To Improve Digital Inclusivity, Take Cues From Your Government Website’s First-Time Users

December 15, 2021

Man and woman look at mobile phone screen

Now more than ever, municipal government organizations like yours are making digital diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a top priority. It’s a worthy goal for your organization to meet the needs of all, especially the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. 

In theory, digital spaces can provide both services and better quality of life to more people than ever before. In practice, despite notable progress, digital spaces are not serving diverse populations equally. You want your website to do better and attract historically underprivileged categories, like low-income, BIPOC (Black, Indigineous, and People of Color), and ESL (English as a second language). But how do you begin?

When you lack data on the portion of the population not using your site and services, you can still gain insight about them. Utilizing data about first-time users is the best way to broaden your website’s reach and diversify your user base.

First-time Website User Data Can Help You Understand Disadvantaged Communities 

First-time users to government websites often overlap with communities you’re targeting in your digital inclusion efforts. Learning about those who have arrived at your digital front door can help reveal what you need to know about those who haven’t, even if first-time users are a tiny percentage of overall visits. 

First-time user success on your website is an indicator of your level of inclusivity in your web design. Accurately and precisely identifying what impacts first-time user success, then, ought to be your top priority as you strive to improve DEI. Take a look at our aggregated statistics for user success from millions of government website visitors in the graph below: 

Graph that shows first-time visitors are less likely to complete their purpose of visit to a government website

Are you relying on the wrong metrics?

Municipal organizations typically rely on Google analytics to provide relevant statistics about users. Knowing pageviews and click numbers may be valuable for e-commerce websites, but they don’t translate well to municipalities and government organizations. If you want to know if your site is effectively serving your community, the single most important data point is not how many people have visited your site or how long they stayed there but whether or not your users are able to accomplish the task they set out to complete. We call this user success. 

Emphasis on the wrong metrics leave you totally in the dark about how your website serves those it was created for. But focusing on the right metrics can not only help you identify services or areas of the site in need of improvement but also explore how your site is serving individuals who are new to engaging with you online. 

A simple survey can provide the data you need most to meet DEI goals

Surveys about user success can give solid clues about how to build a more inclusive website. This data allows you to extrapolate about how to attract those digitally left behind. Surveys can also help you decide where to invest your next research funds. 

You can start simply by asking:

  1. Why did you visit [your website] today?
  2. Were you able to complete the purpose of your visit? 
  3. How often do you visit [your website]?


The results from this simple survey can offer:

  1. Multiple-source data points. You can administer surveys with pen and paper in a focus group or hand surveys out to visitors at a physical location. You can also send surveys out by email or embed a survey on your website. 
  2. Big benefits at low-to-no cost. Pen and paper is cheap and easy — as is integrating short surveys into your website’s user experience. Most online survey tools will provide a link or snippet of code to make your survey easy for users to access.
  3. Fast results. Survey results can be calculated quickly, which allows you to implement changes more quickly.

Meeting First-Time Users’ Needs Can Move the Needle on DEI

Graph that shows lower-income areas of D.C. are less aware of the D.C. Public Library

Our research shows that aggregate first-time visitors across many government websites only succeed roughly half the time. That means that other underserved users — the elderly, the disabled, and those in remote areas — are likely struggling on your site. 

Two elements can increase your chances of higher user success rates, even for individuals visiting the site for the first time: easy on ramps to key task areas and meeting accessibility standards. 

Make it easy for all users to find their way

If you ran a retail store, you wouldn’t want your customers endlessly walking up and down the aisles looking for an item. Nor would you want them giving up and leaving the store empty handed. 

Similarly, if new visitors to your website struggle or get lost, they may leave your site without the information they need. 

The Johnson County, Kansas website has an example of an easy on ramp. The home page features drop down menus that allow residents to easily select tasks and be directed to pertinent information. The home page illustrates an understanding of users’ greatest needs and offers clear answers to their most frequent questions. 

Prioritize accessibility to promote ease of use 

When you follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), your website should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. When you work toward these four qualities, you're creating a better experience for individuals who may be interacting with your site in a non-standard way. You're also elevating the experience for everyone.

You’ll need to test elements like:

  1. Color contrast. The text and text background contrast ratio should be at appropriate levels for colorblind and other visually-impared users.
  2. Alt text for users with screen readers. Users with cognitive or visual disabilities depend on alt text to take the place of informative images. 
  3. Interactive content (drag-and-drops, accordions, and sliders) need modification to meet WCAG standards. 
  4. Text spacing and font sizes. Text that is too tight or too small is a big issue for the visually impaired.


In addition to running an accessibility audit, you’ll also want to test the reading level of your website. In order for your website to be accessible to all, including the disadvantaged, a 6th - 8th grade reading level is most appropriate.  

If first-time users are able to successfully navigate your site and achieve the purpose of their visit, you’re better positioned to meet underserved users.

Your Municipal Website Should Be a DEI Investment

When your website is current, useful, and accessible, your first-time users are more likely to report they accomplished the goal of their visit. An excellent first-time user experience indicates you asked the right questions, listened carefully to the answers, and implemented best practices that will position you to continue extending your reach. 

A simpler, accessible online presence can improve your organization's reach. More importantly, it’s an investment in a more connected community.