Governments set new sites

Like many municipalities, Cary, N.C., entered Internet life simply, with a straightforward Web site designed by its technology staff members. Short on graphics, but with a long alphabetical list of government departments, it was enough in the early days.

Not anymore. As Internet interaction matured, Cary officials realized that a hierarchical, government-centric home page would not satisfy their sophisticated constituents, who were accustomed to the navigational consistency and simplicity of Amazon.com and eBay.

"Citizens shouldn't have to have a comprehensive understanding of our bureaucratic structure to figure out how to get their trash picked up," said Susan Moran, the town's public information officer who headed a recent effort to develop a more user-friendly site. "They should be able to come on the site and find the information they're looking for in three or four clicks, tops."

For Cary, that meant a drastic Web design overhaul. Making the transition to an intentions-based, task-oriented site with a more citizen-centric outlook is not an easy course for governments.

Communications specialists and graphic artists spent four years planning the new design and recategorizing information so the town could finally unveil the new site (www.townofcary.org) in July 2001. Typical of the new breed of refurbished government Web sites, it sports a snazzier look but is also crafted so that constituents can find desired information as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Fresh Perspective

Focusing on the constituent is the hallmark of the latest government Web sites.

The user experience is the first thing to consider when designing any site, according to Paco Vinoly, president of creative services for Roundarch, an e-business consulting firm that has worked on many state portals, including My California, launched in January 2001.

"The whole purpose of an online channel is to increase efficiency, to reduce costs and to improve service, and these things come about through a smart user experience architecture and a smart user interface," Vinoly said.

Web experts say the best sites generally share three characteristics:

* Colors and graphics that convey a certain image — a brand — to improve a user's sense of comfort and confidence.

* Information categories designed to meet the unique needs of specific groups of users.

* An intuitive, consistent and multifaceted navigation system that allows people to arrive at information through several methods. Those methods might include shortcuts and hot links to the most frequently asked questions, a search engine that seeks by concept and synonym (and forgives common spelling errors), and even an alphabetical list of departments and agencies.

The foundation of such a system lies in developing an intentions-based approach to Web design. Rather than replicate a government bureaucracy, the site should provide information in the way a citizen would typically ask for it. Thus, the links and categories presented anticipate a constituent's intent by asking a question: What does the citizen want to do?

"A citizen rarely comes to a Web site thinking, 'I'd like to visit the Department of Transportation.' They come in thinking, 'I want to register my vehicle,' or 'I want to know when I'll get my tax refund,' " said Arun Baheti, director of e-government for California.

The state's Web site (www.my.ca.gov) offers a can't-miss section in the top-center of the home page called Online Services, which contains, among other things, links for registering vehicles and checking on the status of tax refunds.

However, the intentions-based format goes beyond simple links.

Delaware's site (www.delaware.gov) enables users to zero in on information depending on who they are — a resident, a business owner, a visitor, a state employee or a representative of another government entity. The Resident page, for example, offers categories such as Your Residence, Human Services and Moving to Delaware. The Business page includes Business Start-Up, Business Taxes and Business Complaints.

Tampa, Fla.'s site (www.tampagov.com) also features role-based portals, but it adds a short intentions-based category titled "How Do I," as in "How do I view the City Council meeting agendas?"

The Austin City Connection (www.ci.austin.tx.us), the new site for Austin, Texas, enables users to pull down a "Select a Service" menu that features intentions such as adopting a pet, getting the bus schedule and applying for a city job.

"The thing is, every government, even in cities that are side by side in the same county, will have different structures, but the kinds of questions that citizens ask are always the same," Moran said. "An intentions-based design brings those questions right to the surface."

The Starting Line

Unfortunately, just having an intentions-based format or some of the best design elements will not guarantee an effective Web site. As with any information-based project, planning is critical, and achieving the kind of rich experience that will keep citizens coming back means taking the time to get to know your target audience.

"You've got to find some way to get in touch with the people visiting the site before you do anything else," said Tony Mook, manager of the Austin City Connection site. "It's difficult at times, because people are eager to get in there and get creative and start designing and constructing, but doing that without even asking the visitor what they want is a really dangerous proposition."

Just as every city and state has a different feel, so too should the Web sites, experts say. With e-mail feedback, online surveys, focus groups, demographics studies and usability tests with real users, designers can zero in on the wants and needs of a community. The results are reflected in the categories and designs of home and portal pages.

