Our 3 Guiding Principles for Product Development

Recently, our director wrote about the 3 tenets we focus on for Georgia’s web presence: putting users first in the planning process, content first in the design process, and mobile first in the delivery process. These tenets make their way into all our individual website projects for each agency, but they also strongly inform our enterprise platform and product strategy, as well.

A while back I wrote about how we prioritize enhancements to our enterprise web platform, and highlighted some of the enhancements on our roadmap. I mentioned that we prioritize improvements that will:

  1. put users first,
  2. support our content managers,
  3. be usable over the long term horizon, and
  4. provide the best value for our time and money.

Even still, when we’re making improvements, some of our enhancement initiatives are broader than others.

Targeted Improvements, and Broad Initiatives

When we launch a new content type (a format for structuring and displaying specific information, such as locations) or a new content layout format, that improvement will affect some customers and some web pages, and make it easier to perform certain tasks. Those are targeted improvements, and are scoped and prioritized as such.

Other improvements take the form of a broader initiative. These signify a change in focus across the entire platform — affecting all visitors, whether they’re aware of it or not. These initiatives are often a response to a changing web landscape, a better understanding of our visitors and their challenges, or in how users interact with the web.

Chart showing platform improvements over time. 2011: Platform Design, 2012: Migration Complete, 2013: Stable State, 2014: Mobile Friendly, 2015: Accessibility, 2016: Performance
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Chart showing platform improvements over time. 2011: Platform Design, 2012: Migration Complete, 2013: Stable State, 2014: Mobile Friendly, 2015: Accessibility, 2016: Performance

To that end, in the last 3 years of the platform, we’ve focused a larger part of our time and resources on enhancements to improve the platform as a whole, making it:

  1. Responsive (Mobile Friendly)
    Use responsive design methodologies to adjust the flow and size of elements depending on device width. This includes loading different image sizes and background variants based on device needs.
  2. Accessible
    Accessible to users with a broader range of disabilities, based on WCAG 2.0 (Level AA) standards, and
  3. Performant
    Performance optimized, making improvements and adjustments to theme elements, image sizes, scripts, and caching to improve page load speed and decrease the total file sizes downloaded in each interaction.

None of this will be new to anyone who follows our work — we’ve talked about each of these initiatives at length. The important thing to keep in mind, for those of you following along, is that these broad initiatives don’t end when the project ends. Unlike a targeted improvement, each of these broad initiatives create a new requirement — or a principle — for all new work on the platform going forward.

Maintaining Focus on Core Development Principles

These principles, however, are surprisingly easy to forget in the broader context of working with external vendors for development and testing. It means that every time we set out to work on a new enhancement, we cannot assume that a new developer coming in will intuitively know the bar that’s been set for their work. Even after we’ve communicated the expectations to development partners, things are often missed — which means we have to put additional checks in place during our acceptance testing and quality assurance reviews to make sure those standards are truly met.

We’re asking for these principles to be built in as part of the default workflow. By default, developers should be building code that is responsive, accessible, and performant. It can feel like a lot to keep track of at first, especially in the midst of the million other tasks swirling around, and the dozens of smaller projects. So how do we keep these principles at top of mind within our team? Simple … we write it down. Everywhere. We ask development partners how they’re building those principles into their workflows. Then at every milestone check, every step of any project before anything goes forward, we bring it up. Again and again — because if we don’t, something gets missed. Every time.

These Principles Are Affected By Content, Too

While we maintain these new principles in our development process on one side, on the other side we have the challenge of encouraging our agency partners — the ones managing the content on each site — to make them a priority in their content as well. You see, each of these principles is important not only in the code, but also in the content itself. This is where we focus on outreach during and after each initiative, using outlets such as our training sessions, GovTalks, and blogs to point our agency partners towards best practices in how they can bake these core principles into their content workflows.

Eventually this practice will become commonplace, and everyone will be doing it. Eventually we will hit a point where no one would even think to create a feature without thinking of the mobile layout and adding an alt text field for images. In an ideal world, these would be part of the default development workflow and testing processes. But until then … yeah that’s when you need a checklist.

* Editor’s Note: In an upcoming series, Rachel Hart will talk about her process to make sure content such as text, images, and videos meet these 3 principles, as well. To stay in the loop on new posts as they are published, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Checklist with items: responsive, accessible, and performant
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Checklist with items: responsive, accessible, and performant