Could a Website Usability Study Solve Your Economic Development Woes?

by Oct 27, 2016Citizen Communication, City Branding

A city website is a given in this day and age. Cities of all sizes have one, and they’re generally easy to find. More often than not, the website of a small to mid-sized city is managed by a large company far removed from the municipality. Affordability, previous work, and viability of the provider are all major considerations when the bid decision is made. However, one item gets overlooked far too often – usability. Usability is the characteristic of being useful to accomplish a desired task. It is the major component of user experience research and design for products, services, and yes, websites.

Think about a website you love to go to. What makes it attractive to you? Is it the ease of finding exactly the right item and completing the purchase before you even think about whether you really need it? (*ahem* Amazon Prime) Maybe it’s the unconscious feeling of happiness when a mundane task like paying a bill is absolutely painless. (Progressive Insurance mobile web payments – you go, Flo!) Accomplishing things makes us happy. It’s how humans are wired. On the other hand, roadblocks are definitely the opposite.

Now consider websites you hate. What about the really, really slow web portal that you have to access for work? What about that one that never works on your phone even though you only ever visit it when you’re out and about? Think about the businesses where you call customer service because you can’t find any relevant information for your basic issue on heir website. How do you feel about the companies behind these difficult interactions? Does it feel like they know you and value you? The happy or angry feelings associated with goal accomplishment are part of the science of user experience design. Companies pay good money to specialized web developers who can eliminate roadblocks that hinder customers from completing online purchases or signing up for services.

What does this mean for your city? Exactly the same thing. When a visitor comes to your website, it’s usually with a question in mind, or a desire to consume a city service like bill payment. If you are seeing slow growth among small businesses in your city, your website could very well be part of the problem. Your local small business owners are residents of your city. If they can’t pay their utility bills or taxes without coming downtown, fighting traffic, and hunting for a parking space – imagine that resident trying to find out how to make their entrepreneurship dreams a reality with that hassle in mind. If a new business owner can’t figure out where to start – you’ve shut the door on an opportunity local economic development.

Conducting a usability study for your municipal website can uncover the hidden roadblocks that in turn affect perception of local government and your city’s brand. A detailed study is fairly inexpensive, and fixing the problems in the study report can close revenue-generation gaps, free your customer service staff to work with complex customer problems instead of answering FAQs, and even encourage the establishment of new local businesses. You can share the findings with your city’s brand leadership team, web development provider, or internal communications department in order to make informed decisions. Here are a few general questions to ask yourself as you navigate your city’s official website from the perspectives of residents, small business owners, and potential visitors. The rule of thumb is that you should be able to find your answer in three clicks or less. If you can’t, or need an in-depth review, we’re happy to assist.

A Quick City Website Usability Self-Assessment

Customer Service

  1. How hard is it to conduct regular business like paying bills or reserving a park pavilion on our website?
  2. Are basic questions easy to answer? (ie What is the local tax rate? Where is the municipal parking lot? How can I report a code violation?)
  3. What opportunities are available for new residents to become a part of the community?

Business Relations

  1. Is the business application process explained? Are all applicable forms available for download or fillable online?
  2. Do we clearly state how we support our local businesses, such as programming or events?
  3. Is there a “plain-English” guide to starting a business in your city? Is it available in multiple languages?


  1. What characteristics are the city most proud of?
  2. Where can we eat/play/shop?
  3. Is there a central gathering place, historic neighborhood, or trendy area we should know about?