This story was written by Lisa Ratner, a 2016 Code for America Fellow and UX researcher who is currently embedded with City of Long Beach staff working to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start a small business.

Bringing a business to life

Jim dreamed of bringing his passion for acupuncture to the City of Long Beach by opening a research center. He tried to puzzle through city requirements for starting a small business, but struggled to understand the complex process. Soon, Jim sat waiting at city hall, growing more anxious about starting his business as he waited to speak with city staff.

I met Jim while researching the struggles Long Beach residents and business owners face in complying with city regulations. Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia invited my fellowship team to spend a year working side-by-side with city staff to make it easier and faster for entrepreneurs to start a business. Officials in the business, planning, innovation, and technology departments have spent the past three months brainstorming, planning, and testing ideas with us.

We’re untangling the regulation process by focusing on the user, potential business owners. After talking to many of them at length and learning about their frustrations, our team in city hall has boiled down the requirements to a few clear steps. Now, we’re working to build an easy-to-navigate website that will walk entrepreneurs through these steps from their phone.

How we made a user research plan

We partnered up with the Long Beach Bloomberg Innovation Team and a UX class at California State University Long Beach (CSULB), to collect insights from nearly 100 entrepreneurs in Long Beach. Through these user interviews and our survey we gained empathy, generated ideas, and tested our assumptions. We made sure to reach out to underrepresented entrepreneurs in the city, including:

<p>The entrepreneur groups city staff chose to study: non-english speakers, non-tech-savvy people, low-income people, and women.</p>

The entrepreneur groups city staff chose to study: non-english speakers, non-tech-savvy people, low-income people, and women.

We narrowed our focus to the following questions:

  1. What are the biggest hurdles for entrepreneurs?
  2. Who is marginalized by the current process?
  3. Which actionable metrics best illustrate product, process, and policy success?
  4. How can we resolve inefficiencies and reduce workload for the city staff?

Discovery Phase: “Getting out of the building”

Shadowing city staff in city hall was essential to understanding the regulatory process they need to enforce. However it was equally if not more valuable to get out of city hall and meet entrepreneurs on site at their business locations in the community.  Again and again, we kept hearing entrepreneurs say “I don’t know what I don’t know, so I don’t even know what questions to ask.”

Surveys are an easy way to capture feedback quickly and massively. I used the free online survey tool Typeform and put the link on the city website. (You can check out the survey here.) This information helped supplement our in-person interviews and gave us data on a broad group of people.

We brought together all the feedback we had received from users at city hall, from in-person interviews, and from the online form and identified the top pain points for entrepreneurs:

  1. Resources for entrepreneurs are scattered
  2. The process to get started is confusing
  3. City officials aren’t asking entrepreneurs for feedback on their experience
  4. Entrepreneurs come to city hall unprepared, without basic things like a business plan or financial documentation
  5. City applications are mostly on paper, which can get lost or be hard to read
  6. Basic questions like do I need a business license have convoluted answers

For example, Jim had never heard of services like the Small Business Development Center, a state-funded resource that could help him create a business plan or work through other common tasks. Some city staff aren’t aware of the resources available in the community, and can’t point those in need to the right place.

Information inside city hall is siloed by department and specialty, making it difficult for entrepreneurs to get all their questions answered in one place. Jim told me he wanted one place he could go to to find all the steps to start a business in Long Beach, as well as resources like a template business plan or a guide to secure financing.

<p>Jim holding his design solution for the pain points he experienced.</p>

Jim holding his design solution for the pain points he experienced.

With these pain points in mind, we held a participatory design exercise with city staff to brainstorm solutions to clarify the business startup process. City staff grouped the entrepreneurs’ pain points and proposed potential solutions like clarifying confusing aspects of the process in a central location, surveying the entrepreneurs experience and displaying it in an analytics dashboard.

<p>City staff grouping entrepreneur pain points.</p>

City staff grouping entrepreneur pain points.

Building Phase: Long Beach’s Business Portal

We decided to translate the pain points we’d found and the suggestions from city staff into new features for an online business portal. Long Beach wanted to create an online tool that guided entrepreneurs through the business startup process, including how to register and apply for licenses and permits.

Based on this vision and user research, our fellowship team developed a sitemap with the newly requested features and prototyped a ‘mobile-first’ interface.

<p>The sitemap we created.</p>

The sitemap we created.

<p>Our ‘mobile-first’ interface.</p>

Our ‘mobile-first’ interface.

User Testing BizPort

We wanted to make sure the tools we were building solved real user needs. To do this, we want to continue to talk to entrepreneurs and see if our new business portal solves the problems they told us about.

We’re continuing user testing through the following methods:

  • Conducting in-person testing
  • Chatting with users in real time using Intercom, a live help feature
  • Distributing more widely the online survey
  • Reviewing Google analytics (i.e. page views, click through rates)

The challenges Long Beach entrepreneurs face occur in most cities. Getting out of city hall and interacting with your community face to face is invigorating. Hearing their pain points accompanied by the tone of their voice leads to greater empathy and motivates us to help. It is also an opportunity to hear the positives about what makes your city great. Certain conversations will stick in your mind. Like this one, “There is a great sense of pioneering here in Long Beach, a great sense of community. This is where I want to start my business, this is my home.”