How Usability Testing Can Inform Your Municipal Website Design

Written by Jessica Marabella

Learn how to incorporate valuable citizen usability testing into your website redesign planning process.
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Want to know what citizens think of your local government website? Just ask. There are a variety of quantitative data gathering options available that can help you obtain valuable insights into the types of content your citizens desire from their civic website, as well as how your citizens feel about the overall design, functionality, and usability. Still, qualitative data can often be even more valuable and can help to provide a comprehensive understanding of the user’s digital experience and expectations.

If you’re not currently incorporating usability testing into your website redesign data-gathering and planning process, it’s time to learn more about the value these interactions can bring. At the core of your planning process needs to be a focus on what your end users—your citizens, businesses, and visitors—want and need from your civic website. Too often municipal websites are designed taking into consideration primarily how internal staff think about their digital content. The result can be a website that is organized based on department structure, and not citizen needs, which can make it difficult for citizens to find the information they’re seeking.

To ensure your community is designing a civic website that focuses on citizen and constituent needs—from navigation, to branding, to functionality, to content hierarchy and layout, read our tips below to learn more about the benefits of usability testing for website redesigns, and how to facilitate impactful discussions.

Click here to read how Jefferson County, CO incorporated usability testing into its planning process to achieve a citizen-centric website redesign.

Advantages of Usability Testing in Municipal Website Redesign

While polls, surveys, and other quantitative methods leave you with data that can be visually depicted in intuitive bar charts and line graphs, usability testing allows for conversation, interactive observations, and the type of dialogue that can reveal a depth and richness of insights that simply can’t be obtained when respondents are only given the option of checking boxes. More specifically, while surveys allow you to understand how respondents feel, usability testing allows you to understand why they feel the way that they do. It is within these granules of insight that local governments can get to the heart of what citizens want and need from their digital municipal services.

Civic Tip: Local governments need more than a pretty website. Click here to find out what your citizens really want from your website.

When it comes to web design specifically, one of the greatest advantages of facilitating usability testing comes when participants are observed interacting with the digital environment. For example, watching the path that a user takes to find information, and seeing where he/she becomes confused or misguided can help inform navigation decisions. Hearing and seeing participants’ reactions to design and photography can also help to determine if your municipal brand is identifiable and imparting the desired emotions and responses. These in-the-moment observations can be critical to informing strategies, particularly in the redesign phase.

How to Implement an Effective Usability Testing

If you’re in the process of redesigning your civic website, your website designer should assist with the data gathering and strategic consulting processes, which should involve usability testing. Whether you collaborate with your municipal website designer or facilitate usability testing on your own, follow these tips to ensure a successful and effective observation session.

Define the Scope

Start your usability planning process by defining the scope of the project. Ask your website administration team:

  • What insights do we want/need from our citizens?
  • For which online services do we want citizen usability feedback ?
  • Do we want to focus our citizen discussions heavily on navigation and content, or do we want their input on the best layouts and graphic elements for key pages?
  • From a content perspective, what information do citizens typically ask in person or by phone that can be more efficiently provided using digital solutions?

Articulate a Purpose

Next, spend some time identifying the concerns, questions, or goals for the test. For example:

  • Do you want to ensure all users can get to critical content within 3 clicks?
  • Do you want validation that the homepage elements are in the correct location?

Determine Your Quantitative Test Metrics

With proper planning, you can obtain both qualitative and quantitative metrics. During your planning process, identify the quantitative data you want to measure, such as:

  • Successful completion rates – Percentage of participants that completed a task successfully.
  • Critical error rates – Deviations at completion from the targets of the scenario that results in the participant not being able to complete the task.
  • Non-critical error rates – Errors that are recovered by the participant and do not result in the participant’s ability to successfully complete the task.
  • Error-free rates – The percentage of test participants who complete the task without any critical or non-critical errors.
  • Time spent on tasks – The amount of time it takes the participant to complete the task.
  • Subjective Measures – Self-reported participant ratings for satisfaction, ease of use, ease of finding information, etc. where participants rate the measure on a five to seven-point scale.
  • Likes, Dislikes, and Recommendations

Also, be sure to determine subjective metrics such as concurrent and retrospective feedback, card sorting results, and questionnaires.

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Build a Diverse Participant Group

Make sure your usability testing is representative of a wide variety of demographics and that it is reflective of the residents of your city, county, township, or village. You will want to ensure participants reflect a variety of ages, genders, tech experiences, ethnicities, and occupations. Don’t forget to include students. The younger generations are the most tech savvy and are your community’s future voters.

Solicit Participants

To cultivate your testing group, you may either handpick participants or solicit participation using a random sampling method. If your participants represent a wide variety of demographics and are not in some way affiliated with your project, you should receive unbiased and comprehensive insights.

Consider an Incentive

To ensure participation, you may want to consider offering a small incentive. The incentive could be a thank you gift, or lunch served during the sessions. Whatever you decide, it is important to reinforce to your usability testing members that you value their time and their feedback.

Choose a Comfortable Setting

The setting you choose will be impactful to stimulating comfortable dialogue. Plan to hold your usability testing sessions in a non-intimidating, intimate setting where the participants will have a relaxing place to sit and discuss their opinions with one another. Situate the chairs in the room in a circle so that participants can see one another and it feels like a group discussion, and not like a classroom or lecture.

Determine the Necessary Equipment

Make sure you will have enough computers available in the room so that all your participants can experience navigating the website. If testing your website’s mobile environment is a key part of your goals, make sure you have access to a variety of mobile devices for participants to use. To gather the widest amount of data to inform your design and usability strategy, be sure to test both smartphones and tablets of different sizes, and incorporate both AndroidTM and Apple® devices as well.

Identify Test Scenarios

Depending on the goals you previously established, you’ll want to determine, in advance, eight to 12 scenarios or tasks you want to observe participants performing. Be sure to identify which you want to see performed on mobile (the answer may be “all”).

Plan for Enough Time

You’ll want to plan for an approximate two-hour session for each website you are asking your participants to review. Make sure you are respectful of your participants’ time, and that you stick to your planned schedule.

Choose a Neutral Moderator

Usability testing participants will feel most comfortable speaking opening and honestly about their impressions of your civic website if a neutral party leads the discussion. If a member of your local government administers the discussion, your citizens may worry that it will be perceived that they are criticizing their local leaders and may be more guarded in their responses. This is another reason collaborating with your website designer can be beneficial. Not only will you benefit from the experience of a moderator who has experience facilitating such discussions, he/she will represent a neutral third party to the participants.

Record the Sessions or Take Plenty of Notes

It’s not possible for any individual facilitator to remember all the salient points and important insights mentioned by a half dozen individuals over a two-hour period. Plan to record the session via video or audio. If you do, you’ll want to receive written permission from the participants and disclose in advance that their session is being recorded. If a recording is not an option, have additional staff on hand to take copious notes. You will want your discussion facilitator to be free from this responsibility so that he/she can focus on keeping the conversation engaging.

For more tips and best practices to prepare you for your next municipal website redesign, download our ultimate local government website redesign eBook.

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