The 21st Century IDEA Act Playbook Part 2: Search, security, and serving users

Welcome to part 2 of Ad Hoc’s playbook of strategies and insights from the ground for agencies looking to implement the 21st Century IDEA Act. In part 1, I covered continuous accessibility testing, ways to give your websites a consistent appearance, and a case study from our work at the Department of Veterans Affairs in how to reduce duplication in your digital services.

In this section, I’ll continue looking at the IDEA Act’s new requirements for public websites and digital services, including a deep dive into what it means to design services around the needs of your users. Let’s jump in.

An abstract magnifying glass and lock inside a browser window.

Allows users to easily search public content

If ever there was a softball question for me, this is it. Before I started Ad Hoc, I worked on what I still think is one of the coolest programs in all of government: Search.gov. Even if you don’t recognize the URL, if you’ve been to a government website, you’ve likely used Search.gov. It powers the content search for more than 2,000 websites and digital services. Everything from large agency sites like VA.gov and the National Park Service to small topic-focused sites such as nutrition.gov and drugabuse.gov.

It’s free, it’s fast, and it gives you amazing tools to make your search better and awesome analytics to understand what people who use your site are looking for. Just another amazing service by the amazing people at GSA. Unless you need a more complex structured search or want to provide a more powerful faceted search, Search.gov is the answer. Did I mention it’s free?

Disclaimer, and proud statement: Ad Hoc, as a subcontractor to Fearless, supports GSA in delivering Search.gov.

Industry standard secure connection

The integrity of information, even static content, is critical for government websites. Without a secure connection, it’s possible for malicious actors to exploit an unsecured connection to alter content that is delivered to people from government sites. In addition, an unsecured connection can be a backdoor to other security exploits. This is why Google recommends that all internet traffic be secured and encrypted with SSL. It’s also why it’s critical to secure all government websites.

Fortunately, it’s super simple to create a secure connection for a government website. We’ve used a number of different services to do this, everything from Let’s Encrypt, which is free, to commercial services through domain registrars. Once you’ve secured your site, there’s a number of helpful tools to check your configuration; our favorite is SSL Labs (VA.gov gets an A+!). There’s lots of great information that will help you get started at CIO.gov.

Once you secure your site, it’s important to set up a system to remind you when your certificate expires; there’s nothing worse than getting a phone call in the middle of the night because your website’s certificate expired and people can’t access the site. Setting a calendar reminder (or 12) is one approach, but it’s possible that you’ll have multiple certificates across multiple domains and subdomains, and so a monitoring solution is a better approach. We built certwatcher to monitor our certificates and alert our development team and business owners of imminent expirations.

Designed around user needs

Besides the ability to get cute pictures of animals at a moment’s notice, the internet has brought about new ways of designing and delivering things online with technology. Two practices that are helping to drive this change are human-centered design and product management. Thinking about digital services as a product that evolves based on changing user and organizational needs helps us build the right things, for the right reasons. Similarly, human-centered design helps us learn from the people using our products so that we can continually improve what we deliver.

This practice can take many forms, but typically involves conducting formative research to develop a broad sense of user needs, prototyping to rapidly explore and shape potential solutions, and user testing to validate what we deliver and to inform subsequent iterations. This process helps us validate our assumptions as early as possible in the development process, so that we stay focused on the right problems to solve for the people we serve.

Design for the needs of Veterans

Here’s a great example of this principle in practice from our work on VA.gov. We were working on moving the claims appeal process online. The process for a Veteran to appeal the decision on their benefit claim is complex, and it takes a long time for an appeal to be resolved. At the outset, our assumption was that Veterans needed a better way to file an appeal, and that building a web-based application would make the appeals process better for Veterans.

Before building this, we tested the idea with Veterans by talking to them about their frustrations with the appeals process. What we found was that while an online application for an appeal would be helpful, what was most frustrating to Veterans was that once they’d filed an appeal, there was no way to see how long it would take for their appeal to be reviewed. So we prioritized developing a way of showing a Veteran where their appeal was in the process, enabling them to log in every day and see an update. Surfacing this information helped Veterans understand and be more comfortable with the appeals process.

Without talking to Veterans, we’d never have known to build this feature. It’s possible we could have come up with it on our own, but talking with the people who use our services is a much more reliable way of figuring out where to focus your efforts and to build the right thing.

Where to gather data to inform your decisions

Product management started in the private sector and is the practice behind many of the digital products people use today. As the government delivers more services digitally, we’re seeing more agencies adopt this way of working so that they can maximize the value of what they deliver given user needs and available time and resources. In product development, the key is to measure and improve. A product is not something you build once, and then put in maintenance mode, never updating it again.

Any product, whether it’s a physical object or a digital service, is a living, breathing thing that is measured and improved upon. If I sell hammers and have data on what percentage of the total hammer market are my hammers, how do I increase sales? I talk with people who use hammers to understand what things they need in a hammer. Maybe I need to offer hammers in a different color, or size, or to sell hammers in bulk; the point is, I can’t arrive at this information without gathering information from the people using my product.

We do the same thing with digital services. We can measure almost every aspect of how our products are used, and figure out where people are having problems, where they are giving up and not completing a transaction, or where they are having the greatest success. We can see which search terms are most popular, and use that information to help people navigate to information and services more quickly.

Google Analytics is the industry-standard tool for gathering this information and should be a part of every website. Fortunately, the good people at GSA have the Digital Analytics Program, which makes Google Analytics freely available to anyone in government. In addition to seeing how many people visit your site and what they’re doing when they’re there, you can set up funnels to track key interactions and see how successful people are in completing those transactions.

Search.gov also provides amazing analytics on what people are looking for on your site, and provides you with tools to suggest the most relevant content or apps to visitors. Other tools like New Relic show which parts of your application are causing errors or are performing below acceptable standards, enabling you to target your improvements to fix the things that are the most broken.

There’s also ways to get feedback directly from the people using your site. Forsee or Qualtrics are good options for gathering feedback directly from the people using your site. Qualtrics also provides some tools for analyzing this information to look for patterns that can inform your improvements.

Choose outcomes over requirements

In all of this, we’ve found the best way to think about your digital service is not as a list of requirements that need to be met, but instead as a set of outcomes you’re looking to achieve. Try to think less about what features you have developed, or have yet to develop, and instead think about what you’d like to have occur as a result of having a service up and running. This could be a number of people enrolled in a benefit program, or a percent completion rate for a specific transaction. Focusing on the outcomes will frame your design and product development efforts around the things that are really important, and free you to focus on delivering the thing your users need the most.

What’s next in part 3 of the IDEA Act Playbook

In the next installment, we’ll round out the first section of the IDEA Act, requirements for public websites and digital services. We’ll talk about the identity, authentication, and design implications of offering a more customized digital experience for users and what it means to be mobile friendly. Check back soon!

Read part 1, part 3, and part 4 of the 21st Century IDEA Act Playbook.