Let’s be honest: in general, people visit a government website to do something they’re not excited to do: To pay for a fine they don’t think is fair. To pay for taxes they think are excessive. To fill out paperwork to obtain a permit or other government document they don’t think they should have to get. To find out if their loved one is in jail.
Of course, there are very pleasant reasons to be on a government website too: libraries, parks and recreation, educational opportunities, and finding a job, to name a few. In general, though, if you gave your customers a choice of a site to visit when they have free time, they are more likely to choose Amazon, Netflix or Instagram over your agency’s. So how can you minimize your customers’ misery and make the government website experience more delightful? Read on for some tips.
- Use plain language
Like most industries, government has its own jargon. When my clients reference corrections facilities, short-term rentals and vector control, I understand that they’re talking about jails, Airbnb and pests. However, the vast majority of your website visitors will struggle to understand these types of terms – which is why it’s important to use plain language on your website. Federal agencies have no choice: the Plain Writing Act of 2010 mandates that they “use clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” Every government website writer who wants to best serve customers would do well to follow those guidelines, even if the law does not apply to them. There really is no downside: has anyone ever complained that what you wrote was too easy to read?
- Figure out who you’re talking to
Yes, this heading ends in a dangling preposition. Your website should be written conversationally, and not for an English major: “figure out to whom you are talking” doesn’t sound conversational.
Similarly, tasks on government websites are frequently written for the professional and not the general layman. For example, we typically see tasks like getting a tax ID or business license written for a lawyer to fill out, instead of the entrepreneur who has never started a business before. To better understand your website visitors’ journey, conduct a user experience study to determine what visitors are trying to accomplish on your website, what they know in advance of completing a task and what they can figure out along the way. There’s nothing wrong with creating two paths for a task: one for professionals that skips the instructions and one for novices that takes more of a wizard approach. In fact, in many cases, it’s better to give users options rather than assuming a single path.
- Remember the reason they’re there
Let’s say you wanted to order a pizza to be delivered. You visit the website of the first place in your neighborhood that you think of. If they don’t deliver (or it’s not clear on their site whether they deliver), you’ll likely move on to another pizza shop. Your customers don’t have that choice: if they live in your jurisdiction and need to get a permit to build a fence, they can only get that permit from you. They can’t go to the website of the next city over; they’re stuck with you. Therefore, it’s important to make key information easy to find and common activities – like getting a permit – quick and easy to complete online.
Moreover, few of your customers are visiting your site to check out your photos. Images are important in places where your agency’s brand provides value to the website visitor (e.g., economic development, tourism), but it is not important – or relevant – on the “pay your parking fine” page. We frequently see “filler” photos of smiling people at desks, answering phones or any number of images purchased from stock photo companies. Those photos have no relevance to your customers visiting that page and might actually make their experience worse, especially when accessed from a mobile device – images will make the page load slower and, when the page elements stack up for a smaller screen, require the customer to scroll farther to find the content they’re actually looking for.
- Be accessible
By now you should know that your website must be accessible to your customers using assistive technologies. This means using alternative text to describe images, headings to help with navigation, color contrast standards, and video closed captioning, among other best practices. As there are entire websites dedicated to this subject (see: WebAIM ), I won’t belabor the point. Nowadays, making your website accessible to people with disabilities is no more of an option than making your offices accessible to wheelchairs.
- Provide multiple ways to be engaged
If you believe the argument I’ve laid out, then you know your customers do not want to frequently visit your site to see what’s going on, whether it’s news, events or meetings. However, there may be particular areas of interest they want to stay informed about. Provide a way for them to opt-in to get notified by email and text message, and let them choose the subject areas that interest them. Some of your customers only want to hear about events for families, others want to be able to comment on pending legislation. Also, use social media to reach your customers where they already are. Post events and news to your agency’s Facebook and Twitter feeds and link back to your site for more details.
Regardless of why your customers are visiting your website, it’s important to make the experience as painless, and dare I say, enjoyable, as possible. This starts with understanding your audience – who they are and what they need – and then providing content in a way that resonates with them. Minimize their misery by making a visit to your website as easy as possible with plain language, accessible content, intuitive navigation to top tasks and multiple engagement options.
Martin Lind is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.