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Commentary: Good Design Helps Connect Residents to Services

The California Department of Technology and the Office of Data and Innovation are working on the California Design System, which aims to give the state’s web developers and designers the tools they need to make it easier for residents to access and use digital information.

The following question-and-answer interview was conducted by the California Department of Technology with Artem Khomishen, the manager of statewide web development and design for the department. It was first published in the CDT Tech Blog.

The challenge of connecting government services to residents is magnified in a state as diverse as California. That’s why the California Department of Technology (CDT) and Office of Data and Innovation (ODI) are working on the California Design System. The Design System aims to give the state's web developers and designers the tools they need to make it easier for residents everywhere in the state to access and use digital information. Artem Khomishen, CDT’s manager of statewide web development and design, answered some questions on how his team and their partners at ODI came up with the system.

How did the idea for the California Design System start?

California’s initiative explored new approaches to state websites and opened our eyes to a better way to design and build websites. We realized what we learned on the Alpha project, especially relating to process and multidisciplinary teams, needed to be formalized as an operational blueprint.

The CDT team led the user experience analysis on the Alpha initiative for the California State Web Template. Almost immediately, we realized the state web template did not address one of the more critical aspects — an operational blueprint, or the "why" and "how" of good user experience design. The design aspects we developed go beyond visual style guides to include principles, best practices, operational blueprints, and UX patterns. Once we were satisfied with the value of these components, the team launched the official beta version of the CA Design System.

Who did you work with and how did you get it done?

We developed a collection of components and designs through practical applications. The team used WordPress as a content management system and began to develop a set of components integrated into the WordPress editing interface.

ODI took a lead role in the initial build-out of the CA Design System website and initial beta release while partnering with stakeholders and CDT team members. We incorporated what we learned into a beta design system and created a component maturity model where ideas and existing user experiences were researched, designed, developed and user tested. Our release of web components was heavily influenced by solving existing project needs to be later incorporated into the design system.

The technology stack in the design system is attributed to the outstanding engineers at the ODI with close support from CDT. Following code reviews to make sure everything performed well and met accessibility standards, we derived the concept of rotating release rangers — engineering leads to align all of the work in a deployable release sprint.

What is your collaboration environment (tools and process)?

Currently, the Design System team is split between CDT and ODI’s tool sets. CDT is invested in Microsoft tools such as O365, Teams and Lucid. ODI is using Google Workspace and Slack. There are other shared tools including Figma, User Testing, AirTable, Coda, but the tools are not as nearly important as the process.

Using these tools and GitHub projects to plan, align priorities and execute sprints, the team is focused on foundational processes. An important lesson learned from our interactions with Public Digital was to build a team before building a product.

What’s next?

We are working to release State Web Template Version 6 — the last of the series. This will close a chapter on a decade of state web templates and standards, bridging the current standard to the future. Our next big milestone will be a production version of the design system; but before this launches we’ll need to collect stakeholder feedback to ensure what we are doing will be most impactful to Californians. 

Our current web standards template provides a LEGO solution for maximum flexibility where anything can be built, but it takes a mature digital team to construct good user experiences. Apart from a production template, we want to provide well researched and pre-designed, end-to-end user experience patterns or LEGO sets and bootstrap best practices across all disciplines to help very small and less experienced teams deliver at a higher level.

What’s your design system advice to other digital government service agencies?

Figure out the people part. Try to understand your digital maturity and areas for growth. Be open minded in your thinking and approach. Build teams and empower product owners to do what is right for the product and, most importantly, for the user.