Shelley Price (MCRP '16) discusses her research and time at Georgia Tech
What was your paper about?
I used the National Park Service (NPS) as a model for why and how a public organization could make its decision-making more efficient by making it more customer-oriented. Specifically, I investigated how customer experience measurement might be implemented to plan for more meaningful access to nature for national park visitors with disabilities. Customer experience is the perception that customers have of all of their interactions with an organization. The idea of customer experience is one that is often used within the private sector to design and sell products and services but is underutilized among public organizations.
“Meaningful” access is key. Just because the picnic area and restroom meet federal requirements for accessibility does not mean that a visitor with a disability is able to fully experience the true reason one might go to a national park!
I conducted expert interviews with NPS employees at all levels as well as customer experience professionals from a variety of industries. These enabled me to identify specific improvement opportunities for the ways in which the NPS thinks about, measures, designs, and strategizes the visitor experience. I then proposed a process for collecting data on the visitor experience and design practices to utilize those customer-based insights.
My proposal will help park managers prioritize the specific access improvements that would have the greatest impact on park experiences of the target visitor segment. These included:
- Establishing a visitor experience team within the National Park Service to champion visitor-driven decisions.
- Utilizing exercises that help staff understand the barriers visitors with disabilities face to having meaningful experiences.
- One exercise might include a simple, but frequently missed, exercise of mapping out the details of a visitor journey. This journey map will illuminate points in the experience at which barriers could be removed, from the minute potential visitors start to plan their trips to the details of parking their cars and getting to trailheads.
- Another essential exercise to incorporate into the planning and management process is an immersion exercise to increase employees’ empathy for the needs of visitors with disabilities. A simple example of this technique might include requiring all staff to spend a few hours getting around their park in a wheelchair to help them understand barriers wheelchair users face.
- Collecting information on visitors’ experiences via a smartphone app that tags the location in which a person reports a positive experience or an area in need of improvements.
Why did you pick that topic?
The National Park Service is currently building a nationwide strategy for tackling the glut of accessibility-related issues across the 400+ unit park system with limited funding. With a strict budget, it is imperative that the NPS fully understand how to best prioritize improvements from the surplus of built and natural environment facilities that do not meet accessibility standards. Currently, no data-driven system exists to aid in this process, and, in fact, the NPS has been federally mandated to improve its customer service measurement and decision-making.
Upon learning about the ripeness of this major public funding management issue, my prior work within the customer experience team at the American Cancer Society came to mind. For my option paper project, I tapped many of the practices we used to measure the good and bad aspects of customer experiences at nationwide fundraising events. I looked at how those techniques could be utilized in the national park setting to measure and efficiently design better park experiences.
In general, I think there is an enormous opportunity to incorporate customer experience practices into the public planning process, and I wanted to explore that possibility!
Talk a little bit about how you worked with your advisor.
Dr. Michael Elliott was a fantastic fit for me as an option paper advisor. He provided the perfect balance of direction and autonomy. He structured my work with a set timeline for deliverables, such as outlines and drafts. He also provided principles for structuring the paper: first define the problem, and then propose a way to solve it. (This structure seems so obvious in hindsight! However, it was not clear how all of the gems of information I collected in my experts interviews would eventually fit together until I thought of the paper in that simple problem-solution manner).
Beyond those two areas of high-level guidance, his hands-off management approach allowed me to spend time letting my ideas flow in an unconstrained way. Then, as our schedules allowed, we would meet for discussions in which he would constructively reign in my lofty ideas and goals so that they could fit within the scope of the project.
What are you up to now that you've graduated?
I have just co-authored the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Human Services Transportation Plan. “Human Services Transportation” (HST) focuses on the transportation options available to, accessible to, and needed by frequently underserved populations, whose options are often reduced due to personal characteristics, such as disability and low income. HST planning is, by nature, very human-centric and thus aligns well with my customer experience focus.
The HST plan guides local jurisdictions through:
1.) assessing the mobility needs of local populations with low-incomes and/or disabilities and then
2.) integrating targeted improvements into local plans for infrastructure and services.
I have also been developing an accompanying “HST 101”, an in-person training course for city and county transportation staff, consultants, social services staff, elected officials, and interested members of the public.
I am actively seeking a full-time role where I can implement customer experience measurement and design into the planning process!
What are a few of the things you enjoyed about Tech's planning program?
In the planning program, I most enjoyed the people! I felt completely surrounded and supported by professors, staff, and students who are incredibly intelligent, original, kind-hearted, and driven from somewhere deep down inside to make our public places better. From those members of the department focused on tackling economic development and social equity issues to those innovatively addressing our transportation systems’ impacts on the environment, the diversity of the ways that each is working to improve our public places was invaluable. Every conversation had the potential to help me grow as both a professional and as a citizen of the world.