If you visit a state or local government website for personal or business reasons, chances are you’re experiencing the Web work of SymSoft Solutions.
To date, the Sacramento firm has notched 11 successful website rollouts this year for which it did some or all of the work. But redesigning a website involves more than just fresh colors and a new font.
“Each department serves a unique purpose (and) serves different stakeholders,” explained Savita Farooqui, founder of the company. “There is a desire to create an engaging design to represent their specific brand, taking into consideration how their customers use the website, while working under the umbrella of the Ca.gov brand/standards. To accommodate this, we create unique designs for different sites.”
Here’s a roster of some state and local agencies for which SymSoft has rolled out new websites so far this year:
- Department of General Services’ public website
- California Community Colleges’ Chancellor’s Office
- California Energy Commission
- California Department of Transportation (Caltrans)
- Caltrans Inspector General
- California State Transportation Agency
- California Transportation Commission
- California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control
- Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan Performance Measurements (data visualization)
- Sacramento City Water Quality (data visualization)
- City of Stockton (partial implementation, with the city’s home page and the Stockton Police Department website)
“We are currently working on other projects with different departments,” Farooqui said, “providing services for website redesigns, user experience consulting, (and) Web and mobile applications design and development.”
Farooqui says that although agencies’ needs differ, SymSoft’s process follows some general steps and protocols: “In all of these, the challenges are typically the same.”
First, “Identify who are the real users of the website? What are their needs? How do they access the information/services? How to recruit/engage users to be part of the design process, including survey/interview participation?” Based on the answers to those questions, the next steps are to gather all that information, design new website concepts, prototype the concepts and then test them with users.
Farooqui said SymSoft follows the “Double Diamond” formula (see related graphic) for user experience (UX) design (along with Agile delivery) to address the design challenges. She offered a couple of examples:
- “With the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office website, when we started the project, it was common understanding that the website is used by the Community Colleges administrative staff, and not so much by the students. During the discovery phase, we learned that students are the primary users of the website. With this knowledge, we designed the website to serve this primary user group (18-25 as the primary student group, followed by other student groups), using the design that focused on student needs. We conducted usability testing with community college students to validate that it indeed works for them. The website continues to provide support for the administrative staff, but it is not the primary message on the website home page.”
- “With the Department of General Services, they offer services to different user groups in different areas,” she noted. “Through user research and review of the analytics data, we identified the primary user groups and provided quick access to services for this user group. The users of the DGS website include both new users and repeat users, and the website design needed to work for both of these groups — providing easy direction to new users, and providing quick access to repeat users. We achieved it by standardizing the service definition and interface and providing different access points for different users. For example, a new user can access a service by browsing by user group, or topics, or simply search and filter. A frequent user, on the contrary, is used to accessing the information through the division they work with.”
Farooqui said: “We are an Agile company and have been following Agile processes before agile became cool in the state.” She noted specifically that the Agile manifesto states: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools; working software over comprehensive documentation; customer collaboration over contract negotiation; and responding to change over following a plan.
Although SymSoft considers the rollouts a success, Farooqui noted some of the challenges inherent in such a large undertaking:
- Scheduling constraints with decision-makers, as everyone has a day job in addition to the project responsibilities.
- Not enough exposure to end users (there are time/budget constraints that limit how much user research is done, how many usability tests are conducted, etc.)
- Organizational Change Management: People don’t realize that website redesign projects are an enterprise-wide initiative and affect everyone in the organization (business and technical teams) as well as their customers.
When those challenges are overcome, she said, the rewards are gratifying: “Our contribution to move the Ca.gov websites to better serve the users, and to witness that it continues to make a positive impact on life in California” is the No. 1 reward for Farooqui and her team. This ranks right up there with “Creating an engaging user experience and solution that helps users. … The job satisfaction that comes from overcoming technical challenges to create Web solutions that are well-engineered for scale, security and robustness.”
In a written breakdown of how SymSoft uses the Double Diamond formula, Farooqui offered this step-by-step process:
“We follow a systematic approach for UX design, which includes the following steps:
- Discover — User research (first part of the first diamond — diverging)
- Gather input from the state workers about the services they offer and the users they serve; gather input from customer service team to understand the users who call and the issues they face, their needs/wants
- Review of analytics information to learn more about how users use the websites, identify the paths they follow, and infer the users and their needs
- Independent research/market research about these users
- User focus groups (useful for new products, assessing the users’ collective reaction to the product) — provides high-level data
- User Interviews — in-depth, provides details about what works/does not for the users, helps capture their true emotions in a safe space
- Define — Objectives (second part of the first diamond — converging)
- User personas
- User needs analysis
- User journey mapping
- Design and Develop (first part of second diamond — diverging)
- Create UX design concepts taking into consideration the above
- Using expertise of the team
- Create and prototype the concepts
- Test and finalize (second part of second diamond — converging)
- Usability testing
- Refine and finalize
- Depending on the gaps, there may be some iterations based on learning.”
SymSoft strives to make its websites modular so that once the site is up and running, a state worker can update its content as needed. Training these state workers is often part of the contract.
For the 11 websites noted at the top of this story, SymSoft’s contracts totaled roughly $3 million. Farooqui noted that some of the work started last year, so that figure encompasses work done in 2018 as well.
SymSoft has won multiple awards for its achievements, including the national level Best Fit (System) Integrator awards by the Center for Digital Government.* The firm also works with private industry and health-care organizations.
Farooqui noted that she's passing the baton to SymSoft's new chief executive officer, Bhavik Patel, and that he has already begun assuming the duties of that role, including in communications with the state staff.
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire.
This story was updated to reflect Savita Farooqui's new role as founder and Bhavik Patel's new role as CEO.