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An App For Making Government Workers Happier

A government app that doesn't feel like a government app

The mission of Federal Occupational Health, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, is to promote the health and well-being of federal employees.

No easy task. FOH has tried many techniques in the past, from posters to stand-up desks to classes. But leaders there knew that to truly improve people’s lives, they needed a plan that would not just offer advice and guidelines but truly motivate them to change their behavior—to make them feel better, fitter, and just plain happy.

To achieve this goal, FOH turned to Brave UX, a boutique agency based in Washington, D.C.

Like the FOH, the Brave UX team was well-versed in understanding complex data. Together, they created Felix, a wellness app that does more than just churn out charts or count steps. Felix uses decades of research, data, and behavioral change models to help federal employees feel happier.

Step One: Revealing the True Goal

The FOH had trouble transforming its extensive legacy data into actionable insights. Working with the Brave UX team, the first order of business was to establish a clear high-level goal.

In its simplest terms, the goal was to improve the health and well-being of federal employees. Such an outcome would then lead to business benefits such as fewer sick days and less employee turnover.

But that goal was really about something else. All their initial research–-including flow maps and user interviews-–illuminated a major pattern: Unhealthy habits like smoking and overeating or daily concerns like stress, anxiety, and sleep were all just symptoms of more complex feelings. The team needed to empower employees to improve the most subjective thing of all: their happiness.

Step Two: Filling in the Blanks

When they started the process of figuring out a solution, they were confronted with "a few bibles' worth of requirements," as Jordan DeVries of Brave UX puts it.

Where to start?

DeVries said they followed the "beautiful minds" approach of bringing together client developers, Brave UX designers, and client marketing leads about three times a week in front of a white board, capturing all ideas and feedback. They brainstormed everything from psychological models to maps of databases, and from this mass of information began to recognize patterns that would help them meet their goal: to improve employee happiness as a means of improving their health.

After a few weeks, they identified 16 important content modules and moved to card sorting to architect the informational flow—all before spending a single minute on any visual designs.

"Just like you can’t make iTunes with a single song, you can’t create a wellness app on one set of data," says Brave UX’s Kelaine Conochan. "We knew that if this project were to succeed, we all needed to spend enough time throwing spaghetti at the wall that something would stick. By taking our time and looking at every single angle, we were able to create something holistically baked through."

Resisting the urge to prematurely show "pretty designs," the Brave UX team focused instead on structuring their four core content modules: movement, sleep, eating, and relaxation. From here, they worked on more detailed designs, one additional module at a time, until all 16 were finished.

Step Three: Module by Module

Every time the team arrived at a new content module, they held a mini kickoff.

They re-whiteboarded their assumptions, the current state of the product, and where each module would fit. On top of standard brainstorming exercises, they continued card sorting to ensure the information architecture could comfortably support the growing breadth of the application. With a compressed timeline, the team kept stakeholders engaged every step of the way, which was invaluable in aligning everyone around such a complex process.

The team found that they were best able to validate concepts by creating clickable, lightweight prototypes.

By creating one content module at a time and debating its individual design elements (e.g., why a sidebar, why three buttons, and so forth), the team was able to adjust prototypes on the fly. Since government employees tend to skew older, they also tested decisions every step of the way, ensuring that each module was as usable to a 60-year-old as it was to a 30-year-old.

Step Four: Felix Comes Alive

Because the wellness app is voluntary for employees, adoption relies on whether people actually want to use it. As a result, Brave UX had to make the app as engaging as possible. Finding a brand, including both visual language and a voice, was the next big step.

After brainstorming sessions with FOH stakeholders, Brave UX decided to create Felix (the Latin word for happy), a spritely, encouraging virtual trainer who could help users stay motivated.

Felix uses a challenge-based model that offers qualitative feedback based on user data. Based on initial preferences set by the user, the app creates realistic challenges with rewards (like badges) that the user can then share with other employees. Over time, Felix’s algorithm adapts to the user and customizes challenges accordingly. Users can even find support from other users by joining groups based on their interests (like hiking, biking, and more).

As a result, Felix helps entice users into a "positive addiction" cycle that’s designed to be effective on an individual level, but becomes even more enticing as others join in.

To ensure the success of gamification, the team jointly created the following non-negotiables:

1. Privacy by default
Health information is sensitive and personal, and user privacy and trust are of the utmost importance. As a result, the FOH and Brave team ensured that users are in total control of their privacy options, allowing users to decide for themselves who is permitted to see their goals and progress.

2. Context and detail are paramount
Decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum. To inspire meaningful behavioral change, the application needed to offer multiple levels of content that give users context on how well they are doing against their goals:

High-level progress tracking: At the highest level, the home dashboard highlights overall progress status with simple messages like "You’re on track!" By clicking on the message (presented in a card), the user is then shown a screen of historical progress.

Goal-specific progress tracking: In the middle of the home dashboard, the app also highlights any specific progress in a goal (e.g., running 30 miles a week) with an accompanying fun message.

Goal-relevant advice: Next to the above tracking, the home dashboard also offers fun and inspirational tips.

3. The human element is key
As all the research clearly showed, Felix needed to feel friendly and empathic every step of the way. The copy and the feel of the visual design both reflect an inviting and nonjudgmental atmosphere. In short, Felix needed to be about life, not just work.

4. UX parity between end users and administrators
Felix is designed to be more than just a user-facing tool. It also integrates services and sessions with FOH’s health experts, relying on them to customize wellness programs for specific clients.

To make this easy for FOH staff, the administrative side of Felix had to be as seamless and as enjoyable as the end-user experience. Through Felix, experts (like personal trainers) are able to easily schedule sessions with users and adapt the content (like tips) based on their more personal, real-world interactions.

Throughout the Whole Process: Crafting the Personality

In parallel with each of the above steps, the team was also defining Felix’s visual personality.

Brave UX created every aspect of the visual brand, including the logo, name, family of colors, and iconography that represented the friendliness of the product. Their goal was to create a government application that didn’t feel like the government. Something that would succeed in the more modern, edgy, and competitive consumer market as well.

To create the right tone and pace for each user, the team created a cast of virtual trainers that were a mix of real-life wellness types (like a drill sergeant for extreme fitness, a zen-like person for mindfulness, and a healthy chef for nutrition).

The visual design also influenced the gamified interactions. For example, one key gamification technique is allowing users to collect novelties. As a result the team developed 144 levels of color schemes and 200 individual avatars that you could unlock and win.

The overall visual language is simple, inspired by the clean, sheet-like feel of material design. Throughout the process, they collected user feedback on this core interface, as well as the brand and bird mascot, via interviews and in-person prototype testing.

This article was adapted with permission. For more advice based on case studies, download the free Project Guide to Enterprise Product Design.

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