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Helping Congress Find Its Way

Established by Congress in 1913, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) provides highly specialized and authoritative research support for members of Congress. A department of the Library of Congress, CRS “works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation” (from http://www.loc.gov/crsinfo/). CRS needed our help to enhance the ability for members, their staffs, and other Congressional entities to realize a better search and navigational user experience.

Project Highlights

  • Design studio combined technical and research staff to generate ideas
  • Research-based prototypes helped envision interaction design and collect feedback through in situ usability tests
  • Visual design that complemented existing Library of Congress guidelines to enhance users’ experience with CRS

Research for a Research Service

Partnering with a technology firm, we wanted to help make CRS Products more accessible to its users while ensuring that CRS.gov became more maintainable and flexible.

The redesign focused on these key areas of the existing CRS.gov site: CLI Browsing (also known as Issues in Focus), search, author portfolio, and reports pages. Other items included Items of Note and a highlights area on the home page. We also had to take into account that the proposed design would be compatible with .NET and with CRS' MOSS architecture.

After reviewing existing quantitative data that CRS had collected, we set up a series of phone calls with staff members on the Hill. These calls formed the basis of an understanding of pain points, frustrations, and difficulties that staff members encountered with the existing experience. At the same time, we interviewed CRS staff members and stakeholders to gauge how they understood their users.

Using themes that emerged from this research, we provided some analysis to the CRS team. We contrasted the views of the stakeholders with the views of their users on the Hill. Doing so allowed us to show stakeholders the gaps in their impression of how users viewed their services.

Design Studio Helps Generate Ideas

Once we had a picture of people, their pain points, and their potential requirements, we conducted a design studio with CRS stakeholders. Spending a full day with the assistant director of the CRS and senior staff members meant introducing them to a user-centered approach to product design.

Using the design studio ideas we discussed jointly, the interview feedback, and the CRS survey research, Mad*Pow generated initial design sketches.

Focus areas for these sketches included­–

  • Allowing users to search for analysts separately from searching all content
  • Providing users with related search elements
  • Focusing on faceted search refinement

We discovered that users often searched articles just to find the contact details of specific CRS analysts. So we separated the content searching from analyst searching, while also providing redundantly supportive access to analysts from content search results pages.

Walking the Halls of Congress

Once we achieved agreement on the design direction, we created an interactive prototype to conduct usability tests. We met with Congressional committee members, staff members in both the House and Senate, and Senate librarians. These users interacted with the prototype, accomplishing tasks that reflected the type of searching and navigating they needed to do in CRS.gov.

Realizing the Vision

Usability testing early in any software project provides indispensible information. Sometimes you discover things you’d never conceive of in a conference room. Sometimes you validate concepts you’d imagined before. And that’s what we achieved with our tests. Using this information, we were able to provide clear design guidance for our partners. The visual designs reflected the modernity of the tool while also evincing the gravitas that CRS prides itself on.

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Helping Congress Find Its Way

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