California Department of Justice
UX Case Study
The problem: In an era where the criminal-justice system is under increasing scrutiny, the California Department of Justice makes vast amounts of data available online. But the site is difficult to understand and use – thus undermining the DOJ’s goal to “understand how we are doing, hold ourselves accountable, and improve public policy.”
Scope: UX/UI, Information Architecture, Content Management, Promotion.
Deliverables: Research, Sitemap, Wireframes, Revised Copy, Social Media Plan.
Team / Time Frame: Three UX designers. 2.5 weeks in November 2016 (shown here), with second phase coming in December.
Our approach: For interested laypeople, we made the site's resources more visible and accessible, and the tone less “government-ese,” while maintaining its non-partisan stance. For researchers and journalists, we improved accessibility to the various powerful ways the site can filter and present data for their specific needs.
The DOJ has begun to implement our changes, and we are currently (March 2017) lined up to deliver further work.
“What’s this website even for? How do I use it?”
The existing home page squanders its space and its opportunity to project its powerful mission, resources, and tools. It puts off new visitors, and it doesn’t serve returning visitors.
Our redesign surfaces what is to be found here: a treasure trove of data, accessible and customizable. It emphasizes OpenJustice’s currency, relevance, and engagement.
Home Page - Before and After:
- Replace and shrink standard-issue photo.
- Convey what’s on the site through copy and infographics.
- Display sample issues and data visualizations.
- Bring search and sharing to navigation bar.
- Add timeliness through Twitter feed and News & Events section.
- Move standard-issue government letter to Resources section.
- Shrink and rationalize footer.
“Where am I? Where else can I go? How do I get back?”
On the existing site, getting oriented is practically impossible, especially for someone arriving in the middle from an external link.
Our clear, comprehensive wayfinding gives a context for the entire site, encouraging newcomers to browse and discover, and reminding experienced users of the wealth of resources available.
Navigation - Before and After:
Before: Navigation is spread across three places, it repeats some levels and omits others altogether, and terminology is inconsistent. Even someone who begins at the beginning will have a hard time retracing their steps.
Proposed: The new navigation keeps primary, secondary, and (when needed) tertiary navigation visible at all times. In-page hyperlinks are more visible and more easily scrolled. Nested drop-down menus show offerings and save steps.
Mapping a Revised Site
As we redesigned the navigation, we redesigned the information architecture for clarity and for future growth, splitting the three existing sections out to five and adding pages to support a new emphasis on community engagement. And we made some of the terminology more accessible (as we did throughout the project).
We added landing pages for the four major sections. A newcomer can click on a tab in the primary nav bar; land, learn the purpose of that section, and see the contents of an entire section; and proceed. The landing pages also help a visitor get back out from a page deep in the site.
“I’m overwhelmed at how much is here and all the ways to use it.”
As our UX team gradually wrapped our heads around how much OpenJustice has to offer, the DOJ team gradually came to appreciate how hard it is for users to figure it out!
The existing structure of Data Stories and Data Explorations (shown above) divides the site into two main methods by which people can access and filter the data. These methods correspond to different levels of sophistication of the users, from novice to expert. But they separate different ways of looking at the same data into two silos with very different structures.
We are currently assessing a structure based on the various topics of data on the site.
A user would come to the site for a given topic, and then delve into the topic using different means, according to their level of sophistication. So all the topics would be easily available, and the methods for delving into each topic would also be easily available.
Expanding Reach: SEO and Social Media
Early on, our team looked at Google Analytics and found that traffic to the site is surprisingly low (some days as low as 19 visitors!) We soon discovered that the site simply was lacking in SEO terms, an oversight the developers are remedying.
Visitors tend to bounce quickly and not return. As our UX suggestions are implemented, we will look to see whether the improved orientation, navigation, and architecture indeed encourage people to stay and explore the site.
Analytics show that visits tend to spike after the announcement of a significant update to the site. As a recent example, the Firearms section became the site’s most popular, following a press release about new data on the subject. That indicates the power of public relations.
We take that to mean that people are interested in what the site offers, if only they can find out about it.
In turn, we seek to leverage the power of people who do come to the site, by encouraging people to share stories or information graphics through social media, or by embedding them in blogs or news stories. We have added icons in the header, icons and embed codes on each graph and chart, and a Twitter feed on the home page. We also presented a media plan with guidelines on posting, partnering with key influencers, blogging (with tags, keywords, and metadescriptions to direct people to the site), media engagement, and measuring results.
Finally, the Community section presents ways for people to learn how to use the site more effectively, to attend DOJ-sponsored hackathons and events, and to share their own data sets.
These steps all underscore OpenJustice’s mission to “strengthen public trust, enhance government accountability, and inform public policy.”
I have the pleasure of working with my UX teammates, Natalie Rutiezer and Tracy Reppert. Each of us brought our particular backgrounds to bear, and we supported and honed one another’s work across the board; I focused on navigation, information architecture, and content management.
In Phase 1 (2.5 weeks), our UX team met four times with the Special Assistant Attorney General and his aide in San Francisco. We have been impressed with their depth of knowledge on this sprawling and worthy topic, and their eagerness for us to expand its reach.
We also have traveled to the DOJ in Sacramento to meet with OpenJustice’s developers and data scientists. They are a pleasure to work with - knowledgeable and motivated. They have welcomed our ideas and appreciate that we solicit theirs. Learning about past releases of the site helped us understand why things are as they are, and the developers’ response to our work-in-progress helps us make our proposals reasonable and achievable. The data scientists have given us a better understanding of how they tame and synthesize data from over 1,000 agencies around the state!
Phase 2 - Coming in January 2017
At present, the DOJ’s developers are mocking up our changes on a staging site. We will continue to refine the design, structure, function, and look of the site, and we will test alternatives with users. We anticipate a new release of the website in early 2017.
In the midst of our project, a key event has happened: the state’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris, was elected to the Senate and will be leaving her office in January 2017. That means we have a limited time to further our improvements under the current administration, and before the demands of the new administration diverts our team at the Department of Justice to other projects.