As a software developer, I tend to look at the world through an engineer’s eyes. It always grabs my attention whenever I notice situations where bad tools and bad processes are producing poor results and extra work for good people because all too often a few tweaks could produce outsized improvements. In many cases though, the change never comes, either because the people in a position to improve the situation don’t see the benefit to themselves or don’t know where to begin, and it’s on those projects where I’ve often felt most proud of my work. As a programmer, I live for solving thorny problems, but as a human being, the best is when I’m able to apply what I know to make improvements in real people’s lives and jobs.

I first began looking at the government contracting domain about a year ago while searching for general information on IT-related tenders. All of my past experience with RFPs has been in the private sector, so this was new territory, but I was immediately impressed with the down-to-business tone I found in online discussions and the willingness of industry veterans to work together and help newbies. You just don’t see that in the corporate setting. But as I started looking at some of the websites and applications, I found many of the same problems I’ve come to know and loathe from enterprise software – slow response times from the server, poor search implementation, outdated technologies and practices, and a lack of understanding of the jobs that users needed done.

My goal with the BetterFBO project is to provide a different way of using and viewing procurement data with an application that aspires to fix some of the biggest problems I see in the current market offerings.

A Well-Designed Search Capability

Any application whose primary purpose is research and analysis lives and dies on the search function. In this day and age where we all take Google for granted like the air we breathe, a carefully crafted search function is the most basic building block of informational websites . While the technologies to build a search index are readily available in both commercial and free packages, it’s arguably even more important to apply them in a way that ensures a good experience for the user. That includes everything from the design of search forms to the layout and content of listings to defining a framework and process for continuous improvement of results relevance.

Integration with Other Data Sources

Follow any online discussions about opportunity discovery and research online, and I guarantee you’ll notice a common pattern emerges – that is, the user who gathers procurement data across multiple systems and is then responsible for correlating it, drawing conclusions from it, and reporting on it. There’s no doubt that this function will continue to be vital and provide a competitive advantage to organizations who do it well, but to the extent that unnecessary activity stems from institutional siloes, wouldn’t it be great if it could be minimized? If the information is available to the public (as should be the case) then there’s no good reason why it can’t be, and BetterFBO will explore those possibilities.

React to Changing Needs and Markets

While FedBizOpps.gov was originally built as a “single government point-of-entry” for qualifying procurement opportunities, over time it’s also found a dedicated audience of citizen activists interested in government spending and oversight. (Check out relevant articles by the Sunlight Foundation and a recent post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to see what I mean.) Users like these have very different needs and expectations than someone searching for business development purposes, and both groups could potentially benefit from greater dialogue between the two sets of requirements.

Manageable Barriers to Entry

FedBizOpps was originally designed with experienced business development professionals in mind, so there’s a common vocabulary and culture that’s informed the design and implementation of the system. Now imagine yourself as a newcomer entering the site for the first time to search for a list of active construction opportunities within 200 miles of her location. Would she even know where to begin? Which of the fields within the search form will give her active opportunities only? How should she limit results to construction jobs? Within the required radius? By the time she gets to the second or third of these questions, she’s probably already left the site because the barrier is just too great, and that’s before she gains the necessary expertise to filter out active opportunities she has no chance of winning. One of the aims of BetterFBO is to provide an interface that serves both experts and novices according to their individual needs.

Modern, Clean User Experience

The web has come a long way in a relatively short time. Even in the past five years, we’ve seen enormous changes:

  • New technologies have been introduced and changed our expectations of web-based apps.
  • Smartphones and tablets have reached the mainstream and changed how users consume online services.
  • Facebook has added about a billion users.
  • BlackBerry has gone from ruling the market to the edge of extinction.

And here are before and after screenshots of FedBizOpps.gov taken then and now.

FBO before - March 2009
March 2009
FBO after - March 2014
March 2014

FBO didn’t look half-bad when the current design debuted back in 2008, but today it looks shabby and behind the times. For better or worse, image and presentation on the web begets trust, and consumers should expect more from their tools than what they’re currently getting. That means better design that works well on all devices and a nimble interface that responds well to their requests.

What’s Next?

Over the coming weeks I’ll be developing the first version of BetterFBO and sharing some of the thoughts and ideas that are informing it here on the blog as well as to email subscribers. I’ll also be continuing to engage with professionals and enthusiasts in the government contracting space and trying to nail down the problems that really make them want to tear their hair out. If this sounds like something that interests you, please subscribe to the RSS feed or sign-up for the mailing list below.

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