Building a Better Mouse Trap

from Governing's Managing Technology Conference in Seattle Making Web sites and other electronic interfaces easier to use needs to be more than an aesthetic afterthought. ...
by | May 28, 2008

from Governing's Managing Technology Conference in Seattle

Making Web sites and other electronic interfaces easier to use needs to be more than an aesthetic afterthought. In some cases, such as voting systems, interface design is about guaranteeing a democratic right. And in the case of migrating government services to the Web, design and usability are key to increasing clicks.

A panel that I'm moderating Thursday at Governing's Managing Technology conference in Seattle is all about "building a better Web site." David Fletcher, Utah's chief technology officer, and Kenneth Theis, the chief information officer in Michigan, will be talking about their states' sites. But the subject of online usability and design also came up during Wednesday's executive forum on 311 services.

Migrating large numbers of citizen questions and service requests from the phone to self-help online tools could save money and increase efficiency, reducing the burden on stretched call centers and accelerating response times. But several 311 system managers at the forum said they receive relatively few requests via their Web sites.

Michael Major, director of 311 customer care operations for the city and county of Denver, said only a couple hundred of the 45,000 cases a month that his staff handles come from the Web. One reason for the limited use of the Web site, Major said, is that it was a rush job. Denver plans to start over, rebuilding the interface from scratch.

Phillip Hampton, Chicago's director of 311 services, said his city's experience was similar, with 1 percent of its caseload coming from what he described as a "poorly developed" Web page. He also said the 311 interface was not prominent enough on the city's site. "I see why people don't use it," Hampton said.

User demographics might be a factor. Some people do not have access to a computer and the Internet, several panelists pointed out, and some customers just prefer to pick up the phone and call rather than fill out a form online.

But the digital divide is not the issue in Los Alamos County, N.M. Communications and public relations administrator Julie Habiger said the high concentration of people with advanced degrees there means "almost everybody has one if not two computers." And yet the use of the online 311 interface in Los Alamos is light there too.

The culprit, once again: design and usability. "Our Web site is not as friendly as we'd like," Habiger said.

Mark Stencel
Mark Stencel  |  Former Editor
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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