Recommendation 1: Proceed in an open, agile and human centered way
The FEC has been successful in revamping fec.gov using an agile, human-centered approach. Our primary recommendation for improving the e-filing system and experience is to continue and extend this approach. This will help ensure any changes to the e-filing experience and infrastructure are based on evidence that they will improve user experience. An open source, API-driven approach will also help the FEC expand their use of industry-leading software development practices and make it easy for commercial campaign finance software to incorporate these improvements. Incremental changes with frequent usability testing can help ensure that the FEC is continuing to best serve the wide range of people who depend on its data.
This recommendation is part of the 2016 E-Filing study.
Human centered design
Human centered design (HCD) is a methodology that incorporates feedback from the people for whom you are designing (users) throughout an iterative design process. The goal of human centered design is to end up with a solution that is tailored to meet users’ needs, with little wasted effort or risk of unintended, negative consequences. Critical to achieving this goal is working in small iterative cycles where design teams (1) talk with and observe real users to understand their needs, context, and challenges, (2) come up with design concepts that might address these challenges before making or building out one or more of these concepts, and then (3) testing them with real users.
A human centered design lens can be applied to the design of almost anything from technology to policy, but it is increasingly associated with the design of software and information systems. While HCD is still a relatively new field, it is the leading edge in commercial software design and development, and it is now a part of many formal education programs in computer science and engineering, interaction design, and information science.
The FEC has already adopted a human centered and agile (described below) approach to the design of its new website, which has been received very positively by the campaign finance community. We recommend that the FEC continue this work by expanding its human centered design approach to include modernizing the e-filing system.
Agile, iterative software development
Agile methodology insists on building large systems incrementally by making small pieces of working software. Using an agile approach, teams make progress incrementally, checking and course correcting as necessary. Combined with human centered design, new concepts are researched, prototyped, tested, and implemented or changed in response to user feedback
The Beta FEC project has instituted the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) planning technique of Program Increment (PI) planning to accommodate frequently changing user requirements and to coordinate and communicate goals and progress. We recommend that the FEC leverage the skills and experience within the organization and on the Beta FEC team to apply an agile approach to any changes to the E-Filing system.
While usability testing is fundamental to both human centered design and agile software development, we want to highlight specific user groups that should be involved in testing; any changes to the e-filing system must done with input from filers and data power users, such as data journalists and academics, who would be impacted by the change. The FEC is regularly incorporating user feedback into the design of the new website and should carry this practice over to efforts to modernize e-filing.
Formalize feedback channels from FEC staff
In the course of our research, we were impressed by the dedication and expertise of the FEC staff. We learned of several informal processes by which internal FEC staff share ideas on how to improve e-filing. For example, analysts in the Reports Analysis Division (RAD) have created their own centralized list of requested changes to the efiling system. While RAD participates in a final quality check on new versions of FECFile, the FEC’s free filing utility, this may not be in time for their feedback to be incorporated. The FEC could leverage internal expertise by further involving staff, particularly analysts, in the formative evaluation of design changes.
In addition, mentioned in the data validation section of the report, it would be beneficial to mine the RFAI data on a quarterly basis to see if there are opportunities to add data validation or make other improvements to enhance the filer process.
The FEC has a chance to lead the government community in the creation of open source forms, the lack of which is a problem that is mirrored across the government. Building the e-filing system and related utilities using open-source software could help build trust among users and vendors. This would make it easier for commercial software vendors to integrate with FEC software and make it clear what changes are made to the modules the vendors use. We include more on this recommendation in the technical approach section.