Government websites provide extremely important information that's needed by a wide range of users. But unlike many consumer-facing sites, the goal of the user is to find the information they need and move on with their lives. Cities aren't Facebook or Twitter: more time spent on our site usually means we're doing a worse job, not better.
We last revamped our website in 2013. At the time, it was a major upgrade. We updated the design to reflect our new branding and implemented a custom content management system (CMS) more geared toward city-related information. The results (and feedback) were great. Everyone loved the new design, and for a time it was easier to find information and update content.
Aside from a couple of usability issues on the backend, there were a couple of fatal flaws in our old design that plague most city websites. One of the biggest challenges cities face is in how to structure their content.
Most cities structure their website similar to how their organization is set up. Content is divided into hierarchies based on which department does what. This is a useful model for employees tasked with managing the content, since they have a pretty good feel for how their organization is structured. It's not so great for consumers, since they don't care which department manages drainage issues, they just want their problem fixed. Having to drill 5 levels deep into a navigation menu isn't fun when you don't know where to go in the first place.
We tried to address this problem by structuring the content around who it might be useful for: residents, businesses, visitors, etc. While this made sense at first, we quickly ran into similar problems with hierarchy: where do we house some information that's relevant to more than one group?
When we looked at our site analytics, one thing we found is that users would jump across sections with relative frequency. We noticed this ourselves, when we often had trouble locating a particular piece of information on our site. A quick fix for this was adding more and more top level navigation items, which soon became unwieldy. At the end, we had more than 20 navigation options above the fold! It was sensory overload.
Perhaps the biggest downfall for our old site was that the search functionality was lacking. As the site grew, it became harder and harder to find what you needed using the search feature, and harder to find it by clicking around.
How we're addressing these problems
Our new site represents a different way of thinking when it comes to city websites. We tried to put ourselves in our users' shoes, rather than our own. A frequent refrain we hear when taking a call is, "I'm not sure if this is the right department, but..." While understandable, that's not a statement that should ever be necessary. People trying to consume information should be able to find it, regardless of what "department" or "employee" is responsible for it.
To address this insight, we have opted for a flat information hierarchy that mirrors our management philosophy. All of the content that used to be siloed into various hierarchical structures now rests at the same level. There's no digging through dozens of menus to find what you want. Every article on this site is treated the same.
What this allows us to do is focus more on how the pieces of information we provide on our site relate to each other. With our new site, we have the ability to relate every single bit of information to any other piece of content on the site. This allows us to present the information in a way that better reflects the real world.
It also means that we can still group information in ways that are relevant for specific user groups like before, while acknowledging that different groups sometimes care about the same information. Instead of siloing information into these groups, we can now curate content based on what those groups are looking for. You'll see this in our "residents", "businesses", and "visitors" tabs at the top of each page.
The content that's important for people also depends on context. When you visit our site on your phone, you're probably looking for a phone number, email address, or some other quick bit of information. When you're on your desktop, you might be looking for something entirely different. Our home page now features popular and trending items that are segmented based on how and where you're browsing the site.
Finally, we knew that search needed to be a critical component of our site. Not only did we need to highlight it (our old site basically hid the search bar), it needs to be extremely effective. Search is now a first-class feature on hudsonoaks.com; in fact, we suspect it might become the primary way we dispense information.
We took great pains to provide a better quality experience for users of our website. We hope you like the changes! If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send them our way.