Our governments – local, state and federal – are very good at doing a lot of things. National defense. Waste and sewage. Collecting taxes.
So why can’t they consistently create decent websites?
Today, websites and mobile applications are often the first and only direct link that agencies have to their constituents, many of whom are scattered across wide swaths of the country. This makes good digital design an imperative for connecting with citizens at all levels of government. The city of New York came to that conclusion in 2012 when it decided to revamp its flagship website nyc.gov – and the results are remarkable.
NYC.gov: From Confusion to Clarity
The website before the redesign. Image courtesy of Huge.
Prior to 2012, the nyc.gov website was a labyrinth of pages and sub-pages, mimicking the city’s complex bureaucratic structure. Even when citizens found the content they were looking for, they were still unclear as to what to do with it.
“At every step of the way there was some kind of ‘barrier of confusion,’” said Michal Pasternak, Chief Experience Officer of Huge, the digital design firm that revamped the city’s website.
Pasternak’s team discovered that the website’s content was unbalanced. The site favored press release materials and media-friendly photos and articles over information useful to citizens.
“Absolutely no one was going to the city to learn about the last thing mayor Bloomberg did, but that is what the city needed to communicate,” explained Pasternak.
The Solution: A User-Centric Approach to Design
Step one for the Huge redesign team was to perform a thorough research and discovery process. They spoke with New Yorkers and city employees, performed an in-depth content audit, and even investigated analytics on site usage and navigation.
This process led to the discovery that government service can be boiled down to two very specific functions: serving people’s needs, and keeping them informed. And for most public-facing government professionals, this simplification is not news. The problem is that, in reality, government work is anything but simple. With often-changing organizational structures, complex regulations, and the political machine working behind the scenes, even the most qualified and seasoned public servants finds achieving these two simple tasks complicated and difficult. Navigating the complex world of government is how the city of New York ended up with a website that was virtually unusable.
The solution was to put citizens first, so that they could get what they needed without getting entangled in the complexities of government. So the design team mapped out two users to serve as archetypes for the type of people who most frequently visit the site.
The first was ‘Ken,’ who visits nyc.gov to accomplish a specific task, like paying a parking ticket or reporting a bad taxi driver. The second was ‘Karen,’ who visits the site to keep informed – such as parking rules for the day or schooling options for her children. Based on these two archetypes, the team designed the website to accomplish three goals:
1. Easy Navigation: “Nyc.gov should not read like a manual,” said Pasternak. “It should be intuitive and easy.” As the screenshot below shows, the site is clearly divided into ten content buckets, which reflects the way New Yorkers view government services. Rather than having citizens navigate agency sub-pages, agency services fit into citizen-centric objectives.
Screenshot from the new site. Users can now navigate the site in terms they understand.
2. Effective Communication: The need to get information out to the media is a reality that can’t be avoided. But the design team wanted to get that information out in a way that didn’t interfere with users like Ken and Karen. In fact, they tried to make the information enticing enough that Ken and Karen might stick around to read it as well. As such, the first thing visitors see on the website is the news carousel, which usually features mayoral activities. Juxtaposed next to the feature box is a status bar for citizens to quickly get information they need on a daily basis: parking, garbage pickup and school closings.
Screenshot from the new website. The quick info bar is located next to the main carousel.
3. Run it Like a Business: “It’s not just a ‘one and done,’” said Pasternak about the site refresh. “You have to constantly keep this up to date.” The underlying objective was to drive down call volume to 311, freeing the service up to problems that can’t be solved digitally.
The site has a number of other features that support the three imperatives outlined above, from further integration with New York City’s 311 service and flexibility for use across devices.
Ultimately, New York City didn’t radically change the way it conducts business. By taking a user-centric approach and implementing good design, the city has improved how it communicates with citizens. With the changes to nyc.gov, the city now can better deliver services that are vital to keeping New Yorkers happy and healthy.
For more information about nyc.gov, and other redesign success stories, click here.