The Importance of Being Usable

  • How easy is it for site visitors to obtain the information they need at your municipal web site?

If a municipal web site is difficult to use, residents won’t use it. It’s as simple as that. This is what usability is all about and it’s often the most neglected aspect of municipal web sites.

Why does usability matter? Usability influences whether visitors will return to a web site, how often they will use it and how happy they are with their overall experience at it.

Now, you might take the position that it doesn’t really matter what residents think about their town’s municipal web site. After all, it’s not like they’re going to shop around for a better municipal web site and go spend their tax dollars there, right? Hell, if they don’t like your town’s web site, they don’t have to use it.

Okay…that idiotic stance was for illustrative purposes only. Your municipal web site has the potential to make a tremendous contribution to public information and customer service. If done right, that translates into fewer phone calls to town hall, fewer visits to town hall, more productivity at town hall, and a lot more appreciation from residents who utilize the site.

If your municipal web site fails miserably on all counts, that lofty goal of providing residents with 24/7 self-service access to information is all but wiped out. If you make your web site visitors work too hard at something that should be relatively transparent and simple, your municipal web site will never become the valuable resource it could be and should be.

In our experience, there is only one way to achieve usability with a municipal web site. Content must be organized based on the functions and services available to residents rather than on the municipality’s internal structure. This is what is meant by the term “citizen-centric.”

To employ a citizen-centric approach in the delivery of information means to organize content from the perspective of the citizens looking in, not from the perspective of town departments and agencies looking out. The focus needs to remain squarely on meeting the needs of citizens rather than on the departments and agencies. To put it another way, if resident Joe Smith wants to obtain a copy of his birth certificate, he shouldn’t have to know that copies of vital records are handled by the Registrar, who oversees the Bureau of Vital Statistics which is located within the Department of Health.

Usability must be factored into the design of the municipal web site from the outset. The site has to be developed from the site visitor’s perspective and this has to be initiated during the planning stage. You cannot retrofit a municipal web site to be citizen-centric—it either is or it isn’t.

Sadly, far too many municipal web sites in New Jersey have missed the boat on usability. The type of information architecture involved is far beyond the scope of the web site hobbyists and volunteers that municipalities have been engaging to do their web sites. You know the old adage…you get what you pay for.

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