Our Work


Reflections on the Past Year: Things Change

By Gwen Daniels on June 23, 2015

June 30th marks the end of Illinois Legal Aid Online's fiscal year.

For all of us here, that means a resetting of goals for the next year and a chance to reflect on the past year. This year has been full of changes and in many ways these changes have opened up a host of new opportunities for me, for ILAO, for our website transformation and for the next generation of our products. Here's my short list of big changes:

We moved.

ILAO new officeOver the weekend, we moved into a new space. We outgrew the space that we moved into in 2005 when we were a staff of 5 (no surprise, as our headcount is now at 18). As our lease drew to an end, an opportunity came up to sublet space from LAF, one of our project partners and the LSC-funded agency that serves Cook County. It was a win-win for both organizations as they had excess space and it was a far more cost-effective solution for us than building out a new space somewhere else. We have, especially in recent years, worked closely with LAF on a number of projects, including the creation of AyudaLegalIL.org, data collaboration, and an online access system that allows website users to apply online for services at LAF and other organizations. I'm hoping that being in close proximity, with shared common areas, will allow for greater collaboration and give us insights into how we can better serve the people in need of legal help who turn to ILAO and our legal Advocate partners who serve them directly.

We've gone Drupal.

After 15 years working in ColdFusion, I became a Drupal developer to support ILAO's switch to the Drupal content management system. For me, this has been career altering. For the first time, I've ventured beyond the relative safety of the legal aid technology community and gotten involved with the broader Drupal developer community; I've participated in a Drupal sprint, presented on Views and Rules, and demo'd ILAO's Drupal work to other Drupal developers. It's been an incredibly positive experience for me. I've learned so much from the greater community that I've been able to bring back to ILAO's products. Mid-year, Teri and I updated my work goals to encourage and track my continued participation in the Drupal community. As we revise my job description and title (I'll officially be our Technical Director beginning July 1st), I'm hoping that a small part of my work will allow me to continue to talk about Drupal, work on the Drupal code base, and share ILAO's work with both the legal aid Drupal community and the larger Drupal community. As Peter Campbell once wrote, nonprofit technology isn't that different than for-profit. Our problems are the same, even though they sometimes have different labels. What we do here translates in a lot of ways to other industries.

We do software development differently.

How we build our products has changed so much in the last year. If you've been following this blog, you know we've adopted a Scrum/Agile approach to our software development process. That has led to a number of changes in the way we do things:

  • We have clear acceptance criteria for all work we develop. In the past, I learned what the feature/system needed to do, then I went off to build it, most often with the requirements in my head. Now, the entire team knows what we are going to build before we build it.
  • Testing happens all the time. In a waterfall system, testing happens at the end. Which means if something was wrong early on...good luck fixing it. When the development runs late, testing is the stage that gets squished up against a hard deadline. But with our agile approach, testing is part of our definition of done. Even if Kevin and I get our work done, if QA doesn't sign off, it doesn't get to be moved to "Done." We have had the good fortune to have Olenick & Associates doing all of our manual testing pro bono. They take our acceptance criteria and write test cases and then execute them as part of each sprint. In March, I attended PrometSource's Behat training as part of MADCamp and learned a lot about how to build automated testing into Drupal and we are contracting with Olenick & Associates to automate some of the tests we've been creating. Automated testing will ensure that we catch instances of me (or a Drupal update) breaking already built features when adding new code.
  • We put something in front of our full staff every two weeks. As part of finishing a sprint, we demo our work. Sometimes it is the website, when we've developed new features. Sometimes it is plan documents, for example, our content process maps and technology integration concepts. And sometimes it is content-focused, such as reviews of migration plans or our approach to deciding what to keep. All of this allows for more organizational transparency as well as allows us to get feedback from the full staff, some of whom aren't quite as close to the product. I don't think we've had a demo where Teri didn't come back with at least a few new user stories to write or some valuable feedback to consider.
  • We have less overall technical debt. Especially less unknown technical debt. With tigher testing integration and demos, we have a much greater handle on what needs to be fixed with each iteration. Even if we don't do it in the next sprint, it's documented and we can work those stories into our development processes.

We've become more user-centric.

UXWe've always thought about our users' needs and how they interact with our websites. But in the past year, this aspect of our work has taken on a greater focus. Here are some of the things that are evolving:

  1. Trusting our Data: Our Program Director, Teri, has inspired a more data-centric approach to our work. As a software developer, intuition and logic play a central role in how I work but Teri really pushes me (and the rest of the team) to consider what data can teach us. In combination, I think our dual approaches have moved ILAO's product development to a new level where we can build great products that not only get used and but effectively solve our users' problems.
  2. Pushing Evaluation: We are very excited to have a new staff position, a Community Engagement Manager, joining our team next month. A key aspect of her work will be to evaluate user engagement and analyze associated user data. We will rely on her findings to guide improvements to our products.
  3. Prioritizing Usability: As part of a restructing of our program team, we created a User Experience Manager position whose job will be to ensure that all of our products, tech and content, are built for great user experiences. (And I could not be more thrilled!) The UX Manager has a role in nearly everything we do: content strategy, information architecture, usability, user interface and visual design, interaction design and functionality. I've largely been focused on answering the questions: "does it work?" and "is it usable?"; I'm excited to see what we can do with a UX Manager who follows up by asking "is it a joy to use?"

In summary, it's been a year with a lot of changes at ILAO, all of which should help us continue to improve the services we deliver and the products we create. With all of these changes, I could not be more excited to come to work and move our website transformation forward.

Stay tuned,