Insights from federal digital design leaders

U.S. Digital Service

Ethan Marcotte and Karen McGrane have been on a roll lately featuring federal government design leaders on their Responsive Web Design Podcast.

The first episode, with U.S. Digital Service Designer Mollie Ruskin and Lead Front End Designer Julia Elman sharing insights into their design process and prototyping tools (OmniGraffle, Sketch, GitHub) and building the U.S. Web Design Standards, has excellent insights for those focused on this aspect of the civic experience.

Favorite quote from Mollie:

“I think that one thing that you have to just come to terms with in doing a project like this is that there are so many moving pieces and it’s a lot to keep track of all at the same time, and just to sort of like take a meditative, reasoned approach to that because it can be a daunting amount. I had been given that advice before I started, and it was about halfway through that I felt the zen of all of the pieces moving and realized that that was part of the beauty of doing this work, is that by us taking on this complex important problem, we were going to be making it easier for others moving forward. So, I would just encourage a can-do attitude and plow through those times where you feel like you’re building seventeen things all at once, because you will be.”

RWD has also featured designers from, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Department of State.

7 books for better digital government

7 books for better digital government

Photo: Luke Fretwell

Continuing on my book cleaning spree, I wanted to highlight a few web product design and development books I’m getting rid of that are helpful for anyone focused on providing government digital services. Share your suggestions on our Facebook page.

Civic User Testing Group Book
Daniel X. O’Neil
This small (free) book from Smart Chicago Collaborative’s Daniel X. O’Neil highlights how government and civic groups can implement user testing into their projects. OpenOakland has re-purposed this in the work they’re are doing.

Mobile First
Luke Wroblewski
Gone are the days of a separate mobile-friendly or app version of your website. If you’re not familiar with why this is important and/or how to start thinking about mobile-centered government digital products, this is the book that will get you up to speed.

Responsive Web Design
Ethan Marcotte
Marcotte is the godfather of responsive web design, which is the foundational principle of mobile-friendly design. Great introduction into what RWD is and how to get started. Perfect companion to “Mobile First.”

Product Design for the Web: Principles of Designing and Releasing Web Products
Randy J. Hunt
Comprehensive overview of how to execute web product delivery. Great resource for getting all aspects of the development team (including the C-suite) on the same page.

Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience
Jeff Gothelf, Josh Seiden
As development becomes more agile, so has prototyping the experience. This helps get designers in a frame of mind they may not be accustomed to, but once applied, will make them more integral and excited about applying design principles in today’s development environment.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
Nir Eyal
For those building web products, Eyal walks the reader through the four phases of “The Hook Model” (Trigger, Action, Variable Reward, Investment) and how to create products that become “habit for good.” While this may not apply to a large number of government-focused services, the methodology is extremely helpful and provides a design mindset important to all projects

Design for Hackers: Reverse Engineering Beauty
David Kadavy
More granular and geared towards developers who can (and should) bake in great design practices even at the prototyping phase.

What design/development books do you recommend for building better digital government services? Share on our Facebook page.

The 4 most popular .gov websites aren’t mobile friendly

Top 5 .gov websites


Despite a digital strategy issued by the White House two years ago calling for more mobile-friendly citizen services, the top four most-visited federal government websites over the past 30 days fail this test according to new analytics numbers released by the General Services Administration.

The new dashboard launched last Thursday, culls data from 300 (of “approximately” 1,350) executive branch domains, highlights the most-visited websites and breaks down visitor numbers by devices, browsers and operating systems.

The top four trafficked websites over the past 30 days are,, and

None of these websites, however, adhere to responsive web design standards, a development approach that allows for websites to easily adapt to a user’s device, be it phone, tablet or desktop, and provide an appropriate, enjoyable user experience.

According to the analytics, 25 percent of visitors to .gov websites are using mobile devices. Including tablet users, more than a third of citizens are getting a less-than-optimal user experience while visiting these sites.

Those top four domains alone have received nearly 200 million visits over the past 30 days.

One notable omission to the data is, which does meet mobile standards, but is not included in the analytics numbers.

“Our services must work well on all devices,” says a post on the White House website announcing the analytics dashboard.

“Over the past 90 days, 33% all traffic to our sites came from people using phones and tablets. Over the same period last year, the number was 24%. Most of this growth came from an increase in mobile traffic. Every year, building digital services that work well on small screens becomes more important.”

