In 2013, the New York state website had lapsed into disrepair. For 15 years it was left relatively stagnant. Upkeep relegated to maintenance. Navigation tangled in rambling menus and redundant links, and was garbed in a coat of drab navy coloring. The website struggled to direct visitors to the state’s many agencies and battled with juggling a multiplicity of citizen-focused interactions.
As such, a key priority was to lay the old design to rest and revitalize the site with fresh functionality and a modern look. It’s one of the reasons Gov. Andrew Cuomo hired Rachel Haot, the state’s first deputy secretary for technology, in January of 2014. Cuomo sought a platform equipped to curate the site’s more than 3.7 million page views per month on NY.gov and more than 5.6 million annual page views on its popular Governor.ny.gov — a site dedicated to Cuomo’s activities and initiatives.
Already NY.gov shows significant returns: Visitor counts taken in its first month, from Nov. 12 to Dec.12, 2014, compared to 2013 show that unique visits increased from 244,597 in 2013 to 605,063 in 2014. Similarly, page views saw a bump from 313,170 in 2013 to 1.1 million in 2014. Within the governor’s site, unique visits increased from 213,963 to 347,023. Cuomo’s page views also rose by about 17.3 percent, boosting from 471,414 in 2013 to 553,085 post launch.
Taking time to flesh out details behind the near year-long project, Haot identified notable features and underscored three lessons learned.
Considering the site went 15 years without a major tune-up, it didn’t take a technologist to figure the site needed a fix. However, “fixing a website” is too broad a project description for meaningful change. Specifics were required. To bridge this gap, Haot said a collaborative assessment was made to review site analytics — to determine feature demand — and open doors for user testing and stakeholder input. What the team discovered was a clear need for a responsive design, one to accommodate mobile devices; shaving excessive information for quick access to services; engagement outlets through social media; and personalization.
“We really identified that the primary goals of the website were first to serve and perform all of those functions, and then secondly, to inform and explain government,” Haot said.
Other obscure yet critical improvements dealt with the American with Disabilities Act requirements and tailoring the site for the state’s diverse demographics. Pages had to be translated for non-English speaking residents — 70 languages total — and text contrast and size adjusted for the visually impaired. Last, Acquia was chosen as the tech firm to build the site with its open source content management system, Drupal, to eliminate laborious coding each time new content was added.
Adjust the browser width at NY.gov and watch the layout automatically accommodate. It’s a small touch of simplicity that goes a long way, considering that 25 percent of visitors come from mobile.
“[The previous site] was basically impossible to use on a mobile device, even though we knew it’s the fastest growing format for our demographics,” Haot said.
To prepare the site to be adaptable to device size, the team had to simplify. The 16 category navigation menu was reduced into three: Services, News and Government, a category connecting residents with information about state officials and legislation — the trifecta determined by analytics. Other simplification efforts were made to draft 40 new pages with user-friendly text — explanations of civic process without the civic jargon.
“It’s all about making it easier, more intuitive, and simpler to work with the state,” Haot said. “Instead of having to go 50 clicks deep before you find out the answer to your question, from one click off our homepage, you're directed to everything you need.”
Proof of success in this effort might be most readily observed in NY.gov’s mobile stats — they have more than doubled since launch. Stats reflect that sitewide traffic jumped from 64,966 monthly unique visits in 2013 to 244,949 mobile users by the end of the first month.
Personalization is the other major staple to the site. A clever (and elegantly concealed) feature is that there’s no need to log in to an account to create a personalized experience. Resident users can enter their ZIP codes and a customized experience will present itself via traffic reports, events, emergency alerts, DMV locations, attractions and even background images depicting the actual neighborhood where a person lives. Favorite services can be likewise be saved into a “My Services” tab and page for quick access.
“Your needs vary widely depending on where you are physically located in the state,” said Haot. “What we strived to do was create a fully user-centric, personalized experience for everyone, and one of the ways we’ve done this is through our personalized information system that detects your location and provides you with local data alerts and resources based on where you are.”
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.