Designing for the People: Creating Intuitive and Accessible Government Websites
Imagine that you’ve just moved to a new state and you need to get a new driver’s license. You go online to find your new state’s requirements and make it to the Department of Motor Vehicles website. You discover that the DMV doesn’t actually oversee driver’s licenses like your previous state did. Instead, you need to visit a different government agency website.
You end up on the Department of Driver Services website and try to figure out how you can get an appointment at the nearest location to get your new license. But either the scheduling tool doesn’t work or all of the appointments are booked up until 2027, it’s hard to tell. Okay, you’ll just call the office directly and see if you can make an appointment over the phone.
You click through pages of the site trying to find something that says “Contact Us” or “About Us” or “Basic Information that Should Be Easily Accessible on Any Government Website” but you can’t find a phone number.
Frustrated, you give up and figure that maybe if you get pulled over with an expired license the police officer will be able to give you clearer directions on how to get a license in your new state than any of the information you’ve seen online.
This happens every day at the local, state and federal level across the United States and across the globe. Citizens go online to find simple information, conduct routine business or get help and get caught up in a never-ending loop of outdated content, broken links and desktop-only sites that have us all wondering, “What do we pay taxes for?”
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have government websites that are of the people, by the people and (most importantly) for the people.
As an Open Source Product Agency, we’ve worked on quite a few government websites. Government entities at every level appreciate the enhanced security that is possible with Open Source platforms and the flexibility to create content governance models that fit their specific needs.
When we work with government agencies at any level, however, we don’t alter our approach to product strategy and design.
Understand Your Audience
Government entities can serve a myriad of groups — citizens, business owners, the media, entities in other localities, other government agencies or all of the above. When we start any project, we spend time identifying, understanding and ideally speaking to our audiences. Figuring out the audience mix for each project and their associated needs is step one in designing any project but is especially important with government sites.
Regardless of what audience segment a site visitor is in, all users need an experience that is intuitive, accessible and thoughtfully designed. A visitor coming to the DMV website to renew their driver’s license may have just come from signing up for a new streaming service. A journalist coming to the Secretary of State’s website to get the latest information on an upcoming election may have just come from reading a story on The New York Times app. Their experiences with other digital products sets the bar for their government site expectations. Meeting their high expectations of online experiences is infinitely more important than assuming that they can figure out how to use a poorly designed website.
Use Your Data to Figure Out What Matters
You don’t need to have a robust measurement strategy in place (though we highly recommend it) to create a data-informed experience. Even a basic implementation of Google Analytics will tell you where users are going, when they’re going and how long they’re there. Just looking at the common paths through an existing site will give you a strong sense of what matters to your audiences. Are visitors able to get to content on your site quickly or does it take a few clicks and a few false starts to find what they’re looking for? How deep does the average journey go? How long does it take? How does it end?
In a recent redesign project for a state agriculture agency, a look at their analytics told us that many users were visiting the site to find forms for business registration, permitting and licensing. All of the existing forms were PDFs that needed to be downloaded, printed and mailed or hand delivered to a regional office. We worked with the client team and looked at data to identify a few forms that could be converted from PDF to a webform. Moving these forms into a fully digital format not only improved the experience for users who no longer have to print and mail, but created a more accessible experience since content in PDFs is difficult to access with assistive technologies.
If we hadn’t looked at the existing data before starting the project, we might have missed the opportunity to streamline a cumbersome experience for both constituents and agency employees.
Don’t Copy Your Neighbor
Doing a competitive analysis looks a little different in the government space. If someone lives in Michigan and doesn’t like the website for their Department of Labor, they can’t decide to use Wisconsin’s instead. That said, we do look at peer organizations and agencies to get a sense of what everyone else in the space is doing. But if we only looked at government websites when we worked on government websites, those websites would continue to be designed and built to maintain the status quo.
Instead, we draw inspiration from spaces outside of government and often use references from unlikely sources. When we started looking at the visual design for the state agriculture agency, we knew we needed an aesthetic that honored the world of agriculture with colors inspired by the landscape and the state’s iconic crops. But we didn’t want to follow any of the visual cliches that you might see on an agriculture site — cows, bales of hay, seedlings that have just sprouted from the ground.
So we looked at agribusiness and startups in the agricultural tech spaces. These sources of inspiration use a similar color palette but with a more modern edge. Leaning in a more modern direction ensured that the visual identity we developed for the agriculture agency would not look dated when the site launched and would give them ample time to use it without it looking like a relic of the past.
One thing we’ve observed in working on government sites is that if the design looks outdated, people think that the content is outdated, too. When users are visiting a site to get the latest information on a regulation or a process, they should feel confident that they aren’t looking at old information. A modern (but not trendy) visual design helps build that confidence.
Keep Your Org Chart Off Your Website
Reworking a site’s information architecture is a mixture of science and art. The science is determining the optimal taxonomic structure for your content and data. The art is convincing all the stakeholders that your recommendations should be adopted.
Whether you refer to Conway’s Law or the maxim “Don’t ship the org chart,” (attributed to Steven Sinofsky, formerly of Microsoft), your website’s navigation structure should make sense to the people who visit it, not just the people who maintain it.
Because government agencies are often broken into divisions, it seems logical to the folks inside those agencies that the website should follow that pattern. But a lot of the time, what those divisions do actually isn’t as obvious as the people in the divisions might think.
For another recent project with an administrative state agency, we spent a lot of time improving the information architecture so it was oriented around the way their audiences engaged with their services, not the way the agency is organized. To make the case for this new approach, we did multiple rounds of testing with users inside the agency and their end-users comparing a navigation structure based on divisions to one based on user actions. When the agency staff saw how much more successful task completion was when the content and resources were organized by user action, they were eager to adopt the new navigation. When the site launches later this year, a key metric we’re tracking is a decrease in the number of calls to the agency office — hopefully indicating that it’s easier for people to find what they’re looking for on the site.
Plan for Emergencies
Many government websites get traffic spikes during emergency situations. The last thing any of us want to do during an emergency is hunt around on a poorly designed website for the information we need. It’s important to understand the type of emergency situation each agency attends to and work those “worst case scenarios” into your design plan.
Some agencies might experience higher traffic during large weather events where it’s also important to consider how a user might be connecting to the internet to get information. Pages with large images or video might not load in situations of low connectivity so simple text components might be best. Accounting for these types of situations in your design process will not only help users in an emergency situation, it can also help you create a better performing website overall.
After All, Government Websites are Just Websites
At the end of the day, whether we’re designing for government, B2B or any other industry, the site we launch needs to be user-centered. The less we think about the divisions between industries and the more we think about creating quality products that we all want to use, the better the whole internet can be.
Mediacurrent is an Open Source Product agency, defining, designing and delivering websites, platforms and digital experiences for all sorts—including government agencies.