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Opinion: Let’s talk about creating a more user-friendly city website

By Diane Lauricella

NORWALK, Conn. – The other day, I attempted to find the new Common Council emails and found that the process for doing so was less than intuitive and not very user-friendly.  With a new administration and new Common Council, there may finally be a chance to include the public’s input and hold department heads accountable for the way that they handle their communication with the taxpayer.

This letter offers the request for a series of community forums about the city website, so that citizens and businesses, many of whom are experts about website development and marketing, can have the opportunity to offer ideas and suggestions about how to create a more user-friendly website.  At the first Mayor’s Night Out with Mayor Rilling, I mentioned that the website needed to be reviewed to accommodate citizen input and council oversight. This would be best done live and in person where “group think” would stimulate innovative suggestions, not just with online responses.

The site was recently upgraded with funding greater than $100,000 of tax dollars over the last several years.  There were several helpful improvements but there was no effective public input allowed and many  functions have still not been upgraded to make the site as user-friendly as it could be. I have offered several examples below.

Several years ago, I requested, as both the League of Women Voters president and an active member of the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations, that the Information Technology (IT) Department director join us in holding a public forum to collect input about ways that the website could be improved.  The offer was refused by Ms. Del Vecchio, who at the time gave varied reasons why that could not happen: either Mayor Moccia would not let her or that she did not want to, even though she had hired a contractor to upgrade the site. At the time, we thought that an outside contractor would want to get “customer input” but apparently they were not allowed by the city administration. Well, here is a chance to start fresh and include input from the very public that pays the bills!

In the winter-spring of 2012, the Common Council held the second of their short-lived “Council Conversations” at the South Norwalk Library, and when I brought up the subject of the website, both sides of the council aisle agreed that the site needed a lot of work to become much more user-friendly.  Now is an opportunity to come together to make this happen!

We should conduct periodic citizen and business forums to seek ideas, input and concerns. This was not done for many years, and there still is a need for a mechanism for the public, the very taxpayers that fund the system, staff and upgrade consultants, to voice their concerns. This could be a fun and refreshing way to get input if the IT Department would think outside the box.

Some examples:

“City Departments” home page title bar, which for some reason includes the Common Council member lists instead of listing council under their own “Governance/Common Council” Title Bar.

Filing complaints: One still has to go through layers to get to an actual file form or phone number.  I suggest that the home page actually have a more direct, clear icon or way to register complaints, whether they are about noise, paving, trash pickup or odors.  When one calls the customer service phone number (203-854-3200), almost a full minute goes by with announcements and the phrase “file a complaint” is not even mentioned, offering the possibility that a caller will give up.  Recently, a Department of Public Works (DPW) assistant director claimed that no one had called to report valid sewage treatment plant odor complaints to this phone number for three years. One could understand that with a 50-second delay, most folks would hang up in frustration.

Let public know about the website layers: The language translation icon is a fantastic addition but is not prominently displayed. A website instructions icon would help make the site’s features easier to find and appreciate. Right now, citizens are left to wade through the layers on their own. Not everyone feels comfortable enough with computers to do so.

The “City Services from A to Z,” on the left side of the home page, could use specific listings of types of complaints, such as “Odor” or “Paving” or Trash pickup” instead of layering.

Norwalk FAQ’s:  The public could help add additional “Frequently Asked Questions” to many of the department lists, some of which are spartan.

Hours of Operation: Could the departments go back to being open during the public’s lunch hour?  Right now, many important departments are closed for public assistance from noon to 1 p.m. for lunchtime or are not even open after noon. Certainly, staff lunches could be staggered to accommodate the taxpayers’ needs.

The city of Milford just announced the launch of its new website, and there are many towns and states that have special user-friendly features that could be helpful, such as the following links:

http://www.ci.milford.ct.us/online-services 

http://www.ci.milford.ct.us/home/webforms/contact-us

The latter is a very user-friendly picture-based list of services, although some symbols are too small, but easily upgraded.  This picture-based list could assist the diverse demographic base.

Comments

11 responses to “Opinion: Let’s talk about creating a more user-friendly city website”

  1. I second that suggestion! It’s VERY frustrating. So, all I do is call for everything.

  2. Sara Sikes

    Excellent suggestions for improving the website and opportunities for community input. I too had difficulty finding the email addresses for Council members and the mayor. And it’s hard to believe that department offices are closed during the lunch hour for most working people.

  3. dlauricella

    Please keep in mind that these are just ideas for positive change that are then left to IT experts to review, formulate software and implement. But unless those IT folks are open to ideas, improvements won’t happen.

    Periodic, transparent reviews are a healthy part of any organization.

