Top 5 Trends in Municipal Website Design

What does a good municipal website do? Who does it serve and what does it accomplish? These questions lie at the heart of developing and designing a strong municipal web presence. Nowadays, we can build websites that incorporate lots of complicated coding and perform difficult tasks, or we can build them to be as simple as Wordle, the online word-play game that took the internet by storm earlier this year.

For municipalities, the approach to designing a strong website isn't groundbreaking. It follows the mandate of what municipal staff and Council leaders set out to do every day  ̶  serve citizens. Each decision, from the written and visual content to the modules that make users' lives simpler, to the web design that allows the brand to shine, all work toward the singular goal of serving citizens effectively and efficiently.

This may seem obvious, but it hasn't always been this way. Historically, municipal websites were developed and designed to mirror the organizational structure of the municipality and to promote the organization. It wasn't (and still isn't!) uncommon to see a "Human Resources" section or a "Public Procurement" section on a municipal site. Not that the content behind these sections is wrong, rather that citizens aren't familiar with the inner workings, language and departmental structures operating within the organization. So, when searching for information, users cannot tell what sections hold what information. (And if this structure looks familiar to you, you've come to the right place!)

Today, website navigation begins and ends with what is identifiable and accessible to citizens and users. If it is not clear what pages hold what information, then users will grow frustrated and contact the municipality directly, usually by phone or email. This takes valuable time away from staff's workdays  ̶  responding to simple questions that could be answered with a few clicks of the mouse.

1. Flexible layout creation

Even though there are established best practices around good municipal website design, it would be boring if they all looked the same! When building a strong municipal website, you don't have to sacrifice beautiful design for functionality or accessibility. It starts with a content management system (CMS) that makes it easy for staff to create customized page layouts to fit best with content, ensuring it is actionable and user-friendly.

Use your full suite of tools available to you in your CMS. This often includes the ability to create custom columns, column widths, clickable icons and visuals such as photos or graphics, buttons, calls-to-action, highlighted or emboldened text, headings, charts and graphs, embedded videos, integrations with third-party tools, photo galleries and more. Not only does this diversify your content and make it easy for your audiences to skim or read, but it adds actionable elements that are easy to find and guide users to other locations on your website that may interest them.

You also don't have to add layout elements just for the sake of it. If you can easily communicate what you want on a page through a few lines of text, then that's all there is to it; no need to reinvent the wheel. But more layout options give you a bigger toolbox when visually showcasing your municipality and presenting your content in a way that informs and inspires. 

For example, our clients use structured data to organize "How to" instructions or "FAQ" questions to simplify information and reduce customer service inquiries.

2. Citizen-focused web design and navigation

Citizens these days are used to a very smooth online browsing experience. The private sector is constantly re-evaluating how to get consumers to use their products or services, and thus have raised the bar when developing websites and delivering online services. This standard of excellence gets applied to the municipal experience. Fairly or unfairly, expectations are elevated and meeting those expectations is crucial to serving citizens effectively and in a manner that they prefer.

Take it one step at a time. Turning a negative experience into a positive one is usually easier than you think! Starting with your site's information architecture, strong municipal websites apply a "service" lens to every decision. Instead of a departmental directory-focused sitemap, service-oriented websites begin by first identifying who the users are, and next answering the question, why have they come to the site? By placing yourself in the shoes of your users (most often this is primarily citizens of your municipality), you can anticipate and meet their needs.

The focus of a service-first website offers intuitive navigation, easy searchability, top user tasks, calls-to-action and visual links that grab users' attention and guide them to the information or services that they're looking for.

How to name your webpages

By naming pages and services in plain language, as opposed to organizational terms, jargon or unexplained acronyms, your organization can help avoid alienating users and allow you to meet them on a level playing field. Perhaps not every user knows what "purchasing" or "procurement" are, but they may know what "bid opportunities”, or "doing business with the City" means. Learn how a content-first approach to a web redesign better services your users.

Stand out without standing in the way

Visual web design is like fashion. It can seem like it changes with the seasons, but there are some hard and fast truths that strong municipal sites share. They help the brand's visual identity stand out consistently throughout the browsing experience, without distracting from the main goals of users. Check out our top 10 websites of 2021 to view some examples of strong municipal web design that have the perfect balance of flair and functionality.

Strong municipal web design highlights and accentuates the uniqueness of each municipality. It offers subtle cues and hints that add a touch of personality to the design. Leaving room for white space (so readers can take a breath between pieces of content), web design works in concert with the content to offer a visually pleasing and enjoyable experience without ever becoming the focus. Long gone are the "all flash, no substance" style of the late 1990s and early 2000s in web design, even if you are reaching back in your closet for those Doc Martens.

Colours are used to reflect the brand, logos are placed following brand guideline best practices (no logo warping/stretching; using protection space; no clashing backgrounds, etc.) and the visual identity is respected and faithfully captured. Design is utilitarian, not bland, and the community is graphically showcased in stunning fashion.

