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Designing a violation envelope that's easier to understand

If someone gets a code enforcement ticket but they’re not sure what it is, will they pay the fine? Probably not. With a new envelope design, we’re hoping to fix that.

Despite efforts to keep the City clean and free of violations, unpaid code enforcement fines have increased over the past few years. Of all the code enforcement tickets written, around 38 percent go unpaid. We know people want to do the right thing. But, if our ticketing process isn’t making it clear to residents what’s expected of them — and what their options are — it can lead to a lot of repeat offenders and frustration.

Our partner on this project, Public Works, knew they had a problem. Their concern was that the old “green” tickets weren’t obvious to residents, and that many simply ignored them because they didn’t look like an actual ticket from the City. To validate this idea and build a better design, the Department of Innovation and Technology partnered with student researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School.


To give you some background, the Code Enforcement Division of Public Works enforces state and City sanitary codes. Common tickets include: 

  • illegal postings on City property 
  • improper disposal of trash, and
  • failure to shovel snow.

When they started their research, the Harvard students first got a better understanding of how people interact with these tickets. Their main focus was to determine how they could change the behavior of Boston residents to:

  1. get more tickets paid, and 
  2. limit the amount of repeat violations. 

The original green ticket envelope
The original green ticket envelope

In that initial research, they found that most people just threw their tickets out. The green color, strange fonts, and confusing language made people think it was spam and not an actual ticket from the City. An easy way to change things for the better would be to redesign the envelopes to match the new City of Boston brand. This would give those residents who receive tickets the understanding that they’re coming from a reliable source. And, we could potentially increase the likelihood of these tickets being paid on time. 


The Harvard group made seven different versions of the envelope and tested their designs on users 58 times before reaching their final recommendation. Overall, they looked at the impact of:

  • adding City of Boston branding
  • including a sender
  • changing the color, and
  • improving the language on the envelope.

Adding City branding 

The original envelope didn’t have City branding and led people to question the legitimacy and origin of the ticket. By adding the seal and official logo and changing the font to match the City’s brand, the envelope looked more credible. As a result, recipients who were tested were more likely to open it.

Who sent this? 

The original envelope didn’t include a sender and listed the Treasury Department as a return address. As a result, recipients assumed that the violation was tax-related. Changing the sender to Public Works gave people a better understanding of who was giving them a fine. Checkboxes were also added to the front of the envelope to provide a better understanding of what the violation was.

Adjusting the color

The original envelope was a bright green that people associated with either recycling notices or spam advertisements. Changing the envelope to match our “Freedom Trail Red” color immediately made it look like something you needed to pay attention to. The color is equally as visible as the green if left on doorsteps or doors, but the new red design made it look much more serious.

Simplified language 

The original envelope only had directions in English. The text was also at a reading level that made the content harder to understand. With the new design, we added five language options and simplified the copy:

Student group final version by Clarisa Yerovi, Clare Herceg, Naeha Rashid, Elyse Voegeli, and Ariana Soto
Student group final version by Clarisa Yerovi, Clare Herceg, Naeha Rashid, Elyse Voegeli, and Ariana Soto


Sadly, our partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School came to an end when the semester ended, and before the work was finished. Starting with the student group’s research and designs, the City’s in-house design team did some more user testing. We also updated the designs to be more in line with the City of Boston’s brand. In the end, Public Works decided to test two different color options:

Final versions
The final versions


Last August, the new envelopes went out into the City for a two-week pilot program. The Analytics Team at the Department of Innovation and Technology helped with an analysis before and after our testing. They compared the two re-designed envelopes to envelopes with the old design during that period. The Analytics Team then compared how many of them were paid or requested a hearing within 30, 60, and 90 days of being issued. The results of that two-week pilot are below:

Original envelopes 

Total violations issued: 2,075

Paid: 885 (42.6%)

Unpaid: 1065 (51.33%)

Waived: 125 (6%)

New green envelope  

Total violations issued: 1,207

Paid: 484 (40%)

Unpaid: 640 (53%)

Waived: 83 (6.8%)

New red envelopes  

Total violations issued: 1,188

Paid: 548 (46%)

Unpaid: 580 (49.%)

Waived: 60 (5%)

Based on this initial data, Public Works found that red envelopes resulted in a 4 percent increase in paid tickets. That’s a small but significant percentage, especially when you consider the number of tickets issued last year (51,022) and the average amount of each ticket ($49). That's funding that we can put back to work for Boston residents. 

After seeing these results, Public Works made the switch to the new, red envelope.

The new envelope design on a door.
The new envelope design on a door.


Redesigning the violation envelope was an important first step for Public Works. Over the past year, they’ve worked to:

  • build a new online appeal form
  • create easy-to-understand late notices, and
  • update with the latest code enforcement information.

While increasing payment rates is important, so is reducing the amount of repeat offenders. Not issuing tickets is the ultimate goal. Educating the public about code enforcement has been an important goal for Public Works, and that all started with creating a simple, easy-to-understand envelope for tickets.

Our team will continue to build on this initial work to better improve the experience of our users. If you have thoughts or questions about the new ticket and envelope format, please let us know at

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