Boston launches overhauled city website using feedback from pilot

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Six months after rolling out a pilot version of a new city website, Boston has launched the full version of its redesigned site with an eye on making its web offerings more user friendly.

The city’s IT shop unveiled the new web portal last week, capping off their effort to overhaul “Boston.gov” for the first time in more than a decade.

The redesign has been in the works for roughly a year, but Lauren Lockwood — the city’s chief digital officer — told StateScoop that her team’s launch of a pilot site in January to collect feedback from users helped make the full site’s big unveiling a little less nerve wracking.

“With any new website, there’s a lot of trepidation,” Lockwood said. “We were able to design it in public for the last few months, so it’s a little less scary to rip the Band-Aid off with the launch with that pilot being out there. We’ve been iterating on that pilot up until the day we launched.”

Indeed, Lockwood said her team took the public’s input seriously throughout the design process, convening “everything from surveys to in-person conversations to focus groups” to understand how people felt about the redesign.

“We tested the site with visually impaired users, we tested it with surveys on a lot of navigation questions we had, like ‘If we call something this, will people click on it?’” Lockwood said.

She feels that work had a direct effect on how staffers thought about the overhaul.

One prominent part of the pilot was how it organized information by three topics  — “starting a business,” “having a car in the city” and “winter is coming” — as part of the city’s effort to make information on government services easier to find. But Lockwood said that setup didn’t have quite the intended effect.

“What we found was that, even if we made it really prominent in the navigation, no one clicked on it, because they didn’t know what it was,” Lockwood said. “So we changed the name to ‘guides,’ which helped. But we also created a component to live at the bottom of any pages, which showed related guides too.”

The pilot site also included a poll asking people what sections they wanted to see the city roll out next, and Lockwood noted they frequently let those poll results guide their work.

“One of the polls we posted had this one topic in there, just ‘resources for basic needs,’ like food, shelter, basic connectivity, and that was off the charts a winner,” Lockwood said. “So we basically stopped everything else we were working on and made sure we got something like that ready to go.”

[Read more: Boston unveils pilot of overhauled city website to solicit feedback]

She added that people were also enthusiastic about the staff’s efforts to rewrite the website’s content in plain language, but she worried that the process of editing the roughly 1 million words on the old site’s 20,000 pages would prove too daunting.

“How do you migrate that information over in a way that’s really in line with your values, but also fast enough to launch a website before five years go by?” Lockwood said.

With a staff of just six full-time employees, and the appreciation that “we can’t possibly know what’s happening in every corner of the city,” Lockwood said her initial plan was to work with “web liaisons” in each of Boston’s departments as part of the editing process.

“Our original idea was that we’d go department by department, and say, ‘Take a look at the content you have now, and try to rewrite it under these new guidelines,’” Lockwood said. “But that’s a really intimidating thing for someone who might be a web liaison on the side, in addition to their regular duties.”

So Lockwood pivoted, instead tasking her team with the rewriting work, and then regularly reviewing their edits with the people who might understand the content best.

“That rewrite was a really Herculean lift,” Lockwood said. “It was more than we expected to take on ourselves, but I think the end result is something we were really proud of.”

But even once all that work was finished and the city launched the full version of the new site, Lockwood noted that they never stopped listening to users. Since the unveiling, her staff has “fielded over 300 emails and pieces of feedback from people, and every single one’s gotten a human response.”

She added that they have even been able to resolve many of the issues people started pointing out.

“After we launched, we got some feedback from users, not a ton, but a couple people, that the gray font still felt a little too light on the white background, so the very first production push we did after launch was to make that font a little darker,” Lockwood said.

Moving forward, Lockwood hopes to keep that responsive process going, since she’s planning to have her staff spend “5 percent of our time on maintenance and 95 percent of our time on improvements.”

“We launched it, but it’s not done,” Lockwood said. “It will never be done, just like Facebook and Google’s websites are never done, Boston.gov will always be improving, and we have a team in place to make sure that happens.”

To that end, the city’s also launched “roadmap.boston.gov” to keep people informed about Lockwood’s staff will be upgrading the site in the future and collect ideas for how to guide that process.

“It’s just really a place to submit your wacky ideas for making the site better, and you can up-vote other people’s’ ideas as well, so we get to feel the pulse of what users are thinking,” Lockwood said.

She notes that some suggestions may prove too out there for the city to spend time on — after all, she points out that someone asked the city to “include an ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button that just sends you to a random page on the site.” But she intends to listen to all ideas and make it clear that the city won’t finish tinkering anytime soon.

“It’s an important thing to make it clear that we’re listening, because we are,” Lockwood said. “My hope is that sort of feedback loop is what encourages people to continue contributing ideas.”

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