UMSI students help make civic tools work for Detroit residents

The City of Detroit has a lot of data to share. The challenge is making this data is not only available, but accessible to residents. The City identified this problem and partnered with Data Driven Detroit to solve it. Together, they formed a user testing group, CUTgroup Detroit. The City then enlisted the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) to contribute the user testing acumen necessary to ensure the voices of Detroit residents would be heard.

Scott TenBrink

The guiding principle of CUTgroup, or Civic User Testing Group, is “if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work.” The tools the City of Detroit wanted to make available to the citizens of Detroit had to be useful to its citizens. “CUTgroup is a unique opportunity to talk to people about their daily problems and connect them to solutions,” said UMSI project lead Scott TenBrink

The tools UMSI students helped test would connect residents to information about school districts, crime, demographics and property values. This data, if accessible, could inform Detroit residents as they make important decisions about their lives. 

In month-long sessions during the winter semester, UMSI students wrote interview scripts, spoke with Detroit residents, observed them using the tools the City created, and wrote a report featuring feedback and recommendations for the City. 

While students didn’t earn academic credit for participation, they did gain valuable practical experience doing user-testing in a real-world setting. Students were responsible for planning how they would execute CUTgroup. Instead of receiving assignments or pre-written interview questions, they were given roles.

MSI student Adrian Choi, for example, served as Editor. Adrian decided to participate in CUTgroup because he looked at his resume and realized he wanted more client-focused experience. “I wanted to look more competitive to potential employers and to grow personally as well,” Adrian said.

Matt Smallish became interested in “civic UX,” work that focuses on the user experience of the public as they use tools created by local governments, after working with community libraries in a class taught by Kristin Fontichiaro. CUTgroup allowed Matt to pursue his interest further. “I wanted to directly interact with people and communities, and that’s what CUTgroup is all about,” Matt said. 

Si Qiu, a first-year MSI student, was attracted to the MSI program’s reputation for engaging citizens, and hadn’t been to Detroit before joining CUTgroup. She decided to participate because she wanted to hone her user testing skills while getting to know the city. “I learned how to plan and conduct user tests in a professional way, and perhaps also how to think of problems in different ways,” Si said. 

The City of Detroit used parts of the report the students presented to create a new public-facing restaurant inspection tool. “I have a lot of respect for not only the way that [UMSI students] conducted all of the user tests, but how they documented it so all those insights can live on,” said the Director of Innovation & Emerging Technology for the City of Detroit, Kat Hartman. “Their report is a resource we are going to refer to in the future, for sure.” 

UMSI students will continue to help make civic tools work for Detroit citizens when the program resumes in the fall semester 2019.

Posted June 26, 2019