Make Your Civic Site's Architecture Work For Your Community

February 22, 2022

People using cell phones covered by mask

When does the public swimming pool open for the season? How do I register my new pet dog? How do I pay my water bill? When is my trash getting picked up? These are the types of questions our data shows are driving users to civic websites, day in and day out. 

These questions are far from trivial. They are snapshots of everyday concerns of your citizens — and concerns they have every right to expect will be resolved by a visit to your website. But the reality is that many visitors to your site do not find what they are looking for. And why not?

The answer may be the quality of your information architecture. 

Information architecture (IA) is the way information is organized, structured, and labeled. In the case of your website, IA determines both where the information lives and how people find it. Unfortunately, many municipal websites’ IA resembles a messy filing cabinet. Users must open one file, then try another, in a frustrating effort to find the answer they seek. The system may make perfect sense to a few key users inside your organization, but the average user sees stereotypes about bureaucracy in action. User confusion erodes citizens’ confidence and trust — not just in your website, but in their local government. 

The best IA is almost invisible to both external and internal users because the site navigation just works. Your citizens and your staff can find what they need, right when they need it. If you suspect your IA is lacking, you’re probably right. But you can start improving it today.

Is Your Civic Website Showing Signs of Poor Information Architecture?

More and more of your citizens are using your website to seek information or complete service transactions. The pandemic accelerated this trend, and you probably had to scramble to add features to your site to accommodate the need. More site features, though, can mean a whole host of new issues.

If your IA hasn’t evolved to meet the needs of these new features, you might be seeing issues including:

  • Duplicate site content, leading to user confusion. Which page is the right one? Are they identical or slightly different? Which one should I be using? Plus, duplicate content confuses search engines. Which URL should rank higher and be suggested to users if the URLs appear to contain the same content?
  • Microsites, which serve as separate but related entities to your main website, can also confuse users. Microsites typically offer unique, temporary content — and sometimes duplicate content. When a user suddenly finds themselves on a microsite while seeking information, they may not find their way “home” again. 
  • Increased messages or other contact from confused or frustrated site users. When users can’t find what they need on your site, they’ll make phone calls to your offices. They’ll send annoyed emails. They’ll tweet about their poor experience. Or they’ll try to resolve problems in person that they should have been able to do online.

What Are the Causes of Poor Information Architecture?

If you know (or even suspect) that users are not quickly and easily finding what they need, you should turn your attention to your information architecture. Knowing you have an IA problem is a good start, but to fix it, you have to understand why it isn’t working.

There are two main reasons why municipal websites struggle with poor IA.

Your IA Mimics Internal Departmental Structure

The most common problem with municipal websites is the focus on internal audiences who have institutional knowledge. In other words, your website mirrors your organizational structure and hierarchy — which makes sense to you, but not your constituents. They don’t have access to your org chart or “filing cabinets,” nor do they want to.

Users don’t know which department houses the solution they need. And the department that is responsible for that service today may change tomorrow, anyway. They want to complete their task in a way that’s intuitive to them.

For example, if a user wants to pay their water bill, where should they go? The county website? The public utilities department website? Can they get to one from the other? It may be obvious to you that someone looking to pay a water bill should go directly to the public utilities department. But a good IA will account for the multiple ways that people think about their goals and move through your site to try and accomplish a task.

Your IA Reflects a Lack of Interdepartmental Coordination 

Duplicate pages and microsites make it a lot harder for users to find what they need. And they make it harder to have a cohesive SEO strategy. Duplicate pages and microsites also signal that there may be dysfunction within the county itself, or simply an aging content management platform that has made effective content maintenance almost impossible. 

Information architecture that gives departments their own unique environments may sound good in theory. But what if you need a site alert for a major weather event that appears across your entire site? What if a key service transfers from one department to another? Those silos break down as you are forced to replicate pages or create cross-links. Overall, the lack of coordination may be innocent or intentional. Either way, it will appear that your departments are alienated from each other.

3 Simple Ways to Improve Your Civic Site’s Information Architecture

Once you’ve recognized the signs of poor IA, you can begin to improve it. First, get better informed through research. When you know the full picture of your IA reality, you can start choosing the best next steps. 

Begin With Internal Research

Your first impulse might be to research the way your citizens experience your website. And you should — but not before experiencing your site yourself. Have you tried paying a water bill online? If you don’t live in the county yourself (or don’t personally use that service), you can’t truly empathize with citizen confusion or frustration. 

You can also have departments swap tasks. Can your staff successfully complete tasks on each other’s pages? And beyond just attempting to complete tasks from the home page, try starting with an external search. 

Cross-departmental discussions about IA will provide plenty of useful data. What seems to be working for them? What doesn’t? What problems are common across departments? Can you discover potential common solutions? Chances are, departments will find some common ground, whether the service at hand is licensing a pet or applying for a construction permit.

Conduct External Research

Researching your user groups and their specific needs can help you create an information architecture that actually works for them. The added bonus? Your editors get a system that fits all of their content, rather than shoehorning content into an ill-fitting organization. Try a combination of these research methods:

  • Surveys don’t need to be complicated to be insightful. All you need to ask are these two questions: What did you come here to do today? Were you successful? You can use a pen and paper, email, and/or an embedded site survey.
  • Focus groups and interviews allow you to ask more questions of a particular set of users. For example, you can ask them to share their site experience in detail. What’s working for them? What isn’t? What unexpected paths have they found to navigate to the services they use?
  • Tap into active community groups. If you know particular groups regularly use your site, talk to the heads of those groups. Whether it’s homeless groups, veterans outreach groups, or community centers for the aging, you need to know what issues the members are having with your site.
  • Talk to those who answer your phones and make sure they are documenting users’ site complaints. Use the collected data to identify patterns and help you prioritize your site to-dos.

Take Natural Next Steps

Internal and external research will show you what the biggest IA problems are. You don't need to upend your current IA to make your site much more navigable. Just tackle your most pressing issues.

For example, If paying a water bill is a problem for many users, before you turn your site organization upside-down, focus on creating more robust paths to complete the task:

  • Ensure a link to that task is easily accessible and appropriately housed on the homepage or wherever users are generally entering the site with this task in mind.
  • If users will be directed to another site, tell them exactly what they will need to complete the task before they link off. What personal information will be required? Will they need their account number? What forms of payment are accepted? 
  • Keep the directions simple, scannable, and relevant. For high-demand tasks, the architecture of information on a single page can be as important as your overall site IA.
  • When you’ve corrected this part of your IA, tell your users: "Check out our new payment page. We heard you.” Proactive communication is always a good idea.

Civic websites’ IA should be dynamic and extensible, not rigid and immovable. Routine IA improvements pay off. A well-organized website better serves your internal team and your citizens. And most importantly, a well-functioning site can help build community trust in local government.