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
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.
Focusing on the constituent is the hallmark of the latest government
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
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
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
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.
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
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 [email protected]