Why were 600 Toronto daycare centres smiling in relief in the summer of 2013? I took a cumbersome process to request their budgets from spreadsheets and transformed it into a beautiful web application that experienced a sky rocket adoption. See the story behind it.
Children Services is a division within The City of Toronto dedicated to provide and regulate subsidized daycare service. With over 600 daycare centres, this division receives budget proposals from centres all over the city.
Every year, from October to December, subsidized daycare centres prepare a request to The City for their operational budget in the incoming year. Traditionally they used to do this on spreadsheets, creating a massive chaos within the Children Services division.
Inconsistency of the data, excessive cost in dealing with customer calls, administrative cost in verifying and entering data manually from spreadsheets, were among the problems. With more than enough reasons for an opportunity, I rolled up my sleeve and got to work.
Getting to know the user was the first step in my UX arsenal; since daycare operators had a high interest in improving their process, they volunteered in masse to be involved in the research. Several interviews were performed by phone and in person, bringing interesting insights about how they would accomplish tasks and find value on the new app, switching from spreadsheets.
One peculiar factor found in the research I conducted, was the typical User Persona turned out to be slightly different than the stakeholders had anticipated: many centres relegate the budget activity to employees with lower level in authority and not entirely familiarized with the financial aspects of the operation. We found that helpers, newcomers, temporary workers and even child care-givers were performing these tasks, sometimes in the same room with twenty-five kindergarten kids!
“Boris is a highly skilled UX professional; he built the entire CSIS application in a prototyping tool; our business team could see complex workflows without writing a single line of code. With a full prototype, we were able to tackle business issues early on, fix them and iterate more quickly, which resulted in a better quality product”
Rod Silva, Project Manager, City of Toronto
Meanwhile, several requirements and JAD sessions were carried out with all members of the team; understanding the complex business rules around daycare operations and service offerings was a key element in hitting the success area.
From my early understanding of the user and business goals, early mockups were developed in Balsamic and presented to a group of stakeholders. The presentation aspect was crucial since the project had a quite precise time and money allocated; staying within budget and hitting the business goals was a ‘high pressure’ item on the desk of the stakeholders.
The rationale I used for the UX design was to enforce a solid Information Architecture, users had to know where everything was, specially coming from a spreadsheet format. Related to this point, familiarity was an aspect to convey: by keeping the same worksheet tabs – now transformed into modules embedded in a linear timeline – we could ensure a smooth adoption and a faster learning curve.
Consistency in layout and placement of command buttons were other aspects of the UX design; my perspective was to decrease the number of ‘task demand’ on the screen by simplifying workflows and clear ‘call-to-action’ controls. It was crucial for this Design Persona to know where and when to click to unleash an action, forcing us to place tasks on the application rather than on the user, like auto-save, automatic data validation and disable or enable buttons based on input.
A strong Notification system was designed as well. Due to the complexity of the business rules and compliance issues, some budgetary adjustments by City officials had to be exposed to operators for them to approve, acknowledge or reject; making the application an effective two-way messaging system and improving communications between parties. Furthermore, accessibility guidelines best practices were included according to AA accessibility standards.
Under my practice, the User experience and UI design for CSIS3 was led, from Requirements to specifications. Using prototyping tools like Balsamic for early iterations and Justinmind, for fully interactive wireframes and specifications documents; proved to be effective in communicating the desired experience to developers and getting buy-in from stakeholders during the course of the project. Training was provided to operators every month and usability testing was performed at seven daycare centres before go-live date.
After launch date on November 30th, CSIS 3 had made significant improvement in data quality received and integrated with City shell services and other programs, it had decreased operator working time from 7 weeks to 2 days and lowered incoming customer calls by 79%. There was also a visible decline in the City operational costs, visits to operators, paperwork, administration costs and logistics.
However the biggest accomplishment by CSIS 3 Budget App was that it made a great social impact in the lives of subsidized day care for torontonian children and their families by improving the subsidized daycare operation for those who need it.