Aldermen in the city of Chicago have no context and limited time when interacting with the proposed budget each year. Our goal was to make a product that was easy to use and understand for even the least financial savy Alderman.
5 UX/UI Designers and Researchers
My role was heavily focused on research planning, ideation, helping to develop the visual elements that made up the wireframe, and redesigning all wireframes for this case study
5 weeks project
Chicago City Dashboard
The problem and our design team
The situation for Chicago city financials is dire. The city is $24 billion dollars in debt and people are leaving at a record rate due to high taxes. The Chicago Budget is in a bad state and it’s affecting local citizens as school funding, infrastructure and public services are failing.
Our team of five designers were challenged to explore why this breakdown is happening and how to make the budget experience more transparent.
Creating a website for city aldermen to help them understand the budget and better prepare them to vote according to the needs of their constituents.
So what's wrong with the budget?
Understanding the Problem
There are hundreds of complex reason why the Chicago budget is failing in its current form, but we identified three main areas that if addressed could provide considerable impact:
The budget as it stands is extremely hard to read. Currently existing inside of two documents: a 500-page line by line breakdown with no meaningful overview, and a 200-page summary pdf report. They provide the budget in a way that is extremely hard to navigate and gives very little context.
The budget process is largely hidden. The current budget process as it stands is made in a black box at the clerk's office and then Aldermen are given sometimes less than a week to vote on if it passes or not. There are no clearly defined initiatives that the budget process aims to meet.
Aldermen don’t understand what they are voting on in regards to the budget. This is a result of the two aforementioned points and is the reason why the people of Chicago are unable to have any effect through their politicians on the current state of affairs.
How did we learn this?
We researched every aspect of the budgeting process.
Our team interviewed over 17 Chicago residents: aldermen, citizens, journalists, and former campaign managers.
We sent surveys to all 50 aldermen in Chicago,
We canvassed City Hall with guerilla interview tactics and did countless hours of secondary research in the form of online interviews and journalistic articles.
On top of this, we analyzed six competitors in a competitive analysis to learn what transparent financial data looks like in both the private and public sectors.
Through this research we defined who are target product would be for as well as identified the specific problem we were solving for.
Chicago city officials involved in the budgeting process feel overwhelmed by the financial information they’re provided. They need a tool that makes the data digestible and actionable so they can make effective decisions to serve the city’s best interest.
Defining our User
Our team created a primary persona, Micheal Shay O’Connor, as the target user we were solving for. We crafted Micheals character and story from the recurring patterns and themes we noticed take shape in our research. Micheal is an Aldermen of the 43rd Ward, in his first year of office. Micheal is the beginning user for our budget solution for a few reasons:
Like most Aldermen, Micheal has little to no financial background or experience reading financial documents.
Micheal is eager to help his constituents and feels very over his head when voting on the budget in its current form
Micheal feels helpless to make real changes in his community and in people's lives when he doesn’t understand the impact of his vote.
Well, it can't be an information dump. And it just, it's too much for the human mind to understand. The public doesn't understand it... guess what? Aldermen don't understand it either.
Testing our Ideas
Learning from divergent ideas to create the best experience
We wanted to make budgeting information easy to find, more navigable, and retrievable once found. This presented a challenge to our team and to me personally as it was a huge data set and a large scale problem to tackle. After an initial round of paper prototype testing, we were left with two concepts: “Good, Better, Best model” , and the “Dashboard concept”.
“Good Better Best”
The good better best model is based on the premise is that if Aldermen could have a hand in shaping the budget then it might reflect the needs of the people they represent more fully.
The idea is simple:
Each department would be allowed to submit 3 budget asks with a breakdown of what that department could do and accomplish with that money and then the aldermen be involved in voting on each departmental allocation.As interesting as this idea was, it was also completely unrealistic and so we did not go forward.
For our other concept, we tested a Dashboard concept that allows aldermen to find the contextualized budget information they’re looking for. The display shows multiple views of the budget and will allow the user to pick and choose the data presentation they need. See the concept prototype here.
Chi City Dash
Our solution expounded on our Dashboard concept
Chi City Dash allows the user to search the budget for keywords and pull up results for multiple years.
It also allows the user to add custom made charts and budget views to their person dashboard for quick reference.
Each data visualization is interactive and allows the user to click into specific data points so they can drill down into the specific line item.
This specifically speaks to the user's pain point of not having any context when viewing data- they can see data in the context of 1000 ft or line by line
Find the Prototype here.
Don’t redesign the wheel
Integrations to Consider
Although our initial prototype and wireframes were done without third-party software, there are many powerful data visualization and dashboard making software on the market made for this precise purpose. Moving forward with an actual product, we recommend that the client consider integrating with tools such as Lookr or Tableau.
Testing with users
When testing with Aldermen we had a very positive response. One Chicago alderman was quoted saying:
“It would be useful. It’s quicker to get stuff. Quicker, potentially, for me to be able to digest and re-communicate.”
During our 5 week contract we talked to 30 of people, created an extensive domain understanding and competitive landscape, and created a hypothetical solution that got attention from nonprofit organizers and other public figures interested in pursuing transparency in the budget. Furthermore, although only a hypothetical solution we believe that this budget dashboard has implications to affect the 2.7 million Chicago citizens that Chicago city Aldermen represent.
My personal takeaways
This project was an experience that challenged me to grow as a designer, team player, and Ux Researcher. There are a few key things in this case study that were added later due to my personal opinion and research leanings but were not included in our final presentation of the Dashboard. Learning to let go of my personal ideas for the good of the group was very important and formative for me when working in a team context. As for Research, for this project my team sourced and conducted all interviews, this was extremely challenging and gave me new insight into what it takes to get quality interviews. I really learned to get creative and be sure of myself when reaching out to Aldermen and public figures.
The other, major thing I developed during this project was a concepting model based in user research. Essentially what this looks like is looking at identified user problems found during interviewing, and coming up with individual solutions for those problems. Once these problems are identified and solutions are written down on paper, I then draw 6-8-5's from those written concepts. This may seem obvious to a seasoned UX Designer but this technique was transformational in my process of converting research to ideation. See a sketch below of my process.