that this is probably one of the most sophisticated websites they’ve developed for a client and are rightly proud of it, they don’t hesitate to give credit where it’s due in the city government.

“Quality assurance on the content side was really owned by the client team,” says Brink. “I think it was a lot of pressure for them, especially because they aggregated content from across various departments at the city, county, state and federal levels. They had to set up systems that they now have to currently check to make sure the other entities, when they’re updating it, notify the client team. That’s really the huge investment the City of San Francisco made.”

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Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.

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