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February 4, 2011 > City accounts for customers' needs

City accounts for customers' needs

By Simon Wong

The City of Hayward is redesigning its website for the first time since 2007. Typically, private sector companies undertake such projects every two years to utilize new software, programming and technologies to improve the user-experience and deliver information more efficiently.

The need for ready access to data has created a "cluttered" homepage with too many links in the form of icons with/without text or text without a graphic. This lack of uniformity does not help clarity. Similarly, competing demands to appear on the homepage mean some important features and information are relegated to web pages that only determined users manage to find.

Previously, some changes to the website were more reflective of the City of Hayward's needs and might have rendered the explanation and provision of public services bureaucratic, remote and inaccessible. A successful website enables users to locate information and accomplish tasks. Design and functionality must account for and balance users' and the organization's needs. If the website is unhelpful to the city's residents, businesses and visitors (non-residents), it will not be used. The public sector's need for website-versatility reflects the importance of customer service.

An initial revision is underway. Direction will be sought from Council, the City Manager, city staff and the public. Feedback from internal and external focus groups will clearly identify users' needs, desires and limitations at each stage of design and development. This user-centered design (UCD) approach, which will include conducting usability-testing with users, will ensure a functional balance between the needs of all interested parties.

"Users will readily access information or find their way intuitively to what they want rather than 'stumble around' and possibly abandon their search," explained City of Hayward Technology Services Director Clancy Priest. "We shall spend the next three or four months listening to input from different groups, young and old, and produce a redesigned and restructured city website."

The first step is to clearly define organizational and user needs, goals and objectives - What are the primary business objectives and how do they relate to the Web? Who are the website's users and what are their tasks and goals? What information and functions do users need and in what form are they needed? How do users think the website should work? What hardware and software will the majority of users use to access the site?

"The redesigned home page will be a stable portal featuring a high-level menu with detailed drop-down menus. Placement of content will be clear, changing/moving far less frequently than at present, and facilitate location of information beyond the homepage. This will avoid a phone call by a frustrated customer to city hall," explained webmaster Joseph Ochinero.

"Content submitted internally will be subject to uniform standards to ensure a consistent appearance across the website and throughout the organization. This will allow users to clearly identify what they view. This also builds the City of Hayward as a brand," added Assistant City Manager Kelly Morariu.

The new website will have Web 2.0 functionality, which the current site lacks, to enable users to interact with each other in a virtual community. Social networking sites, blogs, wilds, video sharing sites, hosted services, web applications and syndication are examples of Web 2.0.

Syndication allows end-users to use a site's data in another context, such as another website, a browser plug-in or a separate desktop application. Protocols, or web feeds, which permit syndication include RSS (really simple syndication, aka web syndication), RDF (as in RSS 1.1), and Atom. The city's website will include such web feeds. Similarly, users will be able to register for email notifications when content is changed or added.

"Increasing numbers of cities are defining themselves through pictures and their services, without words. If text is required, it should be plain English and not government-speak. A short paragraph about Hayward City Council's 'Clean & Green' priority might mention solar panels at Chabot College and sustainability at Cal State University East Bay; readers are immediately aware the city has a community college and university without wading through paragraphs of content," stated Councilman Olden Henson who sat on the National League of Cities' judging panel which identified award-winning municipal websites.

"The project team plans to present a final design to the Council Technology Application Committee (CTAC) between May and July. If we're ready before July's scheduled CTAC meeting, we may call a special meeting in June. We'd like the newly designed website to be available no later than July 2011," concluded Priest.

Internal city staff and existing resources will complete the project.

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