    In order to keep the length of this letter shorter, I did not include all of the possible ideas and observations, but a call from a friend reminded me of the following:

    Please consider displaying titles of Reports, Studies and Backup documents, by Department, Board or Commission, on one page, preferably the Home Page, with a physical link to the Department, Board or Commission page, to add to the “user friendly” quotient.

    For example, unless a citizen knew how to find a particular Department’s report by clicking through many layers, such as Planning and Zoning Department’s Master Plan of Conservation and Development, average citizens may not know how to wade through the layers. Also, there are many important documents related to the legal obligations of the DPW Department, such as Permit Renewals or Storm water Management Plans. Unless citizens knew that the Redevelopment Agency had Federal HUD (Housing and Urban Development)reports, they would not know how to find them.

    Again, I think that if we held a series, even by topic, of public discussions, good ideas would emerge!

  4. McKeen Shanogg

    They spent more than $100,000 of tax money with no effective public input allowed? That is really disgusting. Putting it mildly, the site is not as user friendly as it could or should be.

  5. Diane C2

    Bravo for the great recap by Diane L. I’ll add also that Customer Service needs to have a dedicated line. The 56-second recording from hell that residents hear when we call is enough to make anyone hang up before seeking assistance – perhaps by design.
    As to the website redesign, CNNA’s Julie B. and I offered our expertise (computer programming/testing and customer service, respectively)free of charge and were rebuffed by Ms. DelVecchio! Instead they relied on feedback from residents via the….wait for it……customer service logs! Yup, you cannot make this stuff up. So today we have a slightly more robust, but infinitely more frustrating, website.

  6. More of the Same

    Brought to you by an IT director at over $140k / year born of a mainframe era mentality. Another shining example of these indispensable city workers who we need to give above market raises too year after year after year regardless of performance or results.

  7. Don’t Panic

    Customer Service lines should be open in the evenings as well. Maybe until 8pm at night. Public input in the forums may not be the most effective way to approach web design, but comprehensive study of other sites should give a good basis for organizing items that should then be “beta tested” thoroughly by some end-users who have had nothing to do with the design work.

  8. Tim K

    Diane and Diane: That Obamacare website/phone line was a great success! Maybe you should offer your services and criticisms there too!

  9. Tim K

    PS Press ‘4’ to get right to a customer service rep without listening to messages that provide A LOT of answers to FAQs. If you’d rather have more routine calls handled by live people instead of by automated messages I would guess you would need more CS reps for that ‘personal touch’. Guess what? That adds a lot more overpaid,ungrateful city staff that so many on this site complain about!

  10. Diane C2

    Tim, the only way to know to push #4 is for a resident/prospective resident to call the CUSTOMER SERVICE line and wait through 56 SECONDS of city hall hours, what numbers to push for the board of ed, and even for the parking authority! What part of “customer service line” has anything to do with board of ed or parking authority? If these are the two most common departments that residents need, then put them first, but AFTER customer service, which should be #1.

  11. faba

    It’s too bad that some concrete suggestions for improving the web site are buried in a meandering missive that mixes in unrelated criticisms of the Customer Service hotline and lunch hours for City Hall departments.

    The City’s web site was not “recently upgraded”. It was redesigned several years ago, which by Internet standards is ancient history. Is there room for improvement? Of course! But there’s a mechanism on the site to submit suggestions.

    Any citizen can also send an email (or pick up pen and paper for the technically challenged) to share their detailed feedback for improvements. Posting suggestions mixed with sweeping criticisms online isn’t the most effective way to communicate if the objective is to provide truly meaningful input.

    For those having issues finding information on the site, check out the search box at the top right hand corner of every page. You can type in “common council members” and click on the first link in the search results to get Council Agendas, Minutes, members contact information and even a picture of all those smiling faces.

    I also see a “How do I…?” link on the home page. How do I contact a City Department? Oh look – there’s a link to the Common Council and all those smiling faces again. And more links to Information Technology, the Mayor’s Office and a Staff Directory so that I can send my suggestions directly to the people who can make a difference.

    No matter how you design a web site’s navigation, it’s easier for some people than for others. But a well-designed site offers people options.

    Submitting specific suggestions for improvements is much different than the author’s recommendation for a series of public forums for people to voice their opinions about how the web site should have been designed or to debate the look and feel. Undertaking these forums would be a waste of time unless the time and money are allocated and approved to take those suggestions, incorporate them into an effective redesign and fund the project to implement and relaunch the site.

    The Common Council would need to consider and approve such a project, if they deem it a necessary and appropriate expenditure. If the proposal were to reach the Council, I would use their contact information on the web site voice my opposition to any such approval. The Council’s focus should be on reducing expenses and focusing on things that are truly broken, not on areas that some self-annointed experts want to take on as a pet project.

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