We are big proponents of user-focused solutions, and a key way we make them a reality is by incorporating user testing and feedback during our creative and implementation phases. So when the Mass.gov team decided to share the work in progress for its rebrand and the redesign of the Mass.gov digital ecosystem, we were thrilled to help out and participate.
Partnering with the Boston Chapter of AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts), a professional membership organization for design, MassIT, the Commonwealth’s lead government agency for technology and innovation hosted the event at Boston’s District Hall on March 1st.
Opening up the combined team’s work while still in progress in a public forum with a presentation, panel discussion, and Q&A with audience members who ranged from design professionals to the general public was unique. Most projects reviewed during AIGA’s events are typically concluded and launched, but the team here decided to move forward with the Mass.gov review at a point where the effort was only 40% of the way through completion. In fact, this was very unusual for MassIT, which typically operates in its own space without public feedback while in progress. However, soliciting public opinion as early as possible was important to everyone involved, given that the general public is the project’s primary audience and engaging constituents is a key priority for the executive leadership team.
"We wanted to get our pilot work out in front of users early. Getting feedback from the community is critical as an early indicator of our progress towards a more useful and usable Mass.gov."— holly st. clair, chief digital officer, massit
Mass.gov and its ecosystem of web properties are the primary platforms for the delivery of government services and information in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The digital solution supports over 275 agencies across two branches of government, a number of independent partners, constitutional officers, and more.
Mass.gov underwent its last design refresh 6 years ago and was due for an update in a number of areas. In addition to the site and brand needing an update, the project was also focused on re-platforming Percussion to a new, modern content management system. The user experience and content across the site also needed to be optimized to enable visitors to quickly find the information and answers they desired.
The sheer scale of the platform can be realized through the size of the front-end audiences – the 6.5 million people residing in the state, as well as anyone who wants to move, visit, or do business here – along with that of the back-end audiences - the over 400 content authors that contribute to these sites and support the solution. The challenge then, lies in creating a technology solution, governance model, and design framework that accommodate the priorities of these various groups, making this a complex and exciting project.
The project’s output has been greatly influenced by the composition and dynamics of the team and processes used.
Having a cross-functional team was a key requirement when getting started. On the MassIT Digital Services side, individuals of varying roles and backgrounds (designers, data scientists, librarians, content experts, developers, and product managers) contribute to the project and lend a constructive point of view, especially given the UX and content organization focuses of the effort.
Another powerful aspect of how the project is conducted is the level of collaboration between the dedicated MassIT design team and Velir’s design and UX team, which is a bit different from the typical agency/client relationship. Both teams strategize, review deliverables, and solicit feedback from one another along every step of the process, from planning and sketches through wires and designs. This level of transparency greatly streamlines the team’s efficiency and is a key factor in generating a better output and innovation in the project.
"We worked closely with the Velir design team every step of the way. Whiteboard sessions at Velir’s space, design reviews at the MassIT offices, sharing design files – we really functioned as a large, combined UX team."— harlan weber, director of design, massit digital services
With regard to process, an agile methodology is employed across all work streams – content, design, and development. This is challenging given the need to keep content and design at least two sprints ahead, so that the development team has adequate time to plan out their sprints and not be left sitting idle. However, the end result is an output that is far more tailored to end user needs and stakeholder expectations.
The Core Philosophy: Being Data and Usability Driven
Redesigning Mass.gov revolves around the concept of a data-driven, constituent-focused approach, which is a welcome departure from the existing agency-centric mode of operation.
This manifests in an information architecture and navigation that are oriented to the user and organized around broadly understood government services topics, personas and user journeys that create a task-based focus for the site based on the jobs-to-be-done model, and content with less jargon that is easy to understand.
In reviewing the data and analytics of the current solution, the team determined that top pieces of content across the site were receiving the greatest interest and the majority of traffic. This motivated requirements to streamline the solution’s inventory of content and optimize pages for better readability and engagement.
Technologies in Play
The new content management system (CMS) that has been chosen to power this solution is Drupal 8. The team has also made the decision to de-couple the front-end presentation of the solution from the back-end on Drupal. With the help of a tool called PatternLab to serve as a repository for the various front-end components, the team is taking an atomic design approach to the creation of design elements. The goal here is to create a single, unified design system, independent of the CMS, which can also be applied to other government sites and web applications. This approach simultaneously ensures that every aspect of the solution is responsive, accessible, manageable, and easily extensible. Ultimately, the desired end result is a consistent digital experience and visual identity for government in the Commonwealth.
The event provided a one-of-a-kind opportunity to showcase the combined team’s efforts and what the process looks like for an undertaking of this nature, while getting feedback and input from Boston’s dynamic creative and tech community. Over 100 industry professionals came out to provide their critique to the work done so far and empowered the team with valuable takeaways by doing so.
Balancing Form with Function
As noted, the nucleus of the new Mass.gov will be usability. Bringing this to life, in terms of the visual look and feel and user experience of the new brand and site, is a tricky and ongoing challenge of perfecting the balance between form and function.
While a number of audience members liked one of the logo concepts presented, some mentioned that the new design language and logos didn’t tie back to the four brand pillars - helpful, human, dignified, and modern – and that they couldn’t get a feel for the “Mass” in Mass.gov.
The team, in response to some of the feedback, noted that while the design and branding decisions made to date may not fit into traditional branding ideologies, their focus is to serve one essential purpose – fulfilling constituents’ needs as quickly, simply, and valuably as possible. Most importantly, these deliverables are still evolving, and the constructive and insightful conversation drawn from the event will go a long way in helping to hone and finalize them.
We think the event was a resounding success on many fronts and we’re grateful to everyone who came out to provide their support and feedback. Hearing people express their appreciation for the team’s work and approach, in person and across social channels, has been humbling and validating. We’re excited to incorporate these inputs and keep things moving forward.
Given the fantastic opportunity that we’ve had to contribute to so many aspects of this project and the learning lessons that we’ve derived as a result, we will be delving deeper into the workings of the design process in upcoming blog posts. In the meantime, if you have further feedback or thoughts to share on redesigning government brands and their digital solutions, we’d love to hear from you. Please keep the discussion going via the comments below.