Bhavik Patel succeeded founder Savita Farooqui as SymSoft CEO in the summer of 2019. ( Dennis Noone/Techwire )

A little more than two years ago, technology leaders in the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office decided the system’s 10-year-old website was long overdue for a rebuild. The content management system had become inadequate, and there were problems with accessibility.

A month ago, Sacramento-based Symsoft Solutions, which won the contract to design and stand up the new website, won an award for its work. For the team at SymSoft, that success — a W3 Silver Award from the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts — came down to one crucial step.

“Usability testing. That’s the key,” said SymSoft CEO Bhavik Patel. “You want to do testing for solutions with the people who will be using the product. That validates if it will be useful to them. You need to tailor the design to meet their needs.”

SymSoft’s User Experience Director Marko Dugonjić sees that as a growing trend in the industry.

“We see a cool trend of website owners including their customers (in the design): ‘If we’re building this website, who will use it? Will it be effective for them?’” he said.

Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications for the Chancellor’s Office, said the $450,000 contract was awarded to SymSoft a little over two years ago.

“We wanted to streamline the site and improve the content management system and we had accessibility issues we were dealing with. It was a pretty involved process,” he said. “The website was also very institutional, and we wanted to make it student-focused.”

The state’s community college system is the largest system of higher education in the nation, with 2.1 million students attending 116 community colleges statewide. While the Chancellor’s Office helps set policy for the community college districts that actually operate the campuses, they found while doing analytics for the project that their top users were actually students who were looking for information about colleges, including financial aid, transfer requirements and career paths.

SymSoft used its Double Diamond formula to discover, define, design and develop, and test and finalize, gaining buy-in to radically redesign the website to be user-focused.

“This is definitely a success criteria — the fact the Chancellor’s Office was willing to listen,” Patel said. “The organization was willing to break out of its silos and prioritize students’ needs. The data spoke for itself, and it was an eye-opener for them. Finding a college and finding a program were among the top three things it was used for, but they were buried on the old website. Students had to search on Google to find it.”

Dugonjić agreed. “Once they saw the analytics, they understood that however you organize your website, Google will tell you the real use. If people need information, they’ll find resources to find it, so why don’t we remove barriers and give them what they need?”

After developing a couple of mockups, SymSoft developed functioning test websites and reached out to students at Sacramento-area campuses to do A/B tests and see which prototype worked better. That enabled developers to compare what worked best in each version and how students reacted to labeling, wording and pictures.

The new website, based on the Sitecore platform, took about nine months to complete.

“We’re happy with the product,” Feist said. “The analytics are telling us we’re getting more traffic, and we’re using it as a site to point more students to. And we’re really grateful it was finished before COVID took hold. I don’t think the old site could have handled all the material we’re using it for.”

SymSoft was founded about 14 years ago by Savita and Abdul Farooqui and continues to focus largely on state government contracts, including website development for clients, such as the California Public Utilities Commission.

But like good tech evangelists, they are also working with their client base to spread the gospel of user experience.

“Another line of business is providing training,” Dugonjić said. “We recently wrapped up design workshops with the California Department of Technology to influence government IT professionals to be consumer-focused. We wanted to raise the bar for user experience and are looking forward to having projects like the one for the Chancellor’s Office [be] more of a norm than an exception.”