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Digital Expert's Panel - The Website is a 24/7/365 Virtual Employee

by Kimberly Samuelson
Post Date:08/14/2017

Fresh from a redesign, the City of Effingham’s new website is laser focused on citizen-services. Moreover, City Administrator, Jim Arndt, and his team, even have plans to push municipal service delivery into retail environments!

What was the driver for building a new site?

First, the previous site was a file-box, a place for people to go to get information. Unfortunately, the resident couldn’t interact with the city at all, no bill paying, no form submittals. Second, the aesthetics of the old site were not pleasing. Finally, it wasn’t responsive in a stable way. If you attempted to access the site on a tablet or phone, it was hit, or miss and the drop-down menus were impossible to access.

We just broke ground on the redesign. The intended role for the new website is to be a virtual employee for us. We want our residents to put in a FOIA request or a speaker’s card request or pay a bill. This site was designed for service delivery. The residents can do business on their time and at their pleasure without having to come down to city hall.

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We’re still doing some internal selling for this new site. The departments are starting to buy in.

What was surprising about the way residents used the old site?

It was surprising how many residents use the search box. I’m the type of person who tries to find information by navigating to content.

Residents spent a lot of time clicking on items that didn’t work. There was a phone number that people thought was dialable from the computer and our location on the map. That’s all fixed now with the new site.

Tell me about your website team?

redesignTeam.pngThere were three of us. At the city, we are a pretty lean machine and all wear a lot of hats. I should also mention we were redoing two sites at the same time the city site and the tourism site. Sometimes, one of us would opt-out of the project(s) for a while. The hardest part was getting three people to agree. Creating a website can be like making decisions about interior design with your spouse.


What kind of content contribution guidance did you give the department heads?

That was pretty challenging because the departments are so busy. The website was just one extra thing. One person from each department was assigned to create content. Finally, as we were approaching crunch time, content started to come in. However, we ended up migrating a fair number of pages, and our project coordinator helped freshen things up.

We stressed to the department heads that web content isn’t static. That’ll be something for us all to work on ensure we get new photos and content from the departments.

Government websites tend to be a split between service delivery and engagement. What is the split for the City of Effingham?

At this time, I’d say— 60% service delivery 40% engagement.

For engagement portion, the city uses various social media channels and link those to the website. Police and Fire have their social media, but it’s all linked back to (and viewable from) their website pages. We are also setting up—for the first time—live streaming of our council meetings, and that’ll be embedded in the website as well.

On the flipside, we wanted the emphasis on this site to ensure residents and business can do business with the city after hours. The website is an employee that is there 24 hours a day, who doesn’t have to go to sleep.

What was the most informative part of the redesign process?

The user testing during the UX process. In fact, we found it so enlightening we conducted our own version of user testing. We mimicked what Vision did.  It was interesting to see how the user would look for things because they aren’t familiar with what we do. We had to become more conscious of vocabulary also. For example, in Illinois, we call a public record a FOIA, but obviously, the resident doesn’t know the lexicon.  Ultimately, we had the same conversation throughout the entire redesign process, “We aren’t making it for us, we are making it for them.” 

What lessons did you learn from your redesign?

Number one, make sure you use a vendor who understands local government. That’s critical. Number two, you need control of the CMS—meaning the ability to make changes on your own. Three, be sure to keep your site fresh and vibrant. Keep changing photos. Finally, you pay for what you get, and as our online presence is a reflection of the city, it’s worth spending effort and energy.

How will you measure the success of the site?

Measuring Engagement Icon.pngA lot of it will be anecdotal, we’ll hear from the departments about the fewer calls and less counter traffic. We’ll also look at form submissions, report requests, and usage of online billing. The plan is to examine analytics on a monthly basis.

What will the site evolve into in five years?

We’ll continue to dive deeper into service delivery. Our long-term plan is to put in kiosks and not just at city hall but in shopping centers like Walmart.

Looking to better understand our data-driven, UX process? Interested in learning more web design acronyms? Check out our whitepaper, “ Understanding CS, UX and UID.”

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