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The Do’s of Government Web Site Design

Justine Brown
January 14, 2003
Design contributes enormously toward a Web site’s effectiveness. Good design means a site is not only attractive and appealing, but usable, informative, and valuable to those who visit it. In government, good design means getting citizens what they need without hassle.

But with little to spend on Web design services, government agencies have often been at a disadvantage in this area. “Only a handful of agencies have so far dealt seriously with the resources, training, staff commitment, and other things it takes to make usable Web sites,” said Charles McClure, director of Florida State University’s Information Use Management and Policy Institute, in a recent Federal Computer Week article.

Building Quality Government Web Sites

But there are exceptions.

Government Technology magazine and the Center for Digital Government recently announced the winners of their annual 2002 Best of the Web contest. Nearly 300 jurisdictions entered.

So what were the design fundamentals that helped these sites rise above the rest? The winners made the best use of Web design to produce sites that are not only informative and useful, but attractive as well.

According to those in charge of developing the award-winners, the top five things to keep in mind are:

  • Focus on meeting customer needs
  • Put yourself in the customer’s shoes
  • Make services simpler and easier to locate and use
  • Combine the right mix of information and services to meet customer needs
  • Keep your goals focused on improving service, efficiencies and access for citizens

Contest Winners

These are the winners of the 2002 Best of the Web contest.

My Virginia: The Official Commonwealth of Virginia

My Virginia relied on a citizen-focused design. As a result, the Web site took First place in the state division. My Virginia is well-organized into different blocks of information. Visitors can jump to Citizen Services, Business Services, PDA/Wireless services, or Premium Services directly from the homepage. Following the Citizen Services link takes users directly to an organized and alphabetized list of available online services, making it extremely easy to use. The site also includes a link to connect users directly to live help. The design is not flashy—it is simple and straightforward, and it gets users where they need to go without a lot of distractions.

Part of My Virginia’s success can be attributed to the fact that it received executive support from the beginning. Governor Warner’s state Strategic Plan for Technology specifically calls for, “...a unified customer-facing Internet portal for all state agencies which can conduct business with citizens online—without ever involving paper in the process.” This mandate helped guide Virginia in the development of their site.

Maine.gov: The Official Web Site of the State of Maine

Maine.gov placed second in the state category. Maine’s site is similar to Virginia’s in its design, but a bit more cluttered. It also lists Online Services at the top left side, making it easy for users to jump to the services they need. Maine.gov features a handy category called “How Do I…?” with a list of options like, ...change my address with BMV, ...contact my legislator, ...plan my move to Maine, and other options.

The state redesigned their site last summer. The redesign focused on making services simpler and easier to locate and use. The state now makes it a practice to, “think of yourself as the customer,” when implementing any site changes or additions. According to Governor King, the goal is to, “...allow our customers to do business with us when they choose, not just when an office is open.”

Visitors to Maine’s site can also choose to customize Maine.gov to show the information and links in which they have the most interest.

TampaGov: Official Site of Tampa, Florida

Tampa, Florida, took First place in the Local Government division. To add order to a number of offerings that could quickly get overwhelming, Tampa placed three key links at the top of their site: Directory, Site Map and Top Ten (the top ten most recently requested services). Using one or all of those tools, it is highly likely users will be directed where they want to go. If not, a “How Do I?” search tool at the top right hand side is also very effective.

Tampa allows citizens to search for records from city agencies and allows them to pay various fees online. All these services are listed prominently in the left hand column. Links to information and services are conveniently grouped by areas of interest and incorporate all levels of government—the city of Tampa, Hillsborough County, the state of Florida, and the federal government.

“Our goal was to improve service, efficiencies and access for our citizens,” said Tampa Mayor Dick A. Greco. “We are delighted to be able to offer our children, seniors, visitors, neighborhoods, and businesses a richly diverse portal tailored to serve each of their needs.”

Doing the Do’s

An award-winning Web site is not hard to build. But talking about one and making one happen are often two different things. Agencies that have little time or money for training may encounter enormous challenges.

But agencies can learn a lot from those that have succeeded before them. Studying these three award-winning sites for clues to effective government Web design can help prevent many other agencies from having to reinvent the wheel.