Per a May 2013 federal digital strategy published by the White House, “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People,” agencies should enable “the American people and an increasingly mobile workforce to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device.”

“We are also optimizing Federal websites for mobile devices and creating mobile apps to ensure government services are available to citizens anywhere, anytime and on any device,” wrote former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and former Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel announcing the strategy in 2013.

According to its “Minimum Computer Requirements for Free File Fillable Forms” page, doesn’t support the Safari web browser, which drives 20 percent of all visitor traffic to .gov domains and is the default browser for iPhone and iPad users.

The analytics tool was built by 18F, GSA’s Digital Analytics Program and the new U.S. Digital Service.

With BlueLight, there’s a 911 app for that

BlueLight founder and CEO Preet Anand shares his vision for re-inventing 911.

140-character pitch

The safety service built for a mobile world. Better than dialing 911, it is the fastest way to get help in an emergency.

What problems do you solve for government?

We solve the key problem of providing dispatchers with a caller’s location information. Emergency communications have actually become worse with the rapid adoption of the smartphone. 70% of 911 calls are made from smartphones, but dispatchers only get immediate location identification if someone calls from a landline. That doesn’t make sense.

BlueLight routes emergency calls to the nearest dispatchers based on the callers position and provides them with the caller’s exact location (along with other vital information). This ensures 1) the caller is getting the fastest response time as they are getting routed to the closest responders, instead of CHP and 2) the dispatcher knows exactly where the caller is if the caller is unable to speak or identify their location

This accelerates the speed of response and improves the outcomes for citizens

What’s the story behind our product?

In my freshman orientation for college, back in 2006, I heard the statistic that one in four college females were victims of attempted sexual assault. Having a sister, along with other many other important females in my life, I decided to make a dent in that number by developing a better solution. I made the wrong choice of trying to make pepper spray better and quickly learned that wasn’t the right idea.

Fast forward five years and I was a product manager at Zynga. Someone I was having coffee with had to jet to a meeting and they left their wallet behind but took their smartphone. At a subconscious level, he made the decision that his phone was more important than his wallet (his identity!). I realized the solution had to be on the smartphone to get widespread adoption.

The company was officially founded in January 2013. As we were learning about emergency communications for campuses, we realized that the opportunity was to improve 911 itself. That being said, we still think college campuses are a particular sweet spot for our service as campus security is not alerted when someone calls ‘911’ on campus, yet they are the closest responders.

What are its key features?

BlueLight has a couple of key features:

We route your call to the nearest responders (private or public) based on your position and provide them with your location. This requires no integration on the dispatcher’s end and it typically takes us only 45 minutes to add a new entity (such as ski patrol at a ski resort or a college campus).

If you call 911, we display your nearest address on the device itself so you can quickly confirm your location to a dispatcher without having to frantically look around.

You can test the service to know that it actually works!

4) It is available from your lock screen?

5) For day to day utility, you can use BlueLight to let someone know you’re on your way and it will show them your real-time location, notify them when you are nearby to your destination, and automatically ping them when you have arrived.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Currently BlueLight is free. Ultimately, we expect to adopt a pricing model that will have an annual or monthly subscription that starts after a free trial.

We won’t do this until we believe we have proven the credibility of our service, as that is our first priority. We’re confident that once we have demonstrated the vast improvement that BlueLight offers, people will be willing to pay (given enough notice).

How can those interested connect with you?

NIST releases open source mobile app test tool

AppVet (Image: NIST)

AppVet (Image: NIST)

There’s now an AppVet for that.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has released an open source tool, AppVet, that makes it easier for agencies to test mobile applications security and reliability.

From the official press release:

The application manages app vetting workflow that involves submitting apps to testing tools—for virus-detection and reliability, for example—receiving reports and risk assessments from tools, and combining risk assessments from these tools into a single risk assessment. Human analysts from the organization review the reports and risk assessments and decide whether to approve or reject the app according the organization’s requirements.

AppVet does not do any testing itself, it manages third-party test programs. One advantage of AppVet is that it provides specifications, Applications Programming Interfaces, and requirements that facilitate easy integration with third-party test tools as well as clients, including app stores. For example, AppVet defines a simple API and requirements for submitting apps to, and receiving reports from, third-party test tools.

AppVet spawned from NIST’s work with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that focused on providing app assurance testing prior to military field use.