More than a Facelift: How the Right Approach to Civic Website Redesign Can Reengage Your Community

August 23, 2022

Focus on raising hand of young woman having question in group brainstorm in an office.

Government agencies are always looking for more ways to engage their community online. Polls, surveys, social media links, and personalized experiences are common ways municipal websites try to gather community feedback and increase engagement.

While these tools are useful to gauge experiences for people who are already navigating your website, they can’t provide feedback from the people who aren’t visiting it at all. And for the high numbers of users who are struggling to accomplish their intended tasks on municipal websites, online surveys or polls might be one more sticking point that gets in the way of their success.  The failure rates for visitors to municipal websites are staggering. Nearly half of first time visitors to a government website fail to complete their purpose of visit. The last thing you want is for your community engagement efforts to get in the way of your community members’ pressing needs.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, people who struggled with digital experiences, had aging devices, or had very specific needs could often turn to in-person resources and offices. It wasn’t an ideal solution — with offices usually only open 9-5, residents would often have to take vacation time to stand in line. Post-pandemic, more and more services have moved fully online, but how can you know if your services are actually meeting your website visitors’ needs? If your users fail the first time they visit your site, it’s unlikely that they're going to return to take your survey or poll. 

To truly serve every member of the community, you need more than a beautiful website. You need a website that understands and accommodates the most pressing needs of the real people who use these sites every day. Fortunately, you don’t need to be limited to surveys and polls to gauge how you can improve your online presence. 

Planning a civic website redesign? Don’t jump straight into visuals.

Covering up an outdated website with a new design won’t solve your engagement issues. At Interpersonal Frequency we read over 200 government website RFPs each year and too often we see government agencies want a fresh coat of paint for a 10-year-old interface. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

This approach has serious risks:

  1. You don’t have time to rethink your site functionality. Trying to maintain outdated features or just replace them with whatever solution the vendor offers may only frustrate the people who use this tool the most.
  2. Your citizen user experience gets lost in the design process. For example, you may design a visually appealing how-do-I menu, but if you don’t properly label it, users won’t know what it is.
  3. You’re going to focus on the wrong metrics. Rather than improving your services, you’re thinking about how many pageviews you get. This doesn’t tell you if your residents' experience is improving.


We recommend slowing down and investing in understanding your current interface and how it plays out in the real world: what’s working, what isn’t, and what options there are to do better. This knowledge will save you energy and resources over time. 

How to gather qualitative information about your civic website. 

Getting to the heart of what your new website needs to do to best support your citizens requires well-rounded quantitative information — like Interpersonal Frequency’s Voice of Citizen® platform — and qualitative information. Start by understanding the practicalities that underlie your online presence. 

For the vast majority of users, government websites are a tool. But sometimes, the tool doesn’t work very well. For example, we are currently working with a state government agency that provides a list of local homeless shelters including how to find information on available space. But the content lives in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet! The people who most need this information (unhoused individuals and families) may very well be unable to open Excel on their mobile phones. And even if they can open it, scrolling through a dense grid of text in tiny cells will add frustration to an already stressful task. 

These are the types of fundamental mismatches between your audience's needs and online tools that cannot be identified without qualitative research. And you need to identify these pain points before you can correct them in a redesign.

First, gather feedback from your internal staff. 

Our team performs in-depth interviews with key internal stakeholders. These are structured, recorded interviews conducted at the start of the project to understand your specific needs. They give us a big picture view of your goals for a new site, and how best to achieve them. 

If you’re leading a redesign, or writing an RFP for a redesign, we recommend talking to staff members one-on-one to gather feedback. We’ve found that people don’t always speak up in front of their coworkers, and even a brief 30 minute one-on-one is enough time to get individuals talking about what matters most.

Here's how to conduct effective qualitative research about your civic site:

  • How could we make your job easier? This could be issues with the admin interface like inability to edit certain pages.
  • What do you hope people will do on your website?? People often jump at the chance to talk about which visuals they dislike, and this question will push them to talk about services they want the site tooffer.
  • What are 3 adjectives that describe how people perceive the website today? We often hear answers like “Not trustworthy” and “hiding” things.
  • What are 3 adjectives that you’d like people to use to describe the new website? You’ll likely hear answers such as “transparent” or “reliable.” 

Next, schedule time with community groups.

Take advantage of community connections to gather more qualitative data. Make sure you know which groups you need to reach out to and which ones your organization already has partnerships with. Typically underserved community members are likely also underserved on your website. 

Complete focus groups with community-based organizations that support lower-income populations, people with no access to high speed internet, immigrant/non-native english speaking communities, and disabled communities. And don’t forget your local libraries! Librarians help all types of people who come in to use the internet and are often very familiar with the best and worst of  government websites.

Once you’ve identified your community groups, do the following:

  • Prepare a slate of questions. Prioritize them so you can use as many or few as needed, depending on how engaged and talkative the group is naturally.
  • Schedule an hour-long session for each group.
  • Limite each session to 10 people at most.  You don’t want too many groups or participants at once. 
  • When you’re facilitating, pay attention to the people who don’t speak up. There will always be a few loud individuals. Try to encourage everyone to share their voices. 
  • Don’t let people try to provide solutions. Stick to understanding the problems. You don’t want to set expectations you can’t meet. 

Finally, return to both groups with usability testing.

To ensure you’re fully engaging and responding to your internal and external stakeholders, you should involve them throughout the process. The best way to test your in-process interface design is with these stakeholders (through usability testing) at various stages of the project. 

We recommend gathering around 10 people, some from your staff and some of your various community groups. Then perform a basic usability test:

  • Pick between 5 and 8 top tasks. Use tasks you learned about in interviews. Analytics tools, like Voice of Citizen®, can help you determine which tasks are critical.
  • Ask your testers to perform the tasks. Don’t guide them! Let them achieve the task or give up.
  • Make notes and observe the steps they take to try and accomplish the task. Don’t forget to record the session for further review.

Engaging Your Community Builds Trust

In addition to the vital information you learn about improving your website before the redesign, this approach has another benefit: real-life marketing and outreach. Continuous involvement from community groups and internal stakeholders helps them feel invested in the results. They are more likely to advocate for the new website, share it with their colleagues, and interact with the new site when it launches if they've contributed. It’s truly a win-win approach.