California's Revamped Web Portal More Intuitive, Attractive and Searchable

CIO Teri Takai says portal is focused on search as opposed to going through traditional portals and links.

by / June 2, 2010

It's no secret that some government websites are notoriously painful to navigate, and are cluttered and aesthetically trying. In attempts to drop that stigma and catch up with the private sector's online efforts, governments are increasingly focusing on redesigning and retooling their Web portal to better serve citizens.

"Governments in general aren't being compared to each other, but compared to the way the private sector uses websites," California CIO Teri Takai said. "More and more, we're being judged by a broader audience ... as far as how our website looks."

It's with these realities in mind that California recently relaunched, the state's main Web portal. The redesigned site went live late Friday, May 28, after a yearlong process of data gathering, prototype deployment and development.

"The site is focused on being able to search, as opposed to going through traditional portals and links," Takai said. "It has to be a site that's fun to look at, not cluttered and has information where you can find it fairly easily. Those are some of the principles we've embedded in the redesign."

California's website -- which receives roughly 7.3 million visitors each month -- is certainly fun to look at. Its main display image, located just below the California flag, cycles through a series of six professional photographs of the state's famous landmarks, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite, Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Boardwalk.

"Every state has something that's important or something they're known for, and there's a feel about the state that you want to convey on your website," Takai said. "That's really what we've tried to do with our site -- show the natural beauty and diversity of California, not just what Los Angeles looks like, but what all of California looks like."

While it sure is pretty, more importantly it's more user friendly, Takai said, with improved, intuitive links.

For example, the six main category tabs topping the site -- welcome, education, jobs, health and safety, home and family, and visit and play -- were chosen based on an analysis of which areas of state government are most accessed by visitors, Takai said.

"Our former website, while it was great, tended to focus on the traditional way of navigating your way through portals to find information," she said. "We tended to make people know what department they were going to, or what service they wanted, in order to get them access into the site."

Along with its more fluid navigation, California's website has an improved search feature, Takai said, as people seem to be shifting away from using portals for search and instead using search engines to find information. Its social media links also are prominently displayed and the site features a "popular pages" and "top searches this month" display of results.

"It's easy to get around our site," Takai said, noting that those using mobile devices to access the site will automatically be redirected to the proper channel.

Key features of the new portal, according to a state CIO press release, include:

  • integration of location-based search technology to display relevant, location information, including libraries, schools, government offices and online services;
  • innovative use of data maps on the main landing pages to show users how the pages are related to one another;
  • extensive use of custom search technologies aimed at providing a one-stop search for forms, online and other services;
  • searchable agency directory by keyword, including the integration of social media websites for agencies;
  • redesigned portal, which offers the state's open data files to citizens and programmers to build mash-ups or download data for their own use;
  • expanded mobile Web presence for iPhones and other mobile devices, including the addition of more than 20 new Web-based mobile apps;
  • use of proxy detection technology to present the portal in the best way -- Flash for those using a player, Flash-free for those who aren't, and a mobile version for those using a smartphone; and
  • interactive features such as clickable and zoomable maps, innovative data maps, custom search integrated throughout the site.

California typically overhauls its website once a year and launches a redesign prior to the Center for Digital Government's Best of the Web competition (an annual joint project of the Center for Digital Government and Government Technology -- both owned by e.Republic). Last year California earned second place in the state portal category, with Utah winning first place.

This redesign was mainly completed in-house by state workers, Takai said, but a contractor also aided the process at a cost of $90,000. The first half of the process involved data gathering and evaluating prototypes, which the state IT Council Executive Committee (a group of selected state agency CIOs) voted on. Focus groups, which consisted of people in and outside state government, were also brought in to give feedback, Takai said.

"It's very important to have that connection to who is going to be using your site," she said. "We didn't just decide with our tech people in a room, we had several different versions and took them to focus groups."

But with any online project, the work doesn't stop. Services and improvements to the site are added nearly every day, Takai said, and the site's list of features continues to grow. "Come this time next year, you can expect another new look and feel from us based on ... consumer, citizen and business demand," she said.

"We believe, just like the private sector does, that websites get dated and people like to see different things," Takai said. "We want to keep our site fresh, even from the standpoint of the visuals, so that people keep coming back to the site to get a different user experience."

A video tour of the new portal has been posted on California's YouTube channel.



Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.