For two and a half years I designed and developed MuckRock, a collaborative news website that simplified the process of making a public records request. In that time, I redesigned the company’s website and brand; streamlined user flows including signing up, subscribing to newsletters, and contributing to crowdfunds; introduced new features, like project pages and sharing requests between users; overhauled the notification system to provide more granular updates on site activity; more than doubled the number of unit tests while more than doubling the speed of test execution; designed and implemented a task management system to improve administrative productivity; and used public records to report on obsolete technology in use by government agencies.
The tone and aesthetic established for MuckRock is one of neutrality and utility. This enhances the authority and objectivity of MuckRock’s reporting and, at the same time, presents MuckRock as a basic tool and utility in service of reporters. User interfaces and experiences establish each page as part of the wider contiuum of MuckRock’s varied work, but each is ultimately rooted in the public records request as the heart of MuckRock’s mission and business. Articles are informed by embedded documents with links back to the requests where they originated, while projects tie multiple requests and articles in order to present a bigger picture.
At the same time, the site uses news and writing to expose the often arcane and obscure practice of public records requests in a gentler light for a wider audience. Designing article pages that are clear and readable, while also enticing and sharable, is a major goal. Large header images, accompanied by rich metadata and colorful (yet proprietary!) sharing calls to action, promote this goal without being obnoxious or obtrusive. One major pleasure of working at MuckRock was the rejection of advertising as a business model, a brave decision in the contemporary media landscape and one that allowed for a design that is clean and respectful of the reader.
In this same spirit, interactive elements like newsletter signups and crowdfunding calls to action are unobtrusive and easy to use. The crowdfund pattern has seen many iterations, but the end result is an embeddable widget that can accept payments with only a few clicks. My favorite piece of feedback on the crowdfund widget has been how the payment flow has been so simple as to be startling. The presence and utility of these modules has increased the rates of crowdfund payments and newsletter signups over the last 12 months.
Public records requests provide a clear legal basis for holding the government accountable by keeping its bureaucratic processes transparent and available to inspection by the public. I am very satisfied with my accomplishments at MuckRock, grateful for the ability to influence the design and development of this platform, and incredibly proud to have made such a meaningful contribution to such a significant cause.