Shaping how the federal government provides best practices for safe schools

Allyce Moncton, Designer

On February 14, 2018, in one of the deadliest school shootings in United States history, 17 students, staff, and faculty were massacred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

In response to the shooting, the federal government set up the Federal Commission on School Safety, which was tasked with identifying actionable recommendations to prevent incidents like this from occurring again. The Commission consulted with people who play a key role in keeping schools safe, including school resource officers, principals, and law enforcement. They published their findings in a final report, which recommended that the federal government develop a clearinghouse of best practices, which led to the development of SchoolSafety.gov to deliver these guidelines to the public.

Why USDS got involved

There are over 2,000 websites across the federal government, many with duplicate information that make it difficult for the public to find what they’re looking for and understand the source of truth. In creating SchoolSafety.gov, it was important that the federal government not reinvent the wheel and provide unique value in an already-crowded ecosystem of school safety resources on the market. Before they designed and developed a website for the school community, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)[1] knew they needed to better understand their primary audience and what they needed to keep schools safe. That’s where the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) came in.

USDS partnered with DHS to conduct user research that would shape the content, functionality, and design of SchoolSafety.gov around the needs of people involved in school safety.

How we did it

1. Get the right information, to the right audience, in the right way.

Synthesizing user research and brainstorming site and content structure.

We partnered with DHS to set up phone interviews with a variety of people, including emergency managers, principals, and school resource officers, who are involved in school safety planning and were the primary audience of the website. From the research, we quickly learned about their specific school safety concerns (which went beyond school shootings and covered topics like student on student violence or even black bears) and what information they needed from a federal government website. We discovered they are inundated with best practices and are frequently told what to do, but aren’t told how to do it. For SchoolSafety.gov to be useful and effective, our audience needed tools, examples, or templates to put new ideas into practice. This insight shaped the way the site delivers best practices and the resources to the school community.

We created a framework for delivering best practices that answered three key questions posed by the school community:

1. What should I do?

2. Why should I do it?

3. How can I do it?

The content framework was derived from user research and vetted through usability testing, so it also served as an internal mechanism for determining whether or not proposed content advanced the goals of SchoolSafety.gov. Since the site’s primary audience consisted of principals and administrators who only have a few minutes each day to consume new information about school safety, the framework and content had to be concise and easy to understand. The content was developed with a focus on plain language, and the site avoids jargon to make the information easier to understand and digest.

2. Define a product strategy to create forward momentum.

In addition to providing insight into content needs, user research inspired ideas for additional site features that could address the audience’s needs. We encouraged the team to identify features that would make the most impact on users and that were technologically feasible rather than every idea. To create momentum and understand what to go live with, the team developed a product strategy and roadmap that prioritized user needs and identified key features that address them. The product roadmap also documents additional ideas for future releases. Since there were many different stakeholders involved in this project, the product strategy and roadmap also guided design decisions and content development and were a helpful tool for reminding ourselves what users actually wanted.

One feature that we felt would have high user impact and be feasible by launch was a secure portal where school safety planners could share Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs) and learn from schools similar to them. We created wireframes to illustrate the concept, tested the idea with potential users, and helped bring an MVP version of this platform to life. The product roadmap documents how this online community can be built on over time, and continued usability testing and iteration will help identify new features for future releases.

After conducting user research, we facilitated a group brainstorming session to generate as many feature ideas as possible that addressed user needs. We then determined which ideas would be high value for users and technologically feasible for the first release.

3. Avoid reveals, and vet ideas with users along the way.

At USDS, we strive to avoid product launches that feel like an “unveiling” or “surprise” to users; instead, the team involved them at every step of the process. USDS played a role in vetting ideas with users and conducting regular usability testing as the site was developed. We helped ensure the product was headed in the right direction and that it would be useful to its intended audience.

While it was critical to test how the site delivered best practices and the secure portal for EOP sharing, it was just as important to demonstrate how usability testing works and show its effectiveness to our federal partners. We demonstrated how to incorporate user feedback in an agile manner and encouraged them to adopt this practice for later iterations. One of our USDS core values is “design with users, not for them.” The team recognized the importance of involving users in the process and will continue to shape the product around user needs.

What’s next for SchoolSafety.gov?

SchoolSafety.gov went live on February 10, 2020. We’re proud of the partnership with DHS, who will sustain SchoolSafety.gov and continue to build it out through future iterations. Most importantly, we’re eager to see how SchoolSafety.gov can help America make schools safer.

Design, content strategy, product management, and engineering were just a few of the disciplines involved with this project. If projects like these interest you, consider joining the U.S. Digital Service for a short tour of service, and help us build better government services through design and technology.

The United States Digital Service is a tech startup working across the Federal government to deliver better services to the American people. www.usds.gov