When constituents come to your website, it’s likely they are looking for something in particular. How quickly they are able to find what they are looking for depends on how well your website is organized.
How your website is organized is commonly referred to as information architecture. According to Usability.gov, information architecture focuses on organizing, structuring, and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way.
With poor information architecture your constituents will spend too much time searching your website, and if they’re unable to find what they were looking for it could cause frustration. Conversely, with strong information architecture, users can find information and complete tasks quickly and easily resulting in a better experience.
How has information architecture evolved for government websites
Many government websites were built in the 90s or early 2000s, when conversations about digital information architecture were in their infancy. As a result, early adopters of change unintentionally built websites without a strong foundation of organization. They just knew they needed to be online!
As these websites expanded over the years with new pages, more content, social media widgets, announcement banners, etc. – website organization for many municipalities became more and more muddled. The sheer volume of information being packed into government websites, coupled with a lack of resources, know-how and funding to create a proper organization strategy has made it increasingly difficult for municipalities to manage their sites, and for citizens to think of government websites as useful tools. Users searching for specific services or departments could easily wind up on a page that no longer works or hasn’t been updated to reflect accurate and current information.
A prime example of this was discovered in 2016 by Dave Seliger, a project manager working on website design in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation. When he did an inventory of all of the city’s department websites, he found 343 distinct sites, some of them abandoned and dating back to 2003.
New York isn’t the only city to notice their websites became overly complex as they grew. In 2016, Seattle’s government kicked off a three-year long civic web design initiative trying to make their site more easily navigable to their users. Their approach was to rethink information architecture in a way that put the citizen first: arranging content according to the service needed rather than by department. When Seattle thought about their redesign, their focus was to make all websites manageable through a single tool, with consistent branding across all city departments.
How Morris County is updating its website information architecture
Morris County, N.J. is another county, more recently, working to update their website’s information architecture and design shortcomings.
Jamie Klenetsky Fay, Morris County’s web specialist, says updating the county’s current website, which acts more like a portal to other departments and agencies, has been a top-priority for her team for months. And now, as COVID-19 has limited face-to-face interaction with constituents, updating their website is more pressing than ever.
Throughout the process of updating their county website Jamie and her team have uncovered key takeaways on what it takes to improve information architecture in a more user-friendly way:
1. Get the buy-in from multiple stakeholders
The first pillar of change management is getting the buy-in from key stakeholders. With others supporting the update of your department’s website, it’s easier to keep the initiative alive, and keep the momentum pushing forward.
Jamie says that the key stakeholders should also be varied, too. For Morris County’s website update, she looked for people who had a keen interest in the project, people within different areas of the county to create comprehensive representation, and people who had time to fully engage with the plan.
2. Rely on user-testing to help with structure and search
After surveying constituents, Jamie found that while most citizens thought the Morris County website had “lots of great information,” they, “can’t find any of it.”
To help understand how users interacted with the Morris County website, Jamie and her team performed user testing. The user testing showed the Morris County team that there were too many paths for finding the same information. “We realized three different people can find information in three different ways,” says Jamie. And while the search bar works with the existing structure, they still needed to focus on simpler avenues for finding important information.
To learn more about what flow of information would make more sense for their constituents, Jamie says they continued their user-testing with a card sort, which is particularly useful because, “actual users can put things into categories. This is another way of breaking out of government structures, and focusing on what actual people think about when they come to a website.”
3. Avoid unique websites for each department
Jamie and her team are also working to clean up the portal-esque navigation system their website currently has.
“In the 90s, some divisions within the county decided to make a website. Then, other divisions likely had the idea, and it was sort of a copy and paste process for the entire county government. Now, each department has their own website. There is no information architecture, there are just a bunch of different websites.”
By making all departments and divisions a category page on the primary website, as opposed to an entirely new domain, users can more easily move through information without being redirected, losing their place or having to understand exactly which subdomain to search for their answer.
Jamie says, it’s usually best to keep all the information on one website. With the caveat that if a service is super distinct from other government services, like for example, the county library website, it could use its own domain. Services like planning and development can be more convoluted. A constituent might know what planning and development is responsible for, making it more effective to include under the primary county website (and its search bar), as opposed to its own website.
4. Create websites for citizens, not government
Another important step toward creating a well-designed website is remembering who you’re creating the website for.
Jamie says, “Government tends to think of a website in terms of how they would use it as opposed to how the public would use it.”
For example, as the Morris County website currently is, you have to understand the structure of each department before you can figure out which website to visit to get the services you need.
Better structured information architecture would allow the visitor to find the services they need without having to weed through multiple websites or subcategories within a website to find the answer.
Information architecture is only one way to improve the user-experience and accessibility on your website.