Typical Audiences

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.

Large businesses with a potentially complicated structure may personalize tools to narrow the options for their users, e.g. Amazon remembers your preferences and displays what it believes you need to see based on your shopping habits. For security reasons, government websites frown on the use of cookies that register your browsing habits. So, creating a simple-appearing interface that provides complex services is a real challenge. Even search options need to be optimized for people to find their desired webpage.A designer needs input from a lot of people when building a local government website.

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.

Topic Cloud

Part II: Local Government Websites | Who They Serve

A business typically tries to guide people to make a purchase, and it thrives on “calls to action” for a relatively small set of products or services. A business website is designed for potential customers. Business websites generally have a vertical orientation starting with broad categories of options that narrow in a funnel to a specific goal whether it is a product or service for sale or the answer to a question.

Government Websites Serve Many Kinds of People

Government websites sometimes try to do so many things that people get lost in the levels of cascading menus. A government website isn’t for customers, rather it’s for constituents wanting to know what local government is doing plus other groups

  • Industry scouts looking for places to expand
  • Businesses studying the available markets.
  • Senior citizens looking for a place to retire
  • Citizens looking for telephone numbers of elected officials
  • Citizens looking to pay fees
  • Court proceedings and crime reports
  • Builders looking for subdivision regulations and zoning information
  • People looking for “How To” information about local government requirements or services
  • Parents looking for education and health care services
  • Homeowners needing highway and road maintenance
  • ….

Government Websites Are Portals to Many Topics

Government websites also have some deep vertical dives into detailed material, but the breadth of categories is far wider than for most businesses. Why is this? Government, even at local levels, has many departments, some of which maintain separate websites. Quite often, the departments are spread out over the municipality making it difficult to engage departments into a coherent web strategy.

Website design

Part I: Local Government Website | Getting Started

Local government websites are among the worst. Why? Govtech.com says, “Though government websites have become one of the chief ways of communication, their upkeep is rarely a priority for any one person and often on the bottom of employees' to-do lists.” Describing the problems, Civicplus.com says,

  • You lack the communication tools that you need
  • Communicating with your citizens is complicated
  • Citizens can’t find what they are looking for
  • Citizens can’t make transactions and do business online
  • What you’ve tried so far isn’t working
  • Disconnected systems cause duplicate work

Since the inception of the Internet, how people go about life has changed radically. Mysociety.org sums it up well back in 2012 when it says that, like Amazon, the government presents itself mostly as a website to most people: … the physical reality of bricks and mortar and people and parks is starting to disappear behind the websites.” Predicting the future, mysociety.org continues, “As government websites continue to fall behind private sector websites, governments will slowly look less and less legitimate – less and less like they matter to citizens, less and less like we should be paying any taxes to pay for them. Why pay for something you can’t even navigate?” Sound familiar?

Pew Research traces public trust of government over the last 60 years to find, “The public’s trust in the federal government continues to be at historically low levels. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).”

ClearPointStrategy.com puts it this way: “Want to make a connection with the citizens in your municipality? Make sure you’re supporting transparency in local government. … If citizens must spend excessive amounts of time parsing through their city’s website to find the data they’re after, they certainly aren’t going to feel as though their city is being open and transparent.”

Logo - Hickman County

A Logo is Not a Brand

This post describes what I view as the kind of mistake a small community can make when hiring consultants “from afar.” There’s a tendency for community leaders to trust outsiders for certain technical skills over the people they know locally.

A few years ago I was a member of a board of directors for an economic development organization. We contracted with an out-of-town company to build a website and do a branding campaign.

The question in the minds of our board was about how to present an image or a concept of who we were to business and residential prospects we might entice to investigate the area. Some thoughts expressed were

  • We should emphasize our location just outside the main metro area of Nashville. Growth from Nashville into our community is inevitable, so we really don’t have to do anything.
  •  Minnie Pearl, the famous Grand Ole Opry comedian, is from our county. People want to visit her hometown of the mythical Grinders Switch.
  •  We have 75 miles of the Duck River, the most biologically diverse river in the Northern Hemisphere. That will attract people.
  •  We have numerous springs, caves, and waterfalls around our smaller streams. We can advertise as a tourist destination.
  •  Our county seat still has an old-fashioned town square with the opportunity for quaint shops that tourists could visit.

Obviously, our approach had problems. The thoughts were ours, not our potential businesses or new residents. We didn’t know why they might like us, and we hadn’t asked. We made the mistake of thinking we could create our brand not realizing that the brand has little to do with what we think and everything to do with what our potential businesses and residents think of us.

The uncomfortable part was that many of our members had lived here all their lives and they love it here, but they couldn’t express why in words that outsiders might understand.

The truth is that our rural county is much like the other rural counties around us. We deliberately keep taxes as low as possible by refusing to build our infrastructure. Our most important export is the young adults that seek employment where the pay is better, the shopping is better, and the attractions are close by. Worse, we suffer from a huge retail trade deficit because our surrounding counties have several big stores like Walmart and Kroger; we don’t, and we probably won’t for years. As for industrial recruitment, we have limited sites for large facilities, limited utilities, and a general unwillingness to purchase property for industrial development. We’re not known for producing any particular type of product—we’d be happy to get any industrial output.

So, our expert contractor from afar held a few meetings and interviewed some leaders, and they came up with a logo design and color scheme for letter headers, complimentary cups and pens for visitors, and brochures. Part of the logic of the color scheme was to choose something different to separate us from other areas.

There is a whole color design theory in marketing that seems to have been overlooked. I discovered some tools that would take sample photographs from our area and boil the images down to a consistent color scheme—a kind of averaging of all tints and hues to find a compatible mix. After running the tool, it produced the same boring, bland mix of forgettable colors that our expert chose for us.

It takes more than color for a logo. A logo is a visual representation of an organization that should capture the vision and spirit of an organization--just part of the brand. The logo can be completely abstract or it can be something that symbolizes an organization. Our contractor explained their design for us symbolically. Here is the result:

The green represents the vibrant green of our woods and pastures. (We wanted a more vibrant green, but we got stuck with a drab green, in my opinion.) The blue represents the Duck River that flows from east to west through the county. (Actually, the green is closer to the color of the river, and the blue looks like the sky on a clear day.) The shape is indicative of a strong industrial type of product. It’s abstract, so I surely don’t understand either the color scheme or the image.

At the end of this rant, I should ask if the drab green and blue triangle accurately represents our community. Maybe it does and we just don't realize it.


  • About the Author: Paul Aydelott is a retired information technology professional, a former project manager for software development for USDA field offices, and a former district conservationist providing agronomic advice to farmers in Tennessee. He was a leader in developing websites within USDA as well as the standards and practices for Internet operations for the agency.