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California Alpha Website Sprint Completes First Phase

The effort to overhaul ca.gov with a focus on user-centered design reached a major milestone with the completion of its first three-month sprint. The project team discussed their progress during an open house last week.

Techwire Article Angela Quirarte
Angelica B. Quirarte, Alpha's product owner, discusses the website sprint March 4 at a team open house.
Theo Douglas/Techwire
The technologists behind the three-month effort to reinvent ca.gov, the state’s website, wrapped their initial round of innovation Wednesday with an open house and discussions of what’s next.

Since Dec. 2, the 11 team members behind alpha.ca.gov have redesigned roughly 17 processes from the ground up — doing user research on the street to identify resident needs and creating simplified tools on a stark website. Those processes enable users to accomplish a variety of tasks, including applying for unemployment, finding food banks, requesting a birth certificate, hiring a licensed contractor or checking local water quality. The results, C- and A-level officials who partnered with the team told Techwire, were inspirational — and the Alpha product owner said the effort will continue in some form.

“We’ve been really, really thankful to have had the opportunity to engage with a lot of you through this process and develop the different prototypes we have in place now, and we’re looking forward to figuring out what the next phase of those prototypes will look like,” said leader Angelica B. Quirarte, assistant secretary for digital engagement for the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps). She added: “We’ll also have a next iteration of this team, too.” Among the takeaways:

• A key principle in the sprint was the idea that less is more, said Hillary Hoeber, the team’s user researcher, and Artem Khomishen, its interaction designer.

“We don’t want anything extra, because all of that is really, at the end, a barrier and a blocker," Khomishen told the audience of around 40 public- and private-sector tech officials during a group presentation. "For the end user to be able to achieve what they’re trying to do,” Alpha.ca.gov eschews photographs and graphics in favor of a blue, black-and-white color scheme.

“It was all about accessibility and speed,” said Michael Wilkening, special adviser on Innovation and Digital Services in the Office of the Governor and one of Alpha’s three executive sponsors. “I think if … you have graphics, you have to have a purpose. But it shouldn’t be a barrier to coming to the site,” Wilkening told Techwire, referring to photos and graphics slowing a site load and burning up residents’ data plans.

• One of the initiative’s most challenging user stories for Hoeber was its tap water quality tool, accessible by ZIP code but sometimes complicated by the charged politics around water. 

“It’s such a basic kind of feature or service that the state can provide that I think it gets very tricky,” Hoeber told Techwire, pointing out that the team tried to do a deeper dive on information than other organizations.

Aaron Hans, Alpha’s tech lead, said the tool’s biggest benefit was its ease of use, empowered by accessibility audits, screen readers and attention to navigation. The aim, he told Techwire, was delivering it to all area residents, adding: “You don’t want anyone to be left out.”

• It’s not yet clear what happens next for the Alpha team. But George Okamoto, agency information officer for the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency, asked how team members would “translate this brilliance into something that is a culture in standing departments?"

Wilkening said in response: “The goal here is to take that time, really reflect on what we’ve done and what we’ve learned from it, how to scale it, what’s next, how to move this into a beta, what does a beta team look like, what does beta itself look like.”

“This is brilliant, and I hate to see it die here," Okamoto told Techwire afterward. "I think government has the perspective of what a constituent looks like, but at the end of the day, you’re so wrapped in the bureaucracy of getting the job done that it’s a little tough.”  

• Chaeny Emanavin, director of the California Health and Human Services Agency’s Office of Innovation, said his staff worked with Alpha to redesign applying for a birth certificate, and called it “a great expansion of what we do.” Among its biggest values, Emanavin told Techwire, were his staffers’ takeaways as they returned with ideas for how to do things differently at their agency.

“It’s like highly aligned, loosely coupled, and I like to be able to work in that type of situation because we’re making each other better — and the only people who benefit from that are all of California,” Emanavin said.



Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Techwire.net, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.
Read by opinion leaders, policy makers, the vendor community and government IT workforce, Techwire.net has a well-defined audience focused on the public-sector technology industry in California. Our goal is to gather and publish news and information related to this community, and to document the efforts of those working to modernize California’s digital infrastructure and access to information.