The Four Tenets of Georgia’s Digital Presence

An illustration in 4 parts: a tree fallen on a house, a disheveled family, an empty plot of land, and a blueprint for a new house.
An illustration in 4 parts: a tree fallen on a house, a disheveled family, an empty plot of land, and a blueprint for a new house.

As leaders in the public digital space, our core message is simple but tough.

A government organization’s digital presence should not be about the organization. It should focus on the people and their needs.

To do that, the organization and its digital partners need to work together in the same direction.

We advocate for a targeted approach to web strategy, based on these 4 tenets:

  • Problem First
  • People First
  • Context First
  • Content First

You might ask, “If everything is first, what’s really first?”

These tenets belong in 4 different streams that should not overlap. As much as the world of technology touts the glories of agile development, it is important to understand that these firsts are asynchronous in the process of development.

Problem First (Strategy Phase)

We begin our strategy phase with a problem first perspective. Before building new digital solutions, we ask our agencies problem defining questions. Featuring a few:

  • Does this problem align with your business and user goals?
  • Is this problem big enough to invest in a solution?
  • Is this problem important enough to invest in a solution?
  • Who is affected by this problem?
  • What is the current solution?
  • Why do we need a different solution?
  • Is this a recurring problem?
  • Will fixing this create other problems?

Solutions to problems that don’t exist don’t solve anything.

We’re not out digging around for new technology to try out. We’re looking for true problems that need solutions. Then once we uncover a problem, we peel back every layer until we understand it fully. Only from this place of understanding can we then plan for the appropriate solution.

Our Strategy Behind Ask GeorgiaGov for Alexa

In 2017, we launched Ask GeorgiaGov, connecting popular content from to Amazon Alexa. When we decided to build an Alexa skill, we weren’t just keeping up with technology trends to look current and innovative. More importantly, we wanted to give people with limited abilities easy access to key information.

We have long placed a very deliberate emphasis on connecting Georgians with government information and services in a way that works best for them. After we made our web publishing platform accessible, we learned that a large segment of users who struggle with a range of disabilities, such as decreased vision and motor skills, rely on digital assistants for information. When assistants vocally respond to questions, they save users the trouble of navigating content structures, screen readers, and compatibility challenges to get to the needed information.

Conversational interfaces are accessible by nature, providing another avenue for people with vision impairments or mobility limitations to interact. With Ask GeorgiaGov, we’ve address real problems faced by real people. This means so much more to us than a pat on the back or shiny award.

People First (Discovery Phase)

We implement a people first approach in the discovery phase of a project. This is where we spend time with our agency partners to understand what they want to achieve.

Though this phase focuses on business goals, we must also balance these with end-user goals.

Having the audience in mind from the first conversation is critical to the success of the project. Unless we understand for whom we are designing and coding, any technology project is irrelevant.

People give us all kinds of data to make informed decisions. Understanding human behavior leads us to understand which screen resolutions to design for, what devices they are using, and what kind of data plan they use to consume an organization’s web content. Data informs us of the limitations people might have  — be it geographical, financial, technological, or educational.

When we keep the people in mind, our decisions reflect our approach. We all love our colors, photos, welcome messages, and org charts. But if they compete with the content people are looking for, we are doing our organization and our mission a disservice.

People first! Always start there.

Context First (Design Phase)

Our approach in the planning stage is context first. This term has helped us transition our desktop web presence to meet the growing need of non-desktop devices.

Before we can decide the best way to display information, we must understand the surrounding context in which a person will experience it.

Someone completing tasks in a mobile app is in a different context than if they were using an interactive kiosk. And both of these are very different contexts than someone getting information through a digital assistant like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home. In each context, a person will come with certain barriers and expectations, and it’s our responsibility to meet those appropriately.

Understanding the context influences the content, design, and delivery strategy.

Delivering for Mobile

For example, our websites provide one context. We know that people experience our websites on a range of devices, so let’s start with the lowest common denominator  —  a mobile phone.

Mobile usage on the state web platform has grown from 12.39% in 2012 to 40.90% in 2017. When you include tablet, that’s nearly half of users now using smaller, transportable devices to access GeorgiaGov platform websites. For some sites, 8 out of every 10 people are using their mobile devices to access agency information and services.

In 5 years, mobile / tablet usage has increased from 2 million to over 10 million users, while desktop usage has remained consistently under 12 million users.
Data according to Google Analytics’ Device Category report for all GeorgiaGov platform websites.

We approach our website design and delivery by starting with mobile phones, then moving to tablets and desktops.

The value of this approach reaches beyond simplified visual components. Mobile first allows us to:

  • Focus on critical content
  • Avoid unhelpful, data-sucking photos and filler content
  • Create a better auditory experience
  • Adapt to future technology

When we have lots of room, we find a way to fill it up. Designing for mobile first helps us create a hierarchical scale for content. Big photos, mega menus, and other size-sensitive, non-essential content is discarded at the earlier stage. Core essential content makes the cut and from there on we get to decide how we present it for larger screens. With very careful consideration, we can add visual elements to support and enhance content to larger screens, but it helps to start at a minimalistic place.

A slim, mobile first approach also sets us in the right direction for auditory consumption, such as through a screen reader or conversational interface. While developing and testing our Alexa skill, we had to listen to our own content. We scrubbed our content appropriately for conversational delivery, making it shorter and more direct. This benefits everyone, no matter how they access the information.

A context first approach meets people where they are and helps them efficiently find just what they need. As an added bonus, it makes our content more performant and device agnostic. This approach is future proof.

Content First (Design Phase)

Content first leads our focus in the design phase. Why not design first? Nobody can put this in better words than web design guru Jeffrey Zeldman.

Without content, design has no meaning.

This is where we rely on our work done in the earlier phase, trying to understand our audience. The key is understanding what people do when they access an organization’s website.

  • What do they click on?
  • Where do they go from there?
  • If they can’t find something by browsing, what do they search?
  • Do those results help them? If not, what happens next?

Design follows content, as it takes its clues from the kind of content that is going to show up on the website. Content is a design problem, and without understanding content we cannot start discussing visual design. Fonts, colors, and images come after we understand what we are trying to say.

If visual design gets in the way of important content, it is an obstruction of information. Design should be invisible. The content is what needs to be seen and noticed and consumed.

The sign of a good design is when it goes unnoticed. Just like air conditioning, too much of it or too little of it gets noticed. If set just right, no one obsesses over it. Design is similar. We don’t need to have bright buttons or visual effects to draw attention. Content, if done well, should do that job.

It’s All About the People

These 4 tenets all boil down to a user-centered approach. It is not about the organization, personal ideas, or the technology. It is about our end-users and what they expect from government. As a team devoted to the quest of civic innovation, we believe this approach helps all the parties involved in a digital design project to keep their eyes on the real goal — serving people.

I spoke about our tenets at GOVTalks Summer 2016: 5 Years of Drupal. At the time, our focus was limited to web so we had identified 3 tenets: user first, content first, mobile first. Now that our charter extends beyond web covering all digital properties, we’ve updated our language and approach so that it is more wide-reaching across technologies and audiences. These tenets must be technology-agnostic and future-proof.