It only takes place once a decade, but the US Census is one of the most important and extensive data collection activities across the US. April 1st 2020 is Census Day, which marks the snapshot point for the next decade about who lives where and with whom across the country.
The census also determines the number of seats each state has in the US House of Representatives and will also be used to determine how nearly $700 billion in federal funding is distributed to local communities.
However, a lot has changed since the last census survey was carried out 10 years ago. Speaking at Adobe Summit (a virtual event), Christina Stoehr, US Census Bureau, said that the main goal for the 2020 Census is to count everyone living in the United States and the decade-long survey is the most impactful way of knowing this. However, she notes that engagement is a challenge. Stoehr said:
Specific to the 2020 census, we have done a lot of research on our respondents. We found that one challenge is that many respondents don't know what the census is and why they should respond. It only occurs once a decade, so that really is a big challenge for us.
The challenges are enhanced by a rapidly changing environment. There is a growing distrust in government, with concerns about data privacy and confidentiality. This is combined with the ever shifting expectations of our customers.
As a society and as individuals we all expect experiences with companies, retail and government to be digital in nature. Thinking back to the last census in 2010, it's amazing how much technology and customer behaviour has changed in just 10 years.
Stoehr said that the Census Bureau is looking to maximise the reach of respondents, provide tailored experiences and deliver engaging content. Census.gov is one of the largest and most complex federal government sites, with assets and content dating back several decades - as far back as the early 1990s. It also has a diverse range of users, including journalists, educators, students, economists and researchers. Stoehr said:
We have to collect and disseminate large amounts of data, making it easily accessible and meaningful for users.
All of this created a unique environment for us. It requires a flexible strategy, we need to take advantage of new technologies, and we really need to design with people at the core.
A better experience
Stoehr explained that the Census Bureau has carried out an "enterprise level transformation" of the public facing digital properties. She said that the organisation has used research and testing to help drive the implementation process, where the focus has been user centric design to create better experiences for external and internal customers.
We have applied analytical tools and processes to help find relevant information from the mass of data that's collected. And we have implemented various technologies and platforms that created the foundation for advancements of census technology and services.
In parallel with developing organisational efficiencies, we've really focused on improving our external user interaction. We've designed an intuitive experience that helps educate users on the way. The digital user experience is key to making the 2020 census positive and accomplishing a successful count.
The Census Bureau has utilised a number of Adobe technologies - including AEM, Launch and Target - to provide a more unified branding experience, as well as execute on more efficient management of content, enforcement of governance policies, and standardisation of analytics. It has also used Adobe Managed Services to move 2020census.gov - the campaign website for the census - to the cloud. She said:
We have over 100 active authors using AEM on census.gov and 2020census.gov. And we have 50 or more translated language sites using live copy. We have leveraged Adobe Launch, which has given us the ability to allow users to give us better understanding of their behaviour and patterns.
We have also used Adobe Target and email marketing to create a personalised experience. We have used different calls to action and we've looked at A/B testing to understand what entices a user to respond. Information isn't just one thing, it's a full set of innovations in every touchpoint of the user experience.
Working with the Census Bureau, Accenture's Federal Services was also on hand to provide some examples of how the organisation is carrying out user research to provide a better experience. Accenture's Rasha Nahas said, for example, the Census Bureau used Adobe Launch to understand user behaviours and patterns - why people are coming to the website, what they were searching for, and what content was more engaging to them. Nahas said:
We wanted to make sure that there was a continuous feedback loop so that as we learn more about the user experience, we are able to design better experiences and enhancements and provide more engaging content that aligned with the user expectation.
Another strategy involved defining user personas. Using research, personas were created for educators, the media, researchers, respondents - to understand their specific user needs, their experiences, looking from their lens and point of view. This guided development of how specific personas go through the site and use the content. Nahas said:
In preparation for the 2020 census, the team took that respondent persona and defined the respondent journey. To help conduct this exercise we held several working sessions at our digital studio with stakeholders and mapped out the timeline and key activities that will be occurring. We looked at the different interaction points along the way to try and understand how the user is engaging with us, the Census Bureau. What are some of the pain points along the way and how can we address them?
We also took this opportunity to understand some of the risks and opportunities throughout the various phases of the journey. This allowed us to truly understand the user's perspective and come up with solutions and strategies to make sure that their experience is better.
Nahas added that the 2020 website is a critical component of the respondent experience and is one of the most popular touchpoints. With this being the US's first ‘digital census', this meant making sure the website was also mobile first and responsive to different devices and intuitive for users' needs.
Finally, as always, content is king. Nahas provided an example of how the Bureau is using personas to understand the needs of content for different users. She said:
Now all of these elements of technology are very important, but if you don't have the right content, none of this will matter because people won't want to come to your site. Content has to be flexible, it has to be relevant to the intended audiences and it has to be delivered to them through the right channels.
The Census has put in place a lot of great content initiatives that bring the data to life and show us the relevance of it. Census has a team of data experts who are creating what's called ‘data gems', it's a series of ‘how to' videos for data users who are looking for an easy and quick way to enhance the knowledge of the census.