All websites, especially Government websites, have gone through dramatic changes over the last 20+ years.
A combination of available technology and public expectations have largely shaped the services offered and how they’re delivered to the community. With that in mind, we are going to explore how websites have changed, the key characteristics of each reincarnation and ensure that you are ready for “The Future”.
The Internet Wayback Machine
To get a sense of how dramatic the changes have been, check out theInternet Archive Wayback Machine. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine takes snapshots of websites over time and has saved more than 427 billion web pages since the beginning of Internet time. Chances are that your city’s website has been automatically saved and you can view all of the past versions of your site.
For example, here are snapshots of the website for the City of Manhattan Beach, California, and how it has changed from 2002 to 2015. You can see for yourself how the site has changed with design trends and user preferences from a text heavy website in 2002 to a more graphic, but very interactive iteration in 2008 to the more dynamic, mobile-friendly and engaging site you see today.
The changes on Manhattan Beach’s site are really reflective of the larger pattern of evolution in how progressive local governments understand and utilize their sites. Here’s what we’ve observed:
In the Beginning
"In the Beginning" starts in the late 1990s to early 2000s, a time when most municipalities were creating their first official websites. The fact that most users were on dial-up internet hosting meant most of these sites were graphically minimal and very text heavy. From a functionality perspective, the notion of “eGovernment” didn’t exist due to the limitations of website management tools available and the technical expertise required to operate them effectively. As a result, most websites were static and essentially served as online brochures.
The “Next Generation” websites started appearing in the mid-2000s and coincided with the growth of Content Management Systems (CMS) that allowed non-technical users to make changes to the website. Suddenly, changes didn’t need to be handled by technical staff, causing many municipalities to move to a distributed content model, where multiple people within an organization were tasked with maintaining their own pages. Not surprisingly, the amount of available content exploded. No longer basic brochures, most local government websites ballooned into large online filing cabinets. While Web 2.0 (remember Web 2.0?) concepts led to the introduction of some basic interaction, like email notifications and online forms, the ability to conduct two-way interaction and engagement was limited.
As mentioned initially, the evolution of websites has been largely shaped by public expectation and available technology. Starting in the late-2000s, but taking hold in the early 2010s, mobile devices came on the scene and dramatically changed the way the average person engaged with the web. This shift required forward-thinking organizations to begin the transition to where we see websites today and in the future.
The online file cabinets of the past simply don’t work well on mobile devices. In response, organizations are taking a strategic, data-driven approach to determine what information should be on their websites and ultimately how to interact with their communities. These sites are small and nimble, allowing their users to quickly perform their most common tasks quickly and easily.
Beyond that, users are now thinking about engagement and how to involve the public in decisions beyond the traditional council/board meeting environment. Tools for collaboration, feedback and input are prevalent and are opening up government to the public in new and exciting ways. The end result are mobile-friendly websites that are user-friendly, easier to navigate, nimbler and more effective in meeting the changing needs of citizens.
Where Are You?
Take a fresh and objective look at your current website. Does your site all of the criteria necessary to address the needs of your community and city for The Future? What are you doing to prepare your website and team to build The Future website for your city? How are you planning to evolve your site to meet future needs?
When thinking about Future sites, the underlying premise is that the problems faced with most websites are no longer about the technology, but what you do with the technology. Can you name the top five tasks users are seeking to complete on your website? If so, can you adapt your site to respond to those requests dynamically? As the number of mobile and tablet users to a website continues to grow (and currently tops 50% of all visits for many organizations), ensuring that a website is accessible on all mobile devices is another important mandate.
Future websites must exist in a constant state of evolution and adaptation. In the earlier generations of websites, you could put up your site and not touch it except for adding new content until the next re-design in four to five years. Operators of Future websites need to continually assess what their users want and adapt to continue delighting their citizens and staying current with their needs.
At Vision, we specialize in helping agencies research and implement user-focused improvements, and are always happy to discuss your particular needs. Request a free consultation now.