Department of Better Technology

We make great software that helps governments and non-profits better serve their communities.

How to brainstorm effectively, whether you're inspired or not

When you’re under deadline, it’s tempting to decide you don’t have time for creative thinking. But the alternative, choosing what you perceive to be the most “obvious” solution to a problem, can be incredibly damaging. The first few ideas you can think of are merely the most convenient and obvious. They’re not the best.

Creative thinking isn’t a matter of waiting around for inspiration to strike. The only way to uncover the best solution is by generating as many ideas as possible, and that’s the product of applied rigor and a solid process.

There are plenty of great resources out there on how to conduct a great design exploration, from books to in-depth articles. To be honest, I haven’t read most of them! But the process I describe below works well for me, the sole designer on a distributed team. Hopefully, you’ll also find it useful.

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Written By
Josh Rubenoff

Three more form design tips

This is the second installment of “Build Better Forms,” a series in which we review online government forms and suggest some improvements.

As we discussed in our first post, a clear and intuitive form reaps many benefits:

  • lower data processing costs,
  • fewer support requests,
  • higher completion rates,
  • and greater citizen satisfaction.

Let’s run through three more ways you can improve your form:

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Written By
Kari Mah

Project management tools and creative thinking

Here’s something I’ve been mulling over the past few weeks.

If you work on digital products, you probably use a project management tool to keep track of design and development. Maybe your organization is all-in on JIRA or Basecamp, or you use something more lightweight like Trello or Flow. (At DOBT, we use a combination of Github issues and Slack integrations.)

Basecamp, JIRA, and Invision all use linear timelines.

You’ll notice that all of these tools make use of a linear timeline, whether they’re activity feeds or comment threads.

A linear discussion is great for convergent thinking. The project lead creates a new ticket for a feature, or a bug, or a customer request. The team debates how to move forward over the course of the thread. Maybe someone posts a mockup or a link to a prototype, and there’s a back-and-forth as colleagues give feedback. Eventually, you all come to a shared understanding around the solution you’re going to build.

It’s convenient to mold your design process to fit the tools you use. In the scenario above, your process looks like this:

Illustration of a linear workflow.

But this way of working skips over a crucial portion of the design process: brainstorming and ideation, also known as divergent thinking. Once you understand the problem you’re trying to solve, you must uncover all the options you can choose from before converging upon the best solution. This means you need the space to think creatively.

Really, a solid design process looks like this:

Illustration of a divergent workflow.

Your team is doing the work to brainstorm many possible solutions. And instead of immediately rejecting ideas that seem silly upon first glance, you iterate upon them until you can evaluate the strongest possible version of a concept.

If you’re a small team located in the same room, you can just use a shared whiteboard to hash out new ideas. But if you work on a large or distributed team, or you simply have multiple stakeholders located in different offices, this becomes a bit more difficult.

How might we adapt our tools (or build new ones) to enable a more creative process?

Written By
Josh Rubenoff

Goodbye, Formscentral. Hello, Screendoor.

Adobe will retire FormsCentral in late July. If your agency or government has relied on FormsCentral to build and publish web forms and fillable PDF forms, what should you do?

Give your citizens a break

Filling out a form is a tedious yet necessary task, one from which few are exempt. The easier it is for your citizens to fill out a form, the quicker they can get on with their day.

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Written By
Kari Mah

Powering better fellowship programs — Join us for a demo

Are you part of a team in charge of a fellowship program? If so, you are doing important work, connecting agencies and organizations to the talent they need and providing unique opportunities for service.

But you’re also likely to spend a lot of time sifting through an enormous number of applications, delegating application review to colleagues, and communicating with potential fellows.

We’re here to help! Screendoor is a web-based tool that allows you to publish a beautiful and intuitive application form and stay on top of submissions without having to pass around messy spreadsheets or email attachments.

To see Screendoor in action, check out the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Research and Innovation Fellowships catalog.

Then join us for a 30-minute demo and Q&A every Wednesday in May and June at 1PM EST / 10AM PST. Sign up here!

Written By
Joshua Goldstein

Defeating the Culture of No, Part I

Have you ever sat in a meeting, tried to move things forward, and instead of a constructive meeting about possibilities, it’s become an open session on why anything proposed isn’t possible? Have you ever worked in an environment where most of the meetings you’ve had end up this way?

Chances are, if you’ve ever worked in government or you’ve ever worked in the enterprise, you have. Whether it’s just that one cynical guy in the corner, your general counsel’s office, or, well, you, anybody who has worked for a reasonable period of time has encountered this kind of culture. I call it the “Culture of No.”

