CUTGroup #6: OpenStreetMap Editor. All photos by Daniel X. O'Neil.

By Nancy Simon

If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. ~ CUTGroup motto

During a recent CUTGroup (Civic User Testing) testing session held a local Chicago public library, comments overheard sounded something like this:

  • “Cannot really tell what the organization does from the home page design.”
  • “Unable to locate specific services in my neighborhood from the organization’s website.”
  • “Like the font and colors, website looks clean and simple. Able to quickly get the assistance I wanted.”

As a general rule, before web developers take a site live, they rely heavily upon the results of feasibility and usability studies.

However, government or non-profit related clients may not always have sufficient development funds to cover usability testing activities.

Fortuitously, Chicago, Detroit and the work-in-progress Miami all benefit from being serviced by the CUT Group. Something of a novelty, the CUTGroup, a project of the Smart Chicago Collection, defines itself in the following manner: “A set of regular Chicago residents paid to test civic apps.”

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With the missive of providing user input on civic-oriented websites and apps, the CUTGroup is unique as a testing forum for two main reasons: they work exclusively with clients from the civic sector, and, perhaps even more remarkable, they provide their services FREE of charge.

Of the group’s formation, CUTGroup Project Coordinator Sonja Marziano said it was in February of 2013 that Dan O’Neil, Founder of Smart Chicago, CUTGroup’s parental overseer, recognized a lack of interaction between technologists and end-users.

Marziano shared that O’Neil established the CUTGroup “To bring technologists and residents (of any computer skill set) together to build new products and solve problems.”

Evolving over time, the CUTGroup’s primary purpose has been to provide a forum for real engagement with Chicago residents. Secondarily, it is to make technology accessible and user-friendly for all Chicagoans.

Ideally, Marziano said, “We want to reach every community. We want to have one tester per community.”

To accomplish this feat and ensure they reach diverse audiences, the CUTGroup regularly hosts testing at various Chicago public libraries throughout the city including sites not always in the safest of neighborhoods.

Yet, as Marziano stated, “It is important to get every neighborhood involved. At public libraries, people feel safe and they know what to expect.”

With an ever-growing database of between 1800 and 1900 testers, the CUTGroup seeks to reflect the opinions of a broad cross-section of ‘regular’ Chicago citizens, (‘regular’ refers to persons with all levels of computer proficiency). As incentive for online registration, the CUTGroup mails new testers $5 Visa gift cards.

When new studies become available, the CUTGroup invites registered testers to fill-out a screener to test their eligibility. Should they qualify and participate, they receive a $20 Visa gift card.

It is rewarding how much people want to give their opinion,” shared Marziano of the high level of response shown by fellow CUTGroup testers.

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The true magic, though, according to Marziano, lies in balancing both sides of the equation: resident and technology.

When approached by new civic clients requesting usability testing assistance, Marziano shepherds them through the testing process –first discussing their goals and then developing test questions.

During the actual test session, the CUTGroup encourages clients’ participation. Following, the CUTGroup sends clients a drafted report outlining findings before meeting with them to identify steps to move forward.

To date, the CUTGroup has conducted 29 usability tests. Civic clients have included: the City of Chicago (open data portal); Cook County Government (wireframe redo of main county site); M Services (social services eligibility); Ventra (Chicago public transportation); Illinois Humanities (interactive podcasts/fellowships); and the Kennedy Forum (mental health resources).

On a national level, Marziano has used the Chicago model to help other US cities like Detroit and Miami start-up their own CUTGroups.

At the local state level, CUTGroup plans are to extend its reach within Illinois. As Marziano said, “We envision growing throughout Cook County….to be more accessible to small towns and reach more remote areas.”

Critical to sustaining operations, Marziano said the CUTGroup receives ongoing funding and support from heavyweight philanthropy organizations such as: the Knight Community, The Chicago Community Trust (part of the Civic Innovation in Chicago project) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Appreciative of the CUTGroup’s sustained funding base Marziano said, “If CUTGroup was not popular, we would not continue to have the funding to do usability studies.”

More than just ‘popular,’ though, the CUTGroup, serves the vital purpose of helping to improve the lives of city residents in Chicago and beyond.