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New Boston.gov Launches as a Constantly-Evolving Portal

Much like Facebook updates and changes every few weeks, it's expected that the new Boston website will do the same rather than be static for 10 years.

by / July 27, 2016

In one of the earliest manifestations of government's embrace of the iterative-design trend, Boston announced on July 20 the launch of its redesigned website. First released as a pilot in January, the new Boston.gov design is now the city's main online presence, boasting all the expected trappings of a modern website, such as responsive design, prominently placed service buttons, notices of upcoming events and social media integration — but also some new things, too.

"We're part of this wave of larger more innovative cities," said Boston CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge, "like Philly and New York that are re-doing their websites in the public eye, with public pilots or beta sites or alpha sites that get developed in this public iterative fashion. I think Boston is the first of these cities to take this approach to launch as the official city website."

Amid careful decisions like selection of font and color scheme, or the use of open-source software — the logic of which is outlined on the website's blog — the website also features what the city is calling "guides," curated collections of resources that are centered around a common task, such as "buying and owning a home," "having a car in the city" and "moving." Human-centered design partner IDEO helped the city realize such a resource was needed, Franklin-Hodge said.

"They said, 'You guys do a pretty good job when it comes to serving people when it's a one-to-one and someone goes to a department with a specific task that's relevant to that department,'" he said, "but they said where we fall down is at the seams. When somebody has to cross departmental lines or deal with multiple parts of the organization and we don't have any of that connective tissue to make those experiences manageable for people. This idea of guides is born out of that."

Taking a cue from 18F, the design team rewrote more than a million words of website copy so that it was easier for regular people to understand, Franklin-Hodge said. The average American reads at a seventh- or eighth-grade level, and even the best readers may have trouble understanding government-speak, making this type of upgrade one of the most important in the school of user-centered design.

"We've restructured our Web team to be more like a product organization," Franklin-Hodge said. "We have a product manager, we have developers, we have designers, we have content creators and our hope is that much like your Facebook just updates every two weeks and things change, that our website will be the same. It isn't going to be this static thing like it was for 10 years, like it was, and then we suddenly have to drill the whole thing out and replace it."

Boston is continuing to collect feedback via roadmap.boston.gov, where users can monitor the progress of ongoing tasks, such as the addition of non-English language translations, faster page load times and more guides, as well as submit their own ideas, or vote up existing ones.

"It's been fun because we've been able to interact with our peers in other cities who are working on projects," Franklin-Hodge said. "We've got people in the federal government and 18F, and there's this group of people doing this. And I'll be honest — there's a little bit of friendly competition in here for us where we want to lay down a marker, and let's see, New York, let's see what you've got. Can you beat this?"

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.