The Culture of No is a pervasive culture that’s awful to work in. It’s a culture of mitigation. It’s the culture that prefers short-term preservation at the expense of long-term lifespan, and it works tirelessly to protect incumbency above all else.

The Culture of No is not native to government, but it thrives especially well in democratic governments and regulated bodies. But the Culture of No can thrive anywhere it’s not kept in check: your local non-profit, a small start-up, city hall, or a Fortune 10 business. At its best, the Culture of No provides friction for obviously good ideas to move forward and thrive. At its worst, it grinds at our ability to get things done.

So what can be done about the Culture of No? How do we get past it?

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Written By
Clay Johnson

Three ways your form confuses your users—and how you can fix them

Filling out a form is hardly a pleasant experience, but a clear and simple form can go a long way in easing the pain. Everyone wins: respondents complete it without any issues, and you, in turn, avoid chasing down missing data from incomplete forms. You get exactly the information you need.

We’ve helped our customers improve their forms in Screendoor, and we’re ready to share what we’ve learned. Inspired by the “teardowns” on User Onboarding, we plan to regularly suggest improvements to government forms we find online.

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Written By
Kari Mah

Get a live demo of Screendoor for hiring and fellowships

If you’ve ever sat on a hiring or fellowship selection committee, you know how difficult it can be to identify top candidates. Keeping track of application materials. Delegating application review to your colleagues. Taking note, at each round, of which candidates have made the cut.

Hiring and fellowship selection with Screendoor can bring order to chaos. Take it from our following customers who use Screendoor exclusively for this purpose:

This Wednesday, join DOBT CEO Joshua Goldstein for a live demo of Screendoor. You’ll learn how we can help you and your colleagues work together to find your dream candidate from a pool of applications.

It’s free. And it’s only 30 minutes, including time for questions at the end.

So if you have 30 minutes to spare on Wednesday, May 13th at 10am PST (1pm EST), head over to http://join.me/departmentofbetter.

See you there!

Written By
Kari Mah

Why your agency should consider a “procurement pilot”

rfpez screenshot

Pictured: RFP-EZ, a pilot project in federal IT procurement.

If you’re a follower of DOBT and our blog, you know that we’re a bit obsessed about government procurement – in fact, some of our most widely-shared posts have been on the subject. But when Clay and I first met in 2012 during our Presidential Innovation Fellowship, procurement wasn’t discussed outside traditional government circles, especially not by the “civic tech” or “civic hacking” community.

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Written By
Adam Becker

Streamlining the Production of Open Data

When I worked at the World Bank, I spent a lot of time helping government agencies harness data to improve delivery of the public services that matter most to citizens. Our clients wanted to access streams of insight to improve decision-making and performance. Around this time, open data portals like Socrata and CKAN were starting to mature, and business dashboards like Geckoboard and Ducksboard were coming onto the market. While the data publication tools had never been better, the data production workflow was slow and inefficient, a cumbersome process that involved messy spreadsheets, Google Docs and manually uploaded .csv files. The open data production process was, and still is, a major barrier to the creation of timely, granular and actionable data.

typical performance dashboard

Today we’re pleased to unveil Open Data Sync, a new Screendoor feature that bridges the gap between data production and data publication. With Socrata Sync, senior managers in government can collect, approve and evaluate data from project teams and sync it to their Socrata Open Data Portal—automatically.

Performance measurement and evaluation is one area where Socrata Sync provides a solution. Chief data officers (CDOs) can work with department heads to define performance indicators in Screendoor and distribute a link to a page where frontline teams can enumerate their progress at regular intervals. Once the data has been collected, CDOs and department heads can review and discuss submissions directly in Screendoor. Upon their approval, the data is instantly pushed to the Open Data Portal. Equipped with up-to-date and widely available data, senior staff can more easily advocate for process change. This is only one use case for Socrata Sync: stay tuned for additional benefits of improving the data production process with Screendoor.

We’re excited to offer Screendoor as a cornerstone element of the data production workflow, replacing brittle spreadsheets and outdated database management systems. Our new feature reduces human or machine errors common in data collection. It also lessens the work required to maintain dashboards for end users. Furthermore, we know the data production process is never static, so we’ve ensured that Screendoor can adapt to a wide array of scenarios, such as new performance indicators, new team members and process changes.

We would love to hear what you think! Send us a message at @dobtco or sign up to create your first Screendoor project.

Written By
Joshua Goldstein

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