5 Guiding Principles for Government Websites
By Liz Fischer, Chief Marketing Officer
If we were a tech firm serving luxury retail, we might create websites (or other products) catered toward accomplished professionals with a lot of money and little time — who value convenience over price comparison. Conversely, if we were in the early childhood development space, we might design products for first-time parents who invest a lot of time researching their options and highly value the recommendations of their peers.
In short, most businesses in most industries serve a well-defined group of people, who might make up 1 to 10 percent of the population as a whole. They have a good deal of insight into what their customers need and prefer and can design solutions to meet those needs and cater to those preferences.
This is not the case in government. We are born in or move to the place that we live, and by virtue of living there, we fall under the jurisdiction of that city, county, state, and the federal government. As an institution, each local and state government must serve every person who visits, resides, or does business within it. So we are left with an industry that serves (to varying degrees) not 10 percent but 100 percent of the population.
In practice, this means that government (and utilities) must operate and provide services in a different way than other businesses and institutions.
My company’s slice of this world is public-facing technology, including websites, kiosks, and other tools that allow people to find the information they need (such as trash collection schedules, or the location of polling places) and complete actions (such as applying for a property tax deduction, paying a parking ticket, or transferring your electricity service to a new address).
To build this technology well, and meet the needs of our government and utility clients and their constituents, we arrived at 5 guiding principles.
These principles apply to all government technology, but to illustrate them, I’ll use the example of a local government website.
To be great, a government website must be accessible, useful, efficient, relevant, and dynamic.
To serve its purpose, a government website must be accessible to as many people as possible, including those who primarily speak languages other than English, and those with low literacy skills. We aim to achieve this by using plain, simple language and visual cues. We struggle with the shortcomings of machine translation, and in some cases manually translate a full site into a frequently needed language, such as Spanish.
In addition, the website should be accessible on all devices. When a lot of people need information, but infrequently, they are more likely to access it with a mobile browser than to download an app. We build everything “mobile-first” which in plain language (!) means that we make decisions for small screens (for example, which information should appear first on the page) that carry over to large screens.
I don’t go to my city or county or state website for fun. (This isn’t to say that it can’t ever be fun!) But we must prioritize utility over entertainment. I’ve worked before on websites and other communication materials intended to educate or inspire. There, we might use elements of discovery or surprise, expecting that one piece of information might serendipitously lead to another.
On a city or agency site, in contrast, introducing unnecessary information would in most cases be an unwelcome distraction. We can still design for a user to discover something unexpected, but we would do so in a more pragmatic way, by linking information and government services that are often completed together.
On a government site or a utility site, where I am seeking to get something specific done, I should be able to get that thing done quickly and easily. This means that the best homepage is one that I don’t see because instead, I have landed at the exact place that I need to be to find the information, complete the form, or make the payment.
Going back to the premise of serving all people, we also have to recognize that some people need more information than others. A journalism student requesting a public record for the first time may want to read about that process, and what laws govern their right to these records. A veteran reporter wants only to find the form and know when she can expect a response.
One way we address this is by breaking information or processes into their smallest meaningful unit. The student might go through a sequence of “Learn about public records” + “Read the Open Door Law” + “Request a public record.” Whereas the reporter could jump straight to the request.
Ideally, all websites would present information that is up-to-date and important. However this is particularly important in government, an industry that defines and enforces the regulation of all other industries, and that can have such a significant impact on the lives of those who require public services and information.
For a business, having relevant information can make the difference between being in or out of compliance with local ordinances. For a person, having relevant information can make the difference in their ability to receive a veteran discount or keep electricity service on at their home.
The challenge of keeping, for example, a city’s information up to date, is that there’s a ton of it. The most concrete way to keep information relevant is to design nimble systems.
I’ve seen bids that qualify vendors by asking, “what is the largest application you’ve built, in pages?” as if this is a measure of success. Our goal should be the opposite: only necessary information, structured in building blocks that can be presented and discovered in infinite combinations — but which are written and updated in one place only.
Finally, government websites should be living, evolving platforms. Because government and utilities serve everyone, it is impossible that one fixed structure could meet all needs. Rather, we need to create systems that respond to an individual — for example providing me information and prompting me to request services based on my neighborhood and household profile. And we need to create systems that respond to behavior in aggregate so that when many people search for the same information or take actions in a similar sequence, we become smarter about how to present that information to the next person.
In the near term, this will yield better technology, that is more useful to the people and businesses who need it. In the long term — when we better understand how people interact with the government and what they need — it has the potential to influence and improve government itself.