A couple weeks ago, I spoke at GOVTalks: Summer 2016 about the journey of Georgia’s web publishing platform from ancient static web pages to responsive dynamic pages. The core message was not about technology but the very essence of how we operate and choose to present ourselves.
The message was simple but tough. Any government organization’s digital presence should not be about the organization. It should focus on the constituents and their needs. To do that, the organization and its digital partners need to work together in the same direction.
We advocate for a targeted approach to web strategy, based on these 3 tenets:
- Users First
- Content First
- Mobile First
You might ask, “If everything is first, what comes next?” These tenets belong in 3 different streams that should not overlap. As much as the world of technology touts the glories of agile development, it is important to understand that these firsts are asynchronous in the process of development.
Users first is the approach we implement in the discovery and planning stage of a project. This is where we spend time with our agency partners in understanding what they want to achieve. Having the user in mind from the first conversation is critical to the success of the project. Unless we understand for whom we are designing and coding, any technology project is irrelevant.
Users give us all kinds of data to make informed decisions. Understanding user behavior leads us to understand which screen resolutions to design for, what devices they are using, and what kind of data plan they use to consume an organization’s web content. User data informs us of the limitations they might have — be it geographical, financial, technological or educational.
When we keep the user in mind, our decisions reflect our approach. We all love our colors, photos, welcome messages and org charts. But if they compete with the content our users are looking for, we are doing our organization and our mission a disservice. Users first! Always start there.
Content first leads our focus in the design phase. Why not design first? Nobody can put this in better words than web design guru Jeffrey Zeldman.
Without content, design has no meaning. This is where we rely on our work done in the earlier phase, trying to understand our users. One of the key aspects to understand is what users do when they access an organization’s website. What do they click on? Where do they go from there? If they are not able to find what they are looking for, what do they search for? Do those results help them? If not, what happens next?
Design follows content, as it takes its clues from the kind of content that is going to show up on the website. Content is a design problem, and without understanding content we cannot start discussing visual design. Fonts, colors, photos or illustrations come after we understand what it is we are trying to say.
If visual design gets in the way of important content, it is an obstruction of information. Design should be invisible. The content is what needs to be seen and noticed and consumed.
The sign of a good design is when it goes unnoticed. Just like air conditioning, too much of it or too little of it gets noticed. If set just right, no one obsesses over it. Design is similar. We don't need to have bright buttons or visual effects to draw attention. Content, if done well, should do that job.
Mobile first is our delivery approach. The term was coined by Luke Wroblewski, a thought leader in the digital product world. It has helped us transition our desktop web presence to meet the growing need to serve mobile devices. In the first quarter of 2016, the mobile traffic for the state platform crossed 45%, inching closer to an equal divide between mobile and non-mobile traffic. For some sites, 8 out of every 10 people are using their mobile devices to access agency information and services.
A mobile first strategy starts with designing for a mobile device, then moving to tablets and desktops. The value of this approach is that we get to focus on critical content and address it before moving to non-critical content. When we have lots of room, we find a way to fill it up with stuff.
Designing for mobile first helps us create a hierarchical scale for content. Big photos, mega menus and other size-sensitive, non-essential content is discarded at the earlier stage. Core essential content makes the cut and from there on we get to decide how we present it for larger screens. With very careful consideration, we can add visual elements to support and enhance content to larger screens, but it helps to start at a minimalistic place.
To enable the mobile first approach, we use responsive design — an approach where content is adjusted based on browser width. Combining mobile first with responsive design gives us the benefit of designing for the constraints of a smaller screen, and then progressively enhancing for larger screens.
This approach helps users find just the right content in an effective manner, where mobile devices perform well without having to download large images. This approach is future proof.
It's All About the Users
These 3 tenets all boil down to a user-centered approach. It is not about the organization or the technology. It is about our users and what they expect from us. As a team devoted to the quest of civic innovation, we believe this approach helps all the parties involved in a digital design project to keep their eyes on the real goal — serving citizens.