Part III: Local Goverment Websites | Smart Design
It is possible for a website designer to build an interface that does everything for all people. Too often, the tendency is for website developers to do some analytical rearranging of topics into a neat outline thus creating a menu for a logical path to specific information or service. Logic doesn’t create a friendly face to constituents. I’ve seen such systems with cascading menus that fill the page with options galore from multiple drop-down menus. Such sites would have a very high bounce rate.
Too often, a mayor or other leading official wants a website to satisfy a requirement imposed by a higher level of government, such as a state economic development agency. Sometimes mayors or other local leaders are not very specific about their requirements other than simply knowing they need one because their surrounding municipalities have websites. When asked what they want in a website, they may not have good answers because they already know the details of their organization and never use their website to search for the information that their constituents need to know. The role of the mayor or other official is to be a project sponsor who ensures that the right people provide the details for the design.
Ask The People Who Serve the Public
Ideally, a website designer would convene a meeting of people who interface with all types of constituents and others like potential industries and businesses looking for a place to land. These people would define the types of questions and searches the website should support. But, that is not enough information.
Ask The Policy Makers
While a business website might use previous website analytics to see where the greatest traffic occurs to prioritize sales, government sites are not about sales or even popularity. A directory of personnel might be a very popular part of the website, but the importance of directory access pales in comparison to information that might help to entice new industries to locate there. The second meeting of decision-makers can provide guidance for the relative prominence of different categories of information.
Look At Neighboring Locations
One of the best ways to build knowledge about a municipality’s requirements is to study the websites of comparable locations. Some of the key observations that a designer can intuit include
- Within each “chunk” of information, who is the intended audience? What does each audience type expect from the website?
- What types of information are provided? How can they be placed into categories?
- What is the tone of the information, the amount of detail provided, the kinds of data available, interactive forms or processes, and the relationships among the information? These relationships might best be described graphically.
Use a Systems Approach to Design
A business website will have one or more well-designed “funnels” to lead customers toward a specific goal, such as purchasing a product. Sometimes it’s hard to get government departments to think like that because they don’t sell products or services or because their services are already mandatory, e.g. paying property taxes. While most government employees are committed to providing service to the public, they may not think of what they do in terms of goals.
Systems designers often think in terms of causal effects. Systems tie multiple functions and purposes together. Here’s an example.
For a government website, providing clear directions on how to pay property taxes, where to pay taxes, when to pay taxes, and options for paying taxes should benefit the collection of mandatory taxes. So, a systems designer would plan for location maps being highlighted when taxes are due along with guidance on options for payments. That information creates benefits for tax collection (causal effects). Likewise, making the map available but buried under multiple links and mouse clicks also creates negative causal effects. Even the tone of instructions can produce either negative or positive effects on tax collection. But, more importantly, citizens already don’t trust the government, so the designer must consider providing good information on how the property taxes are spent for the benefit of the people. A well-designed website can encourage transparency to generate trust in local government.
What this means is that the designer must think how to guide a person through the information paths they need. There are many different types of website users; there may be many paths, but to the user, the path they are on must be clear and unambiguous. The designer must think like the user. Since government employees already know what they need to know, it becomes difficult for them to envision the route a member of the public must take.
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