Watson Barry


Reaching 2.7 million citizens by solving for 1


Jul. ’19 - Aug. ’19 5 weeks

Methods used

Research, Ideation, Visual Design, Prototyping, Testing


Alison Joy, Brett Saito, Thomas Southall, Delanna Baker & Me

Budget Transparency


Under the direction of President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, the hypothetical client City Clerk, Anna Valencia, hired us to improve communication of the budget to the public.

The stakeholder would be represented by Designation's Mo Goltz (IDEO U, Allstate) and Amy Ton (Yelp).
CLIENt request
Improve access for citizens who want or need data on the annual budget

Chicago's Cloudy
Financial Past

Discover - Competitive Analysis

Our survey of the Chicago financial landscape revealed that there is low public trust for budget spending due to a history of high taxes, corruption, and a budget creation process that occurs behind closed doors.

This process results in a 500 page PDF of the Mayor's budget proposal released to the public before the 50 Aldermen vote on passing it.
A visual comparison of the difference between Chicago and Palo Alto's budget
Competitive analysis and the International Open Budget Index Rankings showed increased transparency for budget data with context and visualizations.

Chicago provides a large and in-depth dataset, but in an inaccessible format without context. This is something our team can improve.

Key Takeaway

Context is needed to make sense of large of data sets

Initial Assumption

Citizens are having a difficult time finding and understanding the budget data they want and need.

To improve their experience they need a tool to provide context on what the numbers mean and how it affects them.

& Vote Reliant

Discover - User research

To get a better understanding of how people are interacting with the budget and the data they valued, we did the following:
Chicago citizens Interviewed
Subject Matter Experts Interviewed
Contextual Inquiry Participants to establish a baseline
We found that citizens are concerned with how their tax dollars are being spent, but felt their best interests in the budget were represented with their vote for Aldermen,
Chicago Citizen discussing the budget
Don't trouble us with the details. We won't understand them. You know, that's what we pay them for.
Interviews with Aldermen revealed that they don't have the knowledge or training to interact effectively with the budget. COFA, the City Council Office of Financial Analysis, was set up to help the Aldermen, but it isn't providing the required assistance. In 2017 COFA provided a summary of the budget to the Aldermen just hours before they were expected to vote.
One Alderman had this to say about the budget:
Alderman discussing the budget
It's just, it's just too much for the human mind to understand.
The public doesn't understand it.
Alderman don't understand it either.
The discovery that there are 50 elected officials, who 2.7 million Chicagoans are trusting to represent their best interests and thoroughly check the Mayor's budget; and yet they don't have the tools or know-how to properly do their job, led us to reframe our assumption of the problem.

Increasing the transparency and the communication of the budget for the public requires the citizens preferred channel, the Aldermen, have a better understanding. From we developed the following problem statement:
Problem Statement
Chicago Aldermen feel overwhelmed by the budget information they’re provided. They need a tool that makes the data digestible and actionable so they can effectively serve the city’s best interest.

Using Budget Context
for Effective Voting

Define - Personas & Journey Maps

The team and I took what we learned from our interviews and research to create two personas, an Alderman and a member of a budget watchdog group. We decided to focus on solving for the Aldermen since they would have the largest impact on the budget for the public. We confirmed the reframed direction with our proxy-stakeholders before moving forward.

Introducing Michael Shay O'Connor
Michael feels frustrated when he can't make an impact for his community.
Consistent with most Aldermen, Michael does not have a background or training in finance.
To handle the workload, Michael divides the work amongst himself and his staff.
Comparisons to spending in previous years and cities of a comparable size have high value.
They will open multiple tabs to search for context.

I then created the following journey map for the Alderman Michael Shay O'Connor.

Dashboard -
High-level to Granular

Develop - Divergent Concepts & Testing

In solving for the Aldermen, we operated under the constraints that we could not change policy.

