We are the Digital Lab.
The Digital Lab’s mission is to solve intractable problems of strategic significance using design thinking and modern technology and to promote best practices across the U.S. Department of State as the center of excellence for design thinking and innovation.
A few of our recent projects:
Creating rich, interactive, informative, and inspiring stories
Situation: While GPA (and the Department writ large) communicate extensively with foreign and domestic audiences, LAB felt it had identified a gap in the sort of content created. Specifically, LAB believed that there may be an unmet appetite for long-form, media-rich pieces that tell the story of US foreign policy.
Task: The Digital Lab was tasked with communicating our policy priorities to audiences in ways that engage, resonate, and inspire, by applying the time-tested tenets of storytelling to today’s interactive technology.
Action: The digital storytelling pilot was a small-scale test to determine whether GPA could create unique media-rich content about US foreign policy. The LAB hoped to demonstrate that by filling this niche, digital stories could drive high user engagement and present an effective means of commuting with and persuading external audiences.
Result: In late April, the Digital Lab launched the Digital Storytelling Platform.
Streamlining communications with the press
Situation: The State Department Press Office receives approximately 100 press inquiries per day in a general inbox listed on state.gov. A team of 7-8 Press Officers must assign, respond and track each inquiry in a timely manner and in coordination with the larger team via email. Most of the process takes place behind the scenes, living in Press Officers’ inboxes. Journalists often leave out critical data needed for Press Officers to gain context and prioritize requests, and Press Officers must create responses from disparate sources. Final responses are not tracked in a single place.
Task: The Digital Lab was tasked with analyzing the inquiry workflow to provide options and recommendations for enhancing the current process of press inquiries. The primary goal was to ensure the recommended process enhances the overall usability for the Press team.
Action: LAB worked with Press Officers, journalists, and subject matter experts to examine the workflow, roles, and unique dynamics of the day-to-day press inquiries process and researched potential solutions, including existing FedRAMP approved tools and systems such as Salesforce, ServiceNow, Microsoft Dynamics, and Zendesk.
Result: The team recommended Salesforce as the best solution for managing press inquiries. LAB successfully oversaw the onboarding process of the Press Office to the Department’s Salesforce instance. Now press inquiries are managed in an industry standard platform, allowing press officers to respond to members of the press in a timely and organized manner.
The Instagram Bio tool alternative
Situation: Driving user traffic from social media to key web content is a cornerstone of any organization’s content strategy. But when it comes to capturing web traffic via Instagram, State Department Missions are at a serious disadvantage. Third-party Instagram bio link solutions are not FedRAMP approved for use on government platforms and pose potential security risks. As a result, Mission social media campaigns face an uphill battle in directing audiences to web resources off Instagram.
Task: Help Mission social media practitioners drive more traffic to key content via Instagram.
Action: Designed as an alternative to costly and unapproved third-party platforms, the easy-to-use Social Links tool was created with Mission personnel in mind and developed in collaboration with staff in the field. Social Links is installed on Mission Website Platforms and comes with security standards and branding options already in place.
Result: Missions around the world are already discovering the benefits of the Social Links plug-in and witnessing an incredible boost in landing page performance. After the first month of the pilot, click-through rates have reached up to 71%. Missions who switched from the third-party vendors are not going back, and consider the Social Links plugin a more favorable option, with the extended functionality and convenience of being built on the same platform as their Mission website. “We have a solution finally!” raved one ecstatic Social Links user.
Digital Briefing Book
Bringing press briefings into the 21st century
Situation: For decades, State Department spokespersons kept hundreds of pages of press guidance notes in a large binder to use at daily press briefings. Whenever a member of the press asked a question, the spokesperson would flip through the pages to find the official guidance. And, wherever the spokesperson went, so did the binder.
Task: The Spokesperson engaged the LAB to digitize the briefing book.
Action: The LAB kicked off a research and design effort that led to the creation of a digital briefing book that could be used on an iPad. The team designed an updated workflow for the Press Office, which is responsible for updating the briefing book each day.
Result: The Spokesperson immediately dropped the binder in favor of the iPad solution. Today, the Spokesperson continues to rely on the digital briefing book, which also allows for highlighting and taking notes on the fly. The Spokesperson can quickly search and re-sync the files when needed, and there is no longer a need to carry a big, heavy binder around!
Talking Points App
Delivering guidance on the go
Situation: Ambassadors and press liaisons working at U.S. embassies were not able to access the latest Department talking points on high priority topics while on the go. They’re often out of office to meet with local representatives so it was difficult for them to keep updated on daily events.
Task: The Digital Lab was challenged to create a solution that would deliver approved talking points to the hands of U.S. ambassadors and press attaches at 307 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions in 190 countries around the world.
Action: The LAB quickly identified a third-party, no-code solution to create a prototype, which was tested with ~20 target users, including several U.S. ambassadors. The team improved the mobile app based on feedback received from initial tests, and successfully handed off the MVP to the Press Office for continued development.
Result: Today, embassies around the world no longer have to wait until 5PM Washington, D.C. time to receive approved press guidance. By having access to the cleared talking points in real time, embassies are able to carry out their public affairs duties with the confidence that they are working from the most up-to-date information, thereby reducing the risks associated with acting on outdated guidance.