Boston’s IT staff is collecting public feedback on the newly released pilot version of “boston.gov,” taking a big step closer to launching an overhauled city website.
The city launched the pilot version of the site last week, giving users a sneak peek at three of its new pages and offering them a chance to vote on what sections of the site they’d like to see next.
“On the one hand, it’s a little scary to be developing in public,” Lauren Lockwood, the city’s chief digital officer, told StateScoop. “But our hope is that by exposing ourselves and bringing people into the process that we end up with a better product.”
With roughly a million words on the current website’s 20,000 different pages, Lockwood said the city has been hoping to clean up the clutter with a new site for a while now. She said her team started the process by surveying people “inside and outside city hall” to figure out what about the site needed to change, then set about collaborating with a design firm and a developer to create the new Web portal.
“We set out to create a website that’s not only more useful for our residents, but also more welcoming,” Lockwood said.
Indeed, Lockwood noted that her team sought to build a site that’s “equal parts warm and official,” and also “act as a helpful human.”
Part of that process involves simplifying the content on the website — Lockwood said the current site contains huge blocks of text that require an 11th grade reading level to understand, something the city is hoping to change with the redesign.
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The pilot site doesn’t contain many pages, but Lockwood feels the test version embodies many of those attributes her team was striving to attain. The homepage contains links to three initial topic pages for users to explore: “starting a business,” “having a car in the city” and “winter is coming.”
Each page contains information that’s “department agnostic,” Lockwood said, so that users don’t have to hunt on each agency’s page to find what they’re looking for.
“If you want to learn about winter preparedness, rather than going to the parking website to learn about parking garages and the 311 site to learn about how to report cases of unshoveled sidewalks and on and on and on, now we include that in one place,” Lockwood said.
The home page also includes a poll so visitors can vote for which topics they’d like to see added to the pilot site next, with “owning a home” and “moving to Boston” currently jockeying for first place.
“I was really surprised, because I thought ‘working for the city of Boston’ was going to be one of the most clicked on options, but it’s actually fifth place in the poll so far, which goes to show you that you don’t always know your users’ needs and wants,” Lockwood said.
Beyond the poll, Lockwood said they’ve received other useful feedback and may work to incorporate it as they try to fine tune the site’s “translate” function.
Yet that’s not the only work left to be done as Lockwood’s team readies the rest of the site — she said work on the navigation bar and the rewriting of content is taking up the bulk of their time at this point, and they hope to roll out new sections of the site in stages “so we’re collecting information on only one thing at a time.”
“It’s a hard balance, because we do need to stay flexible enough to iterate based on what we hear from users, but at the same time, we have a vision for where we’re heading,” Lockwood said.
That vision does stipulate that the city unveil a more complete version of the site sometime in 2016, though Lockwood said they’re still working on a “specific release calendar.”
“Part of why we’re trying to hold our team to an aggressive timeline is everyone always wants to be perfect, you don’t want to put something out there that’s half done or not ready for primetime, but we need to get over that,” Lockwood said. “We’re going to have to flip the switch or launch before we feel ready.”
But even with that pressure to release the new site, Lockwood said she feels confident that she has the full support of city hall as her team works to include as much user feedback in the overhaul as possible.
“The incredible community here in Boston has not been trying to tear us down, but has been very constructive in their feedback, so it feels good to be somewhere where that’s all possible,” Lockwood said.