August 26, 2009 By Paul W. Taylor
Tweaking the portal has become an annual rite of summer for some states. This summer, California and Michigan streamlined their landing pages, adding and recategorizing features, functions and content according to their respective priorities and how people use their sites -- primarily for living, working and visiting.
Michigan's upgrade reflects an effort to present information and services using clear, plain language organized under a set of horizontal tabs, one above and the other below the masthead. California opted for a simpler look too: There's a certain California sensibility to services highlighted individually or as groups of products; each carries its own brand, and the bright colors stand in bold relief against a monochromatic CA.gov background.
In keeping with their respective sensibilities, Michigan neatly itemizes its use of Web 2.0 under an appropriately labeled tab, while California ties itself graphically to brand-name social networks like Twitter and Facebook. These approaches carry an explicit call to engage government in these new ways during a new season of transparency and public accountability.
An informal comparison of both state portals on the Wayback Machine -- a 150 billion-page Internet archive -- demonstrates a tendency toward continuity and incremental improvements. The changes are new enough to get noticed and useful enough to improve navigation and access to services, but they haven't been particularly disruptive.
Not so this time for Utah. The state portal relaunched in early June with extensive use of Flash, a Mac-like carousel of featured icons, a prominent and expanded search function intended to wrap results in actionable context (the list of services below the search field changes dynamically to match what the user types), and feature that uses noninvasive Geo-IP technology to identify the Utah region from which the user is coming so it can provide relevant information.
I liked what I saw when I got a sneak peek the week before its debut. When I posted an early review on my blog, I gave it a hyperbolic headline -- "This is the portal you've been waiting for." The critics were concise. "You're kidding, right?" asked Lynne, an incredulous commenter.
She and two developers who worked on the Wisconsin state portal were among those who said Utah took too many risks. Much of the commentary had a scolding tone: "There is no way this would pass usability testing," and "This is a government Web site that should be providing information in a consistent manner that is usable by all of its residents."
The online debate drew out Bob Woolley, chief technical architect for the Utah Department of Technology Services, and this rejoinder: "Good design does not preclude accessibility. Similarly poor or unimaginative design does not ensure accessibility or usability."
Utah CTO David Fletcher reminded his critics of the business drivers behind Utah.gov's campaign to be relevant to state residents -- including those who are Flash-ready, smartphone-equipped, high-speed-connected, data-hungry and widget-happy. You don't build an online constituency without them.
There may ultimately be no need to reconcile friends. Our shared future is in maintaining carefully developed (and jealously guarded) design disciplines while taking measured risk to meet today's nascent expectations ... knowing they likely will become tomorrow's needs.
Editor's Note: This column originally appeared as Risk, Relevance and Reconciliation in the September 2009 print edition of Government Technology.
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