Hacking into the new

Posted: March 4th, 2016 | Features, News, Top Story | 1 Comment

By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor

Making content king

For nearly 15 years, the city of San Diego’s website has been a workhorse of information to hundreds of thousands of local residents and visitors looking for insight on the inner workings of America’s Finest City, wishing to report a problem, or seeking forms or other documents.

However, even a decade is a millennium in Internet years.

TeamSite — the city’s content management system (CMS), which is considered the “backbone” of any website — was a state of the art CMS when first installed in 2002, and it brought the city into a new era of public communications and information sharing. However, its time had come.

Members of local networking group SDXD practice their user experience troubleshooting skills at the recent “Hackathon:’ (Courtesy City of San Diego)

In 2014, the city knew it had to upgrade what had now become a quite antiquated system; one that still required a skilled programmer’s intervention to make a new document available and the use of HTML code for the simplest of changes.

With the rest of the Internet speeding past and increasing difficulties and delays when trying to keep the website up-to-date, staffers realized they had to throw out the old. But first they had to search for the new.

Though the city’s IT department houses 102 employees, its web team consists of only five; so the city’s first order of business was to consult with the local chapter of Code for America — a nonprofit that’s sole purpose is to modernize city, state and federal governments.

As a result, Code for San Diego helped guide the city through all the steps required in choosing the most appropriate vehicle to drive on the world’s information superhighway.

In April 2015, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, along with City Councilmember Scott Sherman, and the city’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) Jonathan Behnke, announced the redesign in a press conference.

Also in attendance was Kristine Angell, founder and CIO of Hopscotch Labs, a consumer research and design strategy corporation that formulated and managed the redesign’s outreach element, which has been a pinnacle of the project since day one, according to Faulconer’s press secretary, Jen Lebron Kuhney.

Throughout the entire process, community engagement has been at the forefront of everything that we’ve done,” Kuhney said. “We started off with a survey where we were hoping to get 1,200 participants but we got nearly 5,000 right off the bat. From that pool there were 900 individuals who said they would like to participate in further testing, so we had folks come in for focus groups and one-on-one interviews at every stage of the process, from the brand style guide that we put out somewhat recently, our web templates, and our information architecture of the new website.”

The city chose Drupal — a free, pliable, open-source content management framework —as its new CMS. Drupal comes complete with everything the city needed, even the tools necessary to create a unique user interface, which is what users see when they visit the website, and one of the most important aspects of the redesign.

The redesigned site has become more customer-focused, is more intuitive making it much easier to use, and it includes many features that were not previously there.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer addresses the SDXD networking group participants at the "Hackathon" on Feb. 21. (Courtesy City of San Diego)

Mayor Kevin Faulconer addresses the SDXD networking group participants at the “Hackathon” on Feb. 21. (Courtesy City of San Diego)

“If you’ve been to our website you know that navigation can be very difficult, it’s very cluttered, and it uses a lot of terminology that the general public might not be particularly familiar with,” Kuhney said. “The new website uses what they call in the design world ‘human-centric language.’”

Kuhney said based on feedback so far, the new method of organizing and categorizing content is a lot better than its previous iterations.

“We know that people are coming to the city’s website not because they want to find out news about the city necessarily or look at the latest department updates, but they are coming with a task in mind,” she said. “So we are giving them the tools to make that task as easy as possible and so that we can serve our residents in the best way we can.”

Alpha testing with “a very rough version” of the new website launched in December, Kuhney said. Beta testing then began in February, along with a final community outreach event, coined as the “Hackathon,” with final release to the public to take place mid-March.

After opening remarks from Faulconer, the “Hackathon” — which took place in a donated space at the NewSchool of Architecture on Feb. 20 — the last, focused community engagement process commenced.

SDXD members prepare exercise packets at the donated room at NewSchool of Architecture. (Courtesy City of San Diego)

SDXD members prepare exercise packets in the donated room at NewSchool of Architecture. (Courtesy City of San Diego)

Nearly 80 volunteers from the San Diego Experience Design (SDXD) meetup group spent four hours going through various exercises to “live hack” the new website and provide important feedback on the current status of its progress.

SDXD, an online networking group administrated by Paul Hong — whose full time job is director of UX for local cybersecurity startup AttackIQ — consists of hundreds of local IT developers, engineers, designers, managers, and the like.

Angell, already a member of the decade-old SDXD herself, brought the networking group into the fold with the hopes of getting them involved in a final research and design debrief once the city’s website went live; but Hong said they quickly recognized an opportunity for a more active role in the development process.

“SDXD organized and planned the entire [hackathon] event,” Hong said. “We designed the day’s activities, created instruction packets and had our organizing team facilitate the proceedings throughout the afternoon,” Hong said.

Troubleshooting packets are ready for the "hackathon" to start. (Courtesy City of San Diego)

Troubleshooting packets are ready for the “hackathon” to start. (Courtesy City of San Diego)

“All of those guys are professionals when it comes to user experience design from a variety of companies all throughout San Diego,” Kuhney said. “So we wanted to tap into their expertise and they were excited to give back to their city as well.”

Kuhney said the main goal for the group was to navigate the nearly 7,000 pages of online content at and find ways to both streamline and improve the content, giving future users a better experience overall.

During the hackathon, SDXD worked directly with the “live personas,” actual city residents from various backgrounds and business genres with differing needs regarding content from the city, and designed mockups based on those needs.

Having such a large concentration of “hackers” working together all at once allowed them to power through a greater amount of information in a shorter period of time, which worked in the city’s favor.

Hong described the collaboration with the city was a “win-win.”

“Our members got to apply their skills and expertise in a rather unusual fashion and in an atypical domain — civic design,” he said. “The city essentially had the services of San Diego’s best and brightest user researchers and designers for a whole afternoon. Our services are not cheap because good research and design is extremely difficult, but it is essential if you want any service or product to be a success.”

One of the more exciting points of the redesign, and certainly something that will be of interest to the general public, is that redesign came in well under budget. Over two fiscal years the city council set aside $1.275 million for the project, but the complete cost, including CMS development, migration of content, community engagement, and formulation of the style guide, was $646,000.

That leaves plenty of room for the other projects on the horizon.

“There is a lot of exciting stuff on the digital front coming from the city of San Diego and this is the way we are kicking it off,” Kuhney said.

Once the site has been launched to the public, they will move to what Kuhney called a “public beta” phase, where the city encourages active troubleshooting from everyday users. To facilitate this, there will be a “feedback tab” on every page.

“The new site will provide the city with the flexibility and responsiveness that its residents deserve,” Kuhney said. “We live in an innovative city and we need to have a website that is as innovative as the people who live here.”

Keep an eye on for the transition later this month. To learn more about SDXD, visit

—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at

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