June 8, 2009 By Paul W. Taylor
State portals have never looked, or acted, like this. Utah launched a new Utah.gov on Monday afternoon.
After at least 11 months of development, with some elements in the works for as long as two years, Utah.gov has turned hardcore on Flash. The portal developers had long wanted to exploit Flash functionality, an industry standard program for creating interactive features for Web sites, but didn't want to leave anybody out. They were surprised, pleasantly so, to learn from statewide surveys that fully 97 percent of their audience used Flash.
Utah.gov backstops the landing page with proxy detection that makes the version of the portal served invisible to users -- Flash for those with the player installed, a simpler version for those who do not, and a mobile version for those coming to the portal on a smartphone.
Flash graphics grab your attention on first visit, coupled with a carousel of icons (with a distinctive Mac-like look and feel) that add a dynamic feel to navigation. User feedback and usability studies had told them that real users thought conventional portal wisdom was wrong.
Search is central to navigation, and is now central to the front page of the portal. It is what the users said they wanted. A prominent news section, which lists recent agency press releases, has always been a big deal for agencies but less so for users. It is still there on the landing page, now organized thematically with horizontal tabs, but has been bumped lower by the prominent search function and a local information window.
"Local meetings and resources" as the section is labeled does a couple of important and useful things.
First, it uses noninvasive Geo-IP technology to identify the area of Utah from which the user is coming so it can serve up a calendar of events, information and services that would matter to a person from that community. (Visitors from outside the state default to Salt Lake City although that outsider view was still serving up surprises during final testing last week.) Mapping the IP address of the visitor to location-relevant information and services finally delivers on the promise that people should not have to take a civics lesson to learn how to get the services they need.
Second, Geo-IP mapping also screens out the clutter. Even in a reasonably well ordered state such as Utah, there are still more than 50,000 government forms, 1,163 online services and terabytes of public information with which to deal. What you don't have to see matters.
The carousel of icons takes users to any number of dedicated portals on everything from tourism and traffic to data and sustainability. The multimedia portal brings together the posts from 27 formerly discrete state blogs, tweets from more than 100 state Twitter feeds and even serves up state-posted YouTube videos in an environment free of Google's persistent cookies.
The carousel of goodies also includes a link to an initial pair of iPhone apps built by Utah.gov -- the first for search (there's that user priority again) and another to look up the status of any licensed professional in the state.
This newest Utah.gov is the product of, in no small measure, heavy lifting by its portal partners at the NIC subsidiary Utah Interactive. In an interview days before the re-launch, Operations Manager Sara Watts said that so much was new in terms of form and function of the portal that it took six times the resources of an average development effort.
What was the hardest part in getting to consensus on the new portal? "The icons. [The fights over them] have been going on for two years," she chuckled, "but that's why we made them easy to swap out."