Homepages feature links to the most commonly sought-after pages; services are emphasized, recent news items and upcoming events are integrated, icons complement written labels, and visual banners are used as a supportive tool to highlight important information.

3. Excellence in usability, responsiveness and accessibility

Today's users want to do more online. Whether that stems from the pandemic, sheer convenience, or a mixture of both, it's simply easier to complete tasks from your own desktop or phone than it is in-person. Strong municipal sites are finding more ways than ever to bring services online because that's where their citizens are going first. Not just for information, but to accomplish tasks, such as completing registrations, subscriptions, forms and applications, payments and more.

As Statista shares, the percentage of mobile device website traffic has grown from 31 per cent in 2015 to 55 per cent in 2021, and that number is steadily increasing. The ability to access information and complete tasks online anywhere and at any time has changed the game for private businesses and the public sector alike. Offering services online empowers citizens and removes the need to visit municipal offices during business hours  ̶  a task already made difficult with the standard 9 to 5 workday and childcare obligations that many people share.

Having a website that is responsive across all mobile devices and screen sizes is now more important than ever, considering more than half of all users may be visiting your site from something other than a desktop computer. Plus, your citizens' search intentions are often different on mobile than on a desktop. If you're on your phone, you're likely looking for some quick information or an answer to a question. On a desktop, you may be more inclined to stick around and browse through different areas of the site. Having a prominent search bar is vitally important in both cases.

Accessible design benefits us all

Increasingly prevalent in every industry is accessible web design. Ontario, Canada has some of the world's most stringent legislation surrounding the need for accessible design, and for good reason. Most studies suggest that a full 20 per cent (or about one-fifth) of the world's population over the age of 15 has a disability that makes it difficult to access and retain media and information, or interact on the internet.

That means that creating an accessible website isn't just good practice, it's good business. It means you're not excluding or leaving behind a full 20 per cent of your audience. And it's not only those living with disabilities who benefit from accessible web practices, but all users. Why? Because web pages, documents and forms that are created with accessibility in mind from the beginning allow for a cleaner, more intuitive user experience. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to sacrifice creative design or innovative storytelling. Accessibility doesn't have to equal plain and boring. Creative innovation and legislative compliance can often come together to produce beautiful, successful and accessible websites and integrated technologies.

4. Prioritized diversity and inclusion

Along with ensuring compliance with web accessibility legislation and best practices, strongly designed municipal websites prioritize a sense of diversity and inclusion, and faithfully reflect the community within their content.

They may not be our first choice, but when we need them, using stock photos can work in a pinch. But as nice as stock photos are, they may not represent the whole picture. Build a library of locally shot photos and encourage residents to submit their favourites for use on your website (adding a photo credit where applicable). Ensure that your entire community is reflected in your photos in a variety of inclusion categories, including accessibility, age, culture, gender and race, so users can see themselves in your content and within your community at large.

Nielsen Norman Group describes the focus of inclusive design as fulfilling as many user needs as possible, not just as many users as possible. Nielsen goes on to explain that this includes considerations such as text legibility and dark mode for older users, surname inputs for global audiences, having a variety of demographic identifiers available when this information is requested (ex. race, gender and sexual orientation), and visible diversity in illustrations and images.

Entrenching this inclusive approach to web content creation and functionality helps create trust and confidence within citizens, helping them recognize the fact that they feel seen and heard and that their needs are proactively addressed.

5. Dedicated spaces and tools for two-way citizen engagement

Last, but certainly not least, is the importance of offering multiple opportunities for citizens to get engaged and provide input. Gone is the antiquated approach of a municipality ordering edicts from on high, with citizens serving as one-way recipients of the message. Try and provide as many tools and platforms as possible (and as resources allow) for citizens to provide their feedback. It goes a long way in establishing that trust that is so important for a healthy community.

This can include things like:

  • Interactive forms
  • Polling functionality
  • Chatbots
  • Citizen engagement platforms, such as Engage Waterloo Region
  • Video conferencing technologies
  • Directories, lists and calendars through which users can submit their own listings, events and information

The pandemic has accelerated the need for online engagement tools to be more robust than ever. Nothing truly mimics the in-person experience of a face-to-face conversation, but not all citizens want that! Sometimes it’s nice to provide a quick comment on a project without leaving the comfort of the couch.

Making these dedicated spaces available, letting your citizens be heard, and acting on the feedback you receive all build to a successful municipal online experience for your valued users.

How to get started

These are our top five trends, but there are many other ways you can serve your residents, visitors and businesses with a best-in-class municipal website.

Contact us today for solutions to some of the needs presented here. Our team offers expert guidance and innovative solutions that empower public sector staff, such as our CMS, Citizen Portal personalized dashboard, Form Builder online form development tool, web writing and accessibility remediation services and much more.

We pride ourselves in learning about your organization's unique needs and providing a clear roadmap, along with the design and development of a new web presence that enables your community to transform for good.