As much as I appreciate how much positive press the User Experience Working Group (UXWG) is getting – here and here and even here…There’s a story that hasn’t yet been told about Common Look and Feel and the evolution of web standards in the Government of Canada. It’s a pretty incredible one.
The Web Experience Toolkit is a set of accessible technical templates that work on various platforms. By prioritizing a streamlined workflow, people are working together across boundaries on the best possible web solutions. Instead of each developer or institution working in isolation – reinventing the wheel, troubleshooting their own issues, creating their own instance of a product – they can come together to form multi-disciplinary teams and create one instance that can be improved or adapted to their own situations. In fact, any developer in the world can now find fully accessible code packages on the Government of Canada’s code repository and issues tracking system – Intellectual Resources Canada (ircan.gc.ca).
What’s evolutionary about this approach?
Capitalizes on people’s passion and skills
Hundreds of public servants are currently working on dozens of projects ranging from Drupal variants to widgets, grid layout, and new design themes (visual treatments). Crowdsourcing projects to individuals who are interested and capable makes sense. The workplace becomes more enjoyable. Productivity increases because people are challenged and engaged. Everyone gets to work on things they are passionate about.
Removes artificial barriers that hinder best results.
Projects move through their lifecycle – from initiation to peer review to beta testing to final release – on an open source issues tracking system that is open to the public. Anyone can create an account and be involved in this process. Because the code packages are licenced under an MIT licence, anyone in the world can use them, improve them, give them back to the public domain or sell them. Public servants are paid with funds raised through taxation, so it’s normal to consider that work performed by them should be available to the public. The only exception to this rule is where it causes risk to national security or infringes individual rights or freedoms.
Enables us to do more with less.
Previously, many departments didn’t have the time or money to meet operational demand and plan for the future, while testing the latest technology. The public expects more rigour in how we manage privacy and security, and we must do so while operating in both official languages. To do all this while communicating effectively and providing high quality, useful services online requires many cogs and wheels to turn. We finally have a system that rewards collaboration and re-use while enabling institutions to meet the needs of their clientele.
Allows us to keep up with the pace of changing technology.
By using the same code base, we focus finite resources on fixing bugs, improving currently existing approaches and creating new products. With a release every 6 months, current projects can constantly be improved, and new projects are always being added to the cycle. This process allows for infinite growth and expansion to as many people who want to participate. Instead of insisting that everyone use the same technology, we are adopting open standards and creating variants of the same code base that work, either regardless of the platform, or modified to work with the platform.
Want to get involved?
A number of private sector firms and entrepreneurs, especially in Ottawa, have had to work with Common Look and Feel guidelines if they want to work on Government websites. Attempts have been made to create an environment where experiences can be shared and advice has been provided about improving the flexibility of the guidelines while providing the consistency required for credibility and recognition. One UX developer, who I have since had the occassion to meet and work with on personal projects, created a suggested design and licensed it for re-use.
Those suggestions did not fall on deaf ears. The reality is, Ottawa is a fairly small city with lots of collaboration amongst professionals. A symbiosis is emerging between the private and public sectors. We all have the same goals – meaningful work, quality of life, products we can be proud of, streamlined services that meet public needs.
If you’re a web developer, consider this a call to action. You have an opportunity to make the web a better place for all of us. What do you have to contribute?