We explored concepts that would provide context and clarity to the budget. To narrow down the concepts for testing, we took our solutions and mapped how the extent that they solved the core problem and their overall feasibility. The five that best fit both were then prepared for concept testing.
A photo of a user concept testing
Due to time constraints, limited access, and the Aldermen coming from citizen backgrounds with no special training, we used a roleplaying exercise to have Chicagoans step into an Aldermes’ shoes for testing the concepts.
A wireframe of our Dashboard concept
The feedback we received from testing guided our decision to go with the dashboard for the MVP.  It solves our primary goal of providing granular data with context the fastest, and requires no policy changes to implement. It is also a modular solution that gives the Aldermen a customizable lens through for viewing the budget.

Budget Window

Develop - Prototype

From tab-jumping to efficient drill-downs

The Aldermen and their staff end up tab jumping when trying to find context for what the numbers mean in the current budget display. Our solution removes those extra steps and gives Michael and the Aldermen the information they need faster, in a format that can understand, and action off of.

Creating a streamlined lens

A graphic representation of how the Aldermen can click from high-level to granular.
It allows staff to use a funnel approach going from high level down to the specific information that they need so they can make effective policy decisions. Contextual comparisons for the data are provided at each stage of the drill-down, thus eliminating the need to jump back and forth between pages.
Balanced data in a flexible workspace
Scalable elements allow the Aldermen to organize the data as needed.
The ability to search and add new datasets to the dashboard, allows them to consider points from a broader perspective. To prevent information overload,
The amount of data displayed varies depending on the scale of the modular element to prevent information overload.
Providing context without clicking
Research showed the importance of year over year, so yearly comparisons are provided for each data point.
Additional info is provided on hover to prevent information overload by showing supplementary information for a point only when needed.
Trends for an overall category are displayed to the right.
Putting City Comparisons and the larger timeline in focus
Aldermen and their staff look to see what comparable cities spend and outcomes they achieve.
To empower this research, a comparative graph tool was implemented.
This is some text inside of a div block.
Removing re:re:re with a collaborative workspace
The Aldermen split the budget work between themselves and their staff.
To enable this, there is a team dashboard that can be divided by tasks.
Team commenting creates a collaborative environment that allows everyone to be on the same page.

Large Datasets

Develop - Testing

I  developed the design system, wireframes, and clickable prototype to put in front of the Aldermen. We decided to focus on how they could receive contextual information as they drilled down to a specific item.

The results - 100% completion rate in under 48 seconds

To compare how our solution compared to the current method, we had users look for the specific dollar amount spent on Chicago Public Safety. When searching in the PDF, 75% of participants abandoned the task.

An Aldermen we tested with had this to say about our solution.
Chicago Alderman on using the ChiDash prototype
It would be useful. It's quicker to get stuff, quicker for me to be able to digest and recommunicate.

Measuring Impact


We solved for 1 Alderman, Micheal Shay O'Connor, but there are 50 Aldermen in the city. Those 50 Aldermen represent 2.71 million Chicagoans. Improving the readability of the Chicago Budget for the Alderman, has a ripple effect of increasing representation of public interests for Chicago citizens.

Consulting about implementation

Our team took the liberty of scoping the implementation for Chi City Dash from a technical standpoint. Experts at the Flatiron school quoted us 1 junior engineer and 2 data scientists 1 to 2 months of full-time work to finish this project from start to finish, with additional upkeep yearly by data scientists.

Considering the office of budget management is allocated nearly 10 Million dollars each year... This solution is feasible.

Next Steps + Key Learnings

Getting Scrappy

This project was a great practice for thinking on my feet and problem solving when time constraints meant that the ideal solution wasn't possible. Due to the reality of our schedule for the course and the limited availability of the Aldermen, we had a small window for interviewing and user testing with them. To work around this, we sent surveys to all 50 Aldermen, reached out to other members in their office, used Aldermen roleplaying exercises, and did extensive secondary research.

Continued Research

If the project were to continue, there are several areas where I'd want to conduct more research and testing. I would have liked to have done more testing with the right depth of context for the data to display to the Aldermen at each level of the drill-down. Additionally, I'd like to study more how the Aldermen and their teams are communicating and coordinating to achieve their goals.

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