Behind the Curtain, Part 1: A look at the GeorgiaGov Enhancement Roadmap

A street sign and compass.

This is the first in a 3-part series on what we're doing behind the curtain.

When we set up the GeorgiaGov web publishing platform, our focus was just on getting sites migrated from a failing system over to one that would just, you know, work; delivering on the necessities and publishing web content. Next we focused on maintaining that working platform, supporting our agencies, and reacting to new customer needs, all while also improving on the features of the platform — such as converting all our agency themes to a mobile friendly, responsive web design. Over time, as we’ve worked and grown with it. The GeorgiaGov platform has grown in scale and matured in its offerings — now it’s more a full digital product than a simple content management system. As such, it requires a greater focus on strategy and management of the system as a product.

Having a focus on product management allows us as a team to be more proactive with our product enhancements and strategy, rather than reactive. As we focus more on product development, I hope to use this opportunity to be more transparent with our agencies about our goals to improve the platform, starting with a blog series providing a look behind the curtains at what’s coming up.

First, I think it’s important to understand a bit about how we identify and prioritize improvements to the platform. Coming up with ideas for enhancements is easy — they’re everywhere. Web design blogs, conferences, and tech journals are always touting the Next Big Thing to consider for web and mobile design. We also get a lot of suggestions from our agency customers, as they open support tickets to report bugs, request new features, or ask for suggestions on how to meet a new business need. The problem isn’t in coming up with ways to improve on the platform — it’s on prioritizing where to spend our time and money.

Priority Checklist

I start with a pretty simple question set when evaluating if a new enhancement or feature meets our goals for the platform:

  1. Put Users First.
    Will it help our users get the information or services they need?
  2. Support our Content Managers.
    Will it help our agency content managers get the right information to their users?
  3. Be Future Focused.
    Will these enhancements still be relevant 3-5 years from now? On a new code base? On new devices and screen sizes?
  4. Provide Best Value.
    What’s the cost compared to the benefit?

Let’s unpack these a bit more.

Put Users First

When I refer to “users,” I mean any visitor to the forward-facing websites. At a high level, our primary goal is to serve our visitors. Who are our visitors? It would be too easy to say “everyone,” but to be honest, anyone living in the state of Georgia will at some point need information they can gather from one of the websites on our platform, whether it’s to learn more about child support services, or to pay their state taxes, or any of the hundreds of other services offered by the state agencies on the platform. That means millennials through retirees, and users with every range of ability, technology, screen size, and connection speed — or lack thereof. So part of a Users First focus is to make sure we’re always striving to make our sites leaner, easier to use, and more accessible.

Support our Content Managers

Our agency content managers are our agency customers — those who are maintaining the content of their agency website(s). These content managers provide the first line of feature requests, because they are the ones working daily with their site content and striving to meet the needs of their subsection of site visitors, as well as meeting their agency’s business needs. So if we can provide a tool or reporting option that helps them meet their goals more easily, and help them put their users first, it’s worth prioritizing — as long as we have a reasonable expectation that our customers will really use those tools. There’s no benefit in providing solutions to problems that don’t really exist, or in this case tools to customers who aren’t interested in using them. But if we hear the same feature requests multiple times, we can start to expect they’re going to be used by more than one or two customers.

Be Future Focused

Another important consideration with IT, and particularly with something like software, is how something we build now will stand up in 3 to 5, or even 10 years. Technology moves quickly, and while we’re busy enhancing a web platform on Drupal 7 to make it mobile friendly, the Drupal community is about to roll out Drupal 8, and tech companies have turned their attention to smart watches and self-driving cars. My point is that what we’re building is relevant and useful, but we need to make sure what we’re building now will migrate reasonably to a new platform in a few years, and that we’re focused on the best way to deliver content for all device types, not just on how to deliver designs for computer screens.

Provide Best Value

Finally, once we’ve determined the enhancement or feature is user friendly and future friendly, we still have to assess if “the juice is worth the squeeze,” as my boss Nikhil likes to say. How much money or time will this take, compared to its usefulness and longevity? Which enhancements provide the best value?

How does that work again?

Let me give you an example of a feature we were looking into recently. We asked our vendors to evaluate how we could give our content managers more control over homepage block placement at different screen resolutions — a feature request we’d received from agency customers a few times. It would be a neat tool, and could help our mobile friendly focus. But let’s run it through our checklist:

  • Does it put users first?
    Yes, it may help bring a key service to the top of a mobile device layout.
  • Does it support our content managers?
    Yes, our content managers feel this would make it easier to focus on desktop layout first and mobile layout second, while still supporting mobile users.
  • Is it future focused?
    Nope, not really. This feature would really only be useful for the lifetime of our Drupal 7 platform — in our “next life” on a new code base, we’ll either have a new solution to this problem, or we will have to rebuild this one from scratch.
  • Does it provide best value?
    Sort of … Even at this point, if it was a cheap and easy fix we may decide it was worth it to help our content managers and their users. We like you guys, really, and we want to make things easier on you. But our vendors determined that the time and effort to build it would most likely come to over 2 months of their development time. That’s a lot of work to make it a little easier to arrange content on the homepage — particularly knowing that only a small percentage of our agencies would do it. We have a lot of other feature requests that are more user-centered that we could implement within that same 2 months.

So we shelved this feature in favor of others that we expect to provide a better overall value.

What we’re prioritizing

Now that I’ve given you an example of a feature we decided against, here’s a high level view of the types of enhancements that we are prioritizing.

Enhancements on our radar:

  • Accessibility
    Updates to themes and code that make the sites easier to navigate for users with disabilities.
  • Security/Disaster Management
    Make sure our websites are always available and secure regardless of what may be going on in the social landscape.
  • Data Visualization
    Turn our agencies’ databases of information into graphics and charts that are easy to understand.
  • Repairing Code Rot
    Make sure our backend code is up to date and there’s no leftover, unnecessary code floating around.
  • Performance
    Pages should load quickly on all device types, including on slow connections and cheap mobile phones.
  • Backend Reporting
    Provide tools and reporting that help our agencies better manage their content.

These are the categories we’ve identified as bringing the best current value to put our users first and support our content managers, all while being future focused at the best value. In my next few posts, I’ll break these down even more to explain why we’re focusing on them and what that means for the platform.

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