What I’m Reading: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner (this month’s book club pick)
What I’m Watching: The Good Wife, Season 4 on Paramount+
What I’m Excited About: Upcoming weekend trips to Western NC’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Beaufort, SC
I’m willing to bet that sometime this month you have visited a local government website to do a quick search for a bit of information. I’m also willing to bet that you have left that website, gritting your teeth and feeling frustrated at how long it took to track down that information, surprised to find out that it was incorrect, or resigned to the fact that the information was not on the website at all. We’ve all been there!
As local government folks, we have an advantage over most other website visitors. We’re familiar enough with the subject matter that we can take educated guesses about where to look on a local government website for certain information. But put yourself in the shoes of the majority of website users who expect an easy-to-use, quick-to-navigate, up-to-date online fount of information about the community where they live, work, play, and learn.
How does your local government’s website measure up? Take some time to do this 10-point check-up and take notes on what you find along the way. (If you have an intern or new hire available, this is a great value-added way to introduce them to your organization, get some fresh perspective, and accomplish a somewhat tedious, but necessary, task.)
- Does your website load correctly and quickly on desktop and mobile devices? Desktop appearance was once the priority, but that has changed with more folks relying more on their smartphones to obtain information on the go. Make sure the content is properly sized and oriented to the device screen. Nothing should be cut off at either edge, and scrolling should be kept to a minimum. The text style (font and size) should be readable and have good contrast against any solid backgrounds or background images.
- Does the main page include, or direct visitors, to all pertinent information? For example, your website’s main page should include basics such as the local government’s name, physical and mailing addresses, main phone number, office hours, a central or general email address that is regularly monitored, a few key upcoming events, a photo or photo gallery that represents your community, social media links, and a reasonably organized menu bar that directs people to additional pages for specific information. Your website’s home page is your organization’s public face in the online world—and it should represent your community in a good light and answer most questions.
- Do navigation bar or menu choices take people to the right information? For example, if you click on “Government,” you should get at least one page or submenu that shows the governing body, staff departments, and boards/commissions. The “Agenda & Minutes” page should list all current year meeting dates (at a minimum) with links to the applicable agendas and minutes as they are approved and ready for posting. An “Events” page should list all upcoming events in chronological order and provide basic information (who, what, where, when, why, and how much); make sure past events get removed or moved to an archive page.
- Does your website convey a sense of place and community? For example, if your town has great public art installations or unique festivals, include photos of these places and events on your website to give visitors an idea of what a cool place your community is. If your local government manages public recreation facilities, be sure to include photos, the physical location and a Google map link, room layouts, rental information, and hours of operation. Consider adding a page with some local history, notable landmarks, or great places to visit.
- Is your website well connected, internally and externally? For starters, click through the links on the major pages to make sure the links still work and take you to the right places. As time allows, visit lower-level or less-visited pages to test those links. Consider including links to neighboring communities, particularly to those that share services with your community. Also consider adding links to applicable county, regional, and state resources.
- Is the contact information for elected/appointed officials and staff current and accurate? These pages should be updated as soon as possible after elections or personnel changes. At a minimum, they should be checked every quarter. Visitors like to know who they should be dealing with, so keeping this information current helps build relationships.
- Is the main body text on website pages readable? Use sentence case, not all caps. Make sure text aligns along the left edge of the page or both edges; don’t center it. Break up long blocks of text into shorter paragraphs—or bulleted or numbered lists where appropriate. To serve folks with disabilities or impairments, it’s helpful to make your page ADA compliant.
- Can people find your page? Google your local government (including city and state); it should come up as the top search result. If not, you may want to revise the content a bit for search engine optimization (SEO). This involves identifying key words or phrases that people frequently might use to find your community, then strategically and naturally (if possible) placing those key words into page text, element descriptions in the background code, or page titles.
- Are the forms and documents linked to website pages current and accessible? One primary reason people visit your website is for self-service; make it easy for them to download and print forms. If you have the resources, make the forms fillable PDFs that can be completed, saved, printed, and emailed on screen. Make sure the information on the form—especially the instructions and any applicable fees—is correct. When done right, online forms and documents make doing business with your local government easier and more productive for everyone involved.
- Does your website meet the needs of most visitors? You know the old saying: you can’t please everyone (even if you’re chocolate!) But you can anticipate and answer most people’s questions—or discover them by talking with the folks who have the customer-facing jobs of answering phones and handling visitors. Make a list of the top 10 questions—and the appropriate answers—and turn it into an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page on your website. This enables more self-service on the part of your website visitors—and it makes for a happier staff because they won’t be answering the same questions over and over again.
Now that you have completed this 10-point check-up and made your notes (you did take notes, right?), it’s time to have a discussion with the person(s) responsible for maintaining your website (assuming it’s not you). This may be your organization’s administrative or communications staff, or even contracted professional help. Tell the webmaster(s) what you found (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and talk about ways to improve the website’s content and accessibility. Develop an action plan and schedule for making these improvements.
The bottom line is that what visitors want most from your local government website is usability—a critical requirement for an effective website. Website visitors want to find what they’re looking for as quickly and easily as possible, then act upon that information as quickly and easily as possible. Use this checklist to make their efforts easier—and your website more usable!