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Today’s continued focus on improving the customer experience (CX) for consumers of Federal government services—both digital and non-digital—is a theme that is thankfully not going away. But there are real-world challenges to implementing these CX improvements, particularly for long-standing digital systems that are not scheduled for complete modernization or major redesign.  These legacy systems, typically in “operations and maintenance” mode, still deserve the attention of CX professionals, as they are often mission-critical systems that directly impact program execution.

RIVA’s Human Centered Design (HCD) team has developed effective strategies to incrementally improve the CX and usability of legacy systems, even when a major redesign isn’t on the table.  In this post, my colleague Danielle LaRosa, User Experience Consultant, and I will share our top 5 incremental CX and usability improvement strategies from a recent project for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) where our teams’ focus was centered on improving the usability of a legacy internal system used by Federal employees.

Top 5 Incremental CX and Usability Improvement Strategies for Legacy Systems:

Develop an understanding of legacy system users and their needs

Regardless of the type of digital service project, the foundation of making CX and usability improvements lies in quickly gaining an understanding of representative system users and their needs.  As we wrote about in the previous post about The Role of User Experience (UX) Research in Government Digital Product Management, spending time observing users as they interact with digital services and systems is a great way to learn the context of work, top tasks, and additional systems and artifacts they may interact with..  With today’s tools, much of this observation can effectively been done remotely, though in-person sessions can add to the richness of the observation data.

To kickstart this process on an HHS internal legacy system that has not had a major UX upgrade since the 1990’s, Danielle conducted a series of semi-structured user interviews and contextual inquiries with 24 system users. With the user research, she was able to gain an understanding of  how users actually use the system to complete their work, and where improvements could be made.  She documented her findings using data-driven user personas and customer journey maps.

Danielle LaRosa (DL): Since we interviewed users across different departments and positions, I used the data to create user personas to simplify documentation of the types of users, their goals, needs, wants, and frustrations.  This turned out to be a great tool to share information about users of the system with our integrated project team.

Gain an understanding of top tasks, pain points, and inefficiencies

Baseline UX research is an optimal time to learn about challenges users may have when using legacy systems to complete their tasks.  Ideally, users will articulate their “top pain points” and illustrate process, workflow, and system inefficiencies. Findings can directly influence prioritization of potential CX and usability improvements.

On the HHS project, Danielle was able to identify a host of user pain-points, using affinity-mapping techniques to identify trends:

DL: The next step in the process was to analyze the user research data we collected. I used our affinity mapping template on Miro to record our main findings and key insights within each interview. I find affinity diagrams extremely helpful for mapping out the most important findings and to distinguish the most common pain points users were experiencing. Using the map, I grouped the data into common themes, such as challenges with an outdated interface, difficulty using command prompt functionality, challenges new users have operating the system without a user manual or official training, etc.

Apply usability heuristics to identify common usability issues

While not a substitute for utilizing HCD methods to design user experiences, usability heuristics (such as usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design) provide frameworks for HCD experts to quickly identify common usability issues. When making usability improvements to legacy systems, heuristics can complement UX research and provide input into the improvement prioritization process.  Danielle did just that on her HHS project:

DL: I conducted a complementary heuristic evaluation of the HHS internal legacy system UX using Jakob Nielsens’ 10 usability heuristics.  Coupled with the UX research, I was able to provide a set of concrete recommendations on how to improve overall system usability over time.

Prioritize user experience and usability improvements based on impact and level of effort

Optimal Outcomes, RIVA’s Digital Product Delivery framework, is grounded in the delivery of value using Product Management, HCD, Agile Delivery, and DevSecOps. We use this framework to prioritize improvements, enhancements, and new feature delivery for our customers. For legacy systems, we typically look at documented usability issues from two angles:

  • Impact of the issue on the user population (severity)
  • Level of effort to implement a viable solution (effort)

We’ve developed scales to assess the severity and effort and these scales allow us to prioritize solutions that will positively impact the greatest number of users—with the least effort required.  Danielle used these scales to prioritize improvements:

DL: Using our usability severity scale, I was able to rank order the usability issues we found to help inform priority.  Working with our integrated delivery team, we added in level of effort to address each issue—this helped us create our prioritized backlog for execution.

Create a usability, improvement, backlog and execute

Utilizing our usability severity and effort scales, we can create a research-based, data-driven backlog of potential usability enhancements to implement incrementally over time.  With CX and usability being directly tied to value delivered to the user population, solutions are added to the product roadmap.  Solutions include small items, such a re-labeling a menu item, to larger items, such as re-designing an entire workflow and interaction design.  Danielle is currently working with her team to execute these CX and usability improvements over time:

DL: The first few usability enhancements we designed include the usage of better contextual information and labeling.  More complex usability enhancement required wireframing entire UX workflows.  We have found that by continuously engaging with the user community, including testing our UX solutions with them, allows us to continually improve their experience—even without a major UX redesign on the near-term product roadmap.

While the Federal government is undertaking many major IT modernization projects, the reality is that most users are still operating on legacy systems.

Embracing the potential of legacy systems doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to their inherent usability challenges. It’s about recognizing that even the most dated systems can be optimized to meet the demands of today’s users. By implementing these 5 steps outlined above, businesses can systematically and incrementally transform legacy systems into user-friendly platforms.

Each step we discussed offers a targeted approach to enhancing usability without the need for a total system overhaul. Remember, it’s not about making the biggest changes, but the right ones. When we place the user at the core of our decision-making, even the most established systems can evolve to deliver a seamless, intuitive experience. So, before considering a complete replacement of your legacy system, explore the benefits of HCD – it might just be the key to unlocking untapped potential and ensuring a positive ROI for your organization. Reach out if you’d like to discuss CX and usability upgrades to your agency’s legacy systems.

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