Austin citizens wanted up-to-date information on the live music shows for which the city has become famous. Though concerts are not a typical government service, Austin City Connection designers responded by including scheduled events taking place weekly in city-owned parks and venues.

Tampa brought city employment to the forefront, along with a maps and directions link.

Sometimes citizens want more than can be delivered realistically, and officials need to be prepared to recognize their limitations and come up with compromise solutions, experts say.

Cary's citizens wanted a daily calendar of events on the splash page, but Moran, worried about the staff hours necessary to update information that frequently, determined that a weekly schedule was the best course.

User contact can also help cities determine which minority groups they need to serve with their site. The need for a Spanish version of its Web site was obvious to Austin officials because of the city's huge Hispanic population, but Cary has had to perform some studies and interviews to determine how to serve its varied Asian community.

Planning should also address the accessibility guidelines outlined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which calls for Web sites to be sensitive to people with vision impairments and other disabilities. The law applies primarily to federal agencies, but more and more state and local governments are adopting Section 508 for their accessibility guidelines.

Getting It Straight

Another critical task that should be completed early in a Web site's production is information layering. That is, deciding how to categorize information so people can figure out how to drill down to the particular information they want.

Categorizing and tagging information remains one of government's biggest challenges because of the sheer amount of data located in so many different organizations, Roundarch's Vinoly said.

"Getting that right is the key to a solid intentions-based foundation, and not doing it properly can ultimately trip up your effort," he said.

The home or portal page should reflect broad categories, experts say. Tampa, whose readership wanted to learn about the latest happenings in the city, narrowed the scope of a previously cluttered and unfiltered listing of press releases and public announcements. The site now includes only major events in its Featured News section. Also, the city sums up its online applications under a portal section called eGovernment 24/7.

The California project team turned to state librarians — true authorities in classifying widely varying categories — to help redesign the information architecture, find logical clusters of information, and develop a taxonomy and series of synonyms for the search engine.

"They were fully integrated into our team," Baheti said. "We even had additional groups of librarians from around the state helping us further by telling us the questions that people often come in with and how and where they look for that information."

The difficulties of an intentions-based approach often become apparent during this stage, Baheti said. If a citizen wants to immunize her child, for example, does the state organize that intent under health care, getting a child ready for school or having a baby?

"Those are all valid places where you might expect to find something about immunization, and that's why you've got to design that information architecture properly and really give it some deep thought and apply real organizational skill," Baheti said.

Increasing Traffic

Selecting graphics, colors and fonts is a major part of designing a Web site, but it no longer involves being creative for the sake of being creative.

The visual elements of a Web site should serve the larger purpose of branding the government entity involved. It's all about using photos, artwork and colors in a way that conveys a certain underlying emotional feeling about the products and services offered.

If the design found on the home page is repeated throughout the other pages on the site, users will become more comfortable, more confident and more trusting, according to design experts.

"The brand is important because you want to capture the essence of the state or city and communicate it through every little detail and process," Vinoly said. He added that the online look should be part of — not separate from — any larger or ongoing state or local branding or image campaign.

"If you're a friendly, open state, the Web site should reflect that feeling, because it can translate into a lot of things: tourism, people wanting to do business in your state or city. Governments that do branding properly reap a lot of benefits," Vinoly said.

Increased traffic is one such benefit. Although governments don't want to create "sticky" sites that keep users online any longer than necessary, they do want to keep them coming back frequently. Designers who can entice visitors to return increase the Web site's chances of long-term success.

"The more familiar and comfortable a user is with a site, the more likely they'll come back when they have another question," says Mark Headd, director of the Delaware Government Information Center.

"Because what you don't want is for people to come to your Web site for a tax issue but then turn around and call an 800 number when they have a human services question," he said. "So if you can keep them coming back, you're upping the likelihood that they'll try the site first the next time they need information."

Repeat traffic can also be generated through the use of dynamic content. Austin's listing of music and other entertainment events garners extra hits, while California's site draws users with a What's New section, a Did You Know? feature and a photo contest.

Delaware took a different route. The state used the Yahoo portal builder to develop its site, not only because users are already familiar with Yahoo but also because it allowed the state to add content it otherwise couldn't. It allowed for information on weather, traffic and stock performances, as well as the ability to personalize the site.

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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