Rebuilding FEMA.gov to deliver a powerful user experience
FEMA’s new digital platform designed for dependability during critical times.
American citizens depend on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during emergencies for up-to-the-minute details on a multitude of important facts, including where to go and whom to contact for help. Being able to reliably access FEMA.gov quickly and on any type of device becomes vitally important during these times of crisis. Unfortunately, the old version of FEMA.gov was not a dependable site; it was both difficult to navigate and slow—two issues that become magnified during critical events when traffic spikes.
Understanding the importance of delivering a reliable digital experience for users, FEMA began designing a new and improved site: user-friendly and highly resilient, with the ability to provide better, more meaningful communication. It also had to stand up to traffic surges and be extremely scalable at a moment’s notice. In short, it needed to follow the U.S. Digital Services Playbook’s mantra of building better digital experiences that meet the needs of the people.
Using the Public to Identify Need
The design team’s primary concern was the creation of a friendly and functional design and user interface. FEMA held a series of user focus groups to gain a better understanding of how users perceived FEMA.gov. Feedback indicated that it was too complicated, information took too long to find, and some content was inconsistent or outdated. The site also did not support smartphones and tablets—a problem in an increasingly mobile society.
The existing legacy system also did not support fast and effective communication with the public. It often experienced overloads and slow page-load times, particularly during emergencies when reliability was most crucial. It was also not resilient and lacked the ability to consistently deliver a high performing experience. These issues—combined with content-editing difficulties—limited FEMA’s ability to predict the lead times necessary to communicate to end users, making it challenging for the agency to push out important updates in real time as disasters unfolded.
Supporting stable, scaled access
To overcome these challenges, FEMA selected the open source Drupal content management system as the framework for its site and the team of Eye Street, Acquia, and Phase2 to completely overhaul FEMA.gov.
The large-scale rebuilding of the site brought with it its own challenges, like the fact that thousands of pages needed to be reviewed, updated, and migrated to the new site, so the teams enabled development and testing in smaller increments. This allowed for the project to be easily scaled, and for adjustments and reorientation to be made as work was completed. This approach provided stability for the development teams over the course of the project to ensure the new site was launched prior to the start of hurricane season.
FEMA.gov on Drupal is now designed to support access from all devices, paying special attention to accessibility for those users requiring assistive technologies. The new site architecture reduced the number of clicks required to access information, making navigation and retrieval quicker and easier. The Drupal development teams worked closely with FEMA’s own accessibility team to develop and implement technical design solutions in accordance with Section 508 compliance standards--a key challenge FEMA identified at the start of the project.
Development of the new FEMA.gov was only the beginning; an ongoing commitment to site resiliency and technology agility was equally important. The teams worked to ensure quality assurance and continued reliability and Acquia’s cloud platform provided FEMA with the ability to scale as necessary while benefitting from ongoing innovations in the developer community.
After launching the new FEMA.gov site, the benefits go well beyond cost efficiencies and savings: the agency has realized its vision of providing distinct value to its customers - the citizens it serves. Its various websites offer improved access to critical disaster-assistance information and tips, greater interactivity and accessibility, cross-platform compatibility, and the ability to quickly and dependably deliver key content in multiple languages.
The open source, Drupal-based architecture helped improve performance by 93 percent and enables FEMA to provide the public with rapid access to information that can be easily modified in real time as necessary. Since people can also now access mobile-optimized versions of FEMA.gov--arming them with a wealth of information regardless of where they might be--citizen engagement and overall satisfaction have also improved.
The Drupal-based FEMA.gov site has been so successful that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now using the same Drupal platform and architecture as the basis for all subsequent website migration projects. In doing so, development and launch times have been reduced from an average of nine months to four months.