CUTGroup Detroit Proves to Be Cutting Edge

 |   Shelley Stern Grach

I’ve been reflecting on the past year we’ve been supporting civic tech programs in Detroit. We started with the recognition that “something neat” was going on in Detroit and perhaps Microsoft could provide a bit of a boost, energy and support to some key groups to help the Civic Tech Ecosystem. Through a bit of research and human networking, we landed on our great partners at Data Driven Detroit. We interviewed a ton of students who were interested in joining the Microsoft team as Fellows and thankfully landed on Ivoire Morrell, a talented young man with an amazing combination of tech skills, commitment and values (read more from Ivoire here). We explored the priorities of the City of Detroit, working with Garlin Gilchrist II, who accurately describes himself as a servant leader and father of twins (with a passion as @DetroitCivTech). One of the key priorities of the City of Detroit was figuring out how to use technology to efficiently and effectively deliver city services to its citizens. All of us had various levels of exposure to Smart Chicago Collaborative’s fantastic Civic User Testing program (CUTGroup) and as a team—a true public/private partnership—we decided that this was going to be our launch into true civic tech for Detroit. Voila! @CUTGroupDetroit was born!

cutgroup-flyerCreating a new CUTGroup is a process and a labor of love. It seems simple: create a Civic User Testing Group which is a community of residents of Detroit who get paid to test out websites and apps. While this seems straightforward  to people in the tech industry or a thriving civic tech ecosystem, try building it when your community members may not have internet at home, or a device at home, or the digital skills necessary to go online and figure out if a website or app even works. So, how do you find the people to build the community? You hit the road—putting up flyers on lampposts and delivering notices to nonprofit organizations. You send a ton of tweets, and re-tweets. You call your friends to help spread the word. Oh, yes, during the hot, hot days of August. And over time, word spreads. And from zero to hero, you sign up over 200 interested users (and growing).

Then, you need to figure out what to test. So many websites, so little time. Working with the City, the decision was made to review a commercial property website and mobile app. We really didn’t know what to expect in our first test, because we don’t really know in advance the skills of the users who sign up—will they be able to give us the feedback we need to tweak the website to make it “usable” for the citizens of Detroit.

Ford Resource and Engagement Center at 2826 Bagley in Detroit

Then, you need to get people to actually sign up for your test. So they need to be available on the date you pick. And they need to be able to use public transportation (or drive) to the user testing site. Good parking, a space that is open after 5 pm, a space that is accessible….all of this plays into the details of running a CUTGroup for the very first time. We are indebted to the hospitality and accessibility of the Ford Resource and Engagement Center at 2826 Bagley in Detroit. They staff was fabulous to work with, and it’s a wonderful, local community center close to expressways with free parking.

Then, you need to go to Costco. Because what is a CUTGroup without munchies. Cookies, candy, water, soda…oh, yeah!!!

Joel of CUTgroup instructing a new userSo, we assembled everything—the gift cards to pay the users, the food, checked the internet, trained our facilitators (thank you Sonja Marziano!), and got ready for our users to show up. And show up they did! We had 100% attendance, which I am told is something of a record as CUTGroups go. That tells me that we are on to something here…the users of Detroit are really, really interested in understanding their data and providing feedback to City officials on what is meaningful and understandable. We ran our program from about 4 pm-7:30pm. After a short wrap up and a lot of self-congratulations (well deserved), we set a time to convene and analyze the data we received through the program. The feedback from Joel, who works for the City and was a terrific facilitator, was that he “could start making changes now based on the feedback”. That’s the kind of 360 degrees circle you want to have.

So our journey is on its way. We still have to roll up our sleeves and drill deep into the evaluation for each user. Joel and his team need to figure out how many changes are doable and what the ROI will be. But we are getting there. We’re getting people who are interested in providing feedback. And they are going to tell their friends to come to the next testing day. We have a place and space, and a process that we know works. And we have lots and lots of websites and apps to test in the future. So, Detroit, get ready for CUTGroupDetroit!

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Shelley Stern Grach
Shelley Stern Grach

They say that great work stems from a combination of passion and commitment, something that Shelley certainly possesses when it comes to her life and career. She currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Business Development Center, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Thrive Chicago, Year Up and LISC Chicago. At Microsoft Chicago, she’s the Director of Civic Engagement, working at the intersection of computing and community, promoting STEM programs and using Microsoft technology to spur growth in the community. So no matter if it's work, play, or giving back, Shelley always makes sure her drive and professionalism help her complete her life's goals.