Commentary: People don’t want to browse government websites the way they do Facebook or YouTube. Agencies can use data to design their websites in a way that helps residents quickly find what they need.
Your government site isn't like Facebook. Your visitors are there because they have to be, not because they want to be. (iStockphoto)
This may come as a surprise, but none of your constituents care about your website. They won’t get excited about a redesign, they aren’t eagerly awaiting your next press release and they won’t pop by your page to see what’s new as they surf the web.
I know — you get a lot of visitors to your site every day. But that’s because they need to apply for a license or pay a fine. Constituents aren’t going to your website because they want to, they’re going because they have to. They just want to get in, find what they need, and get on with their day. And we’re not making it easy for them.
Agencies need to spend more time making it simpler for site visitors to find the content they care about, and data can illuminate what items are most important to feature.
Site visitors aren’t getting what they need
In most cases, website managers of government sites choose content based on the demands of a few organizational decision-makers. The problem is, often their requests are based on politics and ego, not on analytics or user studies. The result? More calls to your call center from confused — and frustrated — constituents. More taxpayer dollars spent to help someone who couldn’t find what they needed on your website. More of the sentiment that government isn’t here to serve the needs of citizens.
(Graphic courtesy of Kendra Skeene)
If your homepage is heavy on the following content, you’re not serving your constituents first.
- Welcome message: No one reads it. No one needs to be welcomed to your site. It’s taking up valuable space.
- Photo of figurehead: I know they’re running the show, but it’s not about them. Putting your organizational leader’s picture on the homepage just gives constituents someone to be angry at when they can’t find what they really need.
- Image carousel: That’s the name for a rotating image display. They’re a trendy, flashy way to fit a lot of stuff at the top of the page. But they take a long time to load, and 99 percent of visitors completely ignore it. Need more convincing? Check out shouldiuseacarousel.com.
- Mission statement: This is a great internal tool for staff, but constituents don’t care about your mission. As former White House Director of New Media Technologies Leigh Heyman once said: "The only person searching for your mission statement is a taxpayer looking to sue you."
- Press releases: Only the press is looking for press releases, and by now you should have a way for them to subscribe to an RSS feed or an email blast to get new press releases anyway. These might need to be on your website — but not on the homepage.
- Scrolling Twitter feed: While you certainly should have a social media strategy and link to Twitter from your website, no one will come to your website looking for what you have to say on Twitter (they’ll look for it on Twitter). Not to mention, scrolling text is bad for usability, accessibility and performance.
So what do they need? In a nutshell: services or jobs. Your agency exists to provide a service, either to other organizations or to citizens. You likely require identifying information from your customers before providing those services. Give them that information as quickly and succinctly as possible. If visitors can access the service online, link to it directly. If not, give them the phone number they need or a map to your brick-and-mortar location.
Use data to show how people use the site
To make an informed decision about what to cut and what to keep, you need data. You want the analytics that indicate where users are clicking, where they’re not clicking and what they aren’t finding. It’s hard to argue with data. If you can get someone to go out and talk to constituents, gather real user data, that’s even better — but any data is better than no data.
A picture speaks a thousand words, so if you can get a heatmap of where users are clicking — and what they’re ignoring — on your homepage, it will give you a lot to go on.
On this heat map of Georgia.gov, the red and orange highlights indicate where users click most. (Courtesy of Skeene)
First, look at the analytics data on your website. If you’re not already gathering data, set up Google Analytics on your site now — it’s free.
Next, see if you can configure a heatmapping tool that will illustrate where your users are clicking and how far they’re scrolling on your homepage. This will give you great insight into how little your carousel and welcome message are used. We use a tool called CrazyEgg, but there are others as well.
Now that you have the data, start digging in. Look at the top visited pages, top search terms getting users to your site and top internal search terms people are using when they’re on your site. Make sure that information is on your homepage. Look at what’s not being clicked, and figure out if you can remove it altogether. Some content may have a legislative mandate to be on your site, but that doesn’t mean it has to be front and center if no one is using it.
From cost savings, to positive public sentiment, even to political gain — how much better does it reflect on the leaders of a government organization if they’re putting their constituents’ needs above a desire to have their own photo on the homepage? No one cares about your website for its own sake — they care about what it is you have to say. When we focus on our users, everyone wins.
Kendra Skeene is the director of product for Georgia’s enterprise web publishing platform, overseeing the technology, support and strategy for more than 75 state agency websites.