How We Reinvented NYC.gov
8 lessons from creating a government website that doesn’t feel like one
Mayor Mike Bloomberg recently unveiled the newly relaunched nyc.gov, the official website for the biggest city in the country. This was the site’s first redesign in a decade, and the new user experience is unlike any other government website out there. This was our goal.
Overhauling the website wasn’t simple: it has over one million pages, integrates with more than a dozen applications, and serves 35 million visitors a year. We learned an enormous amount in the process. And because I’ve discovered from conversations with digital leaders in other cities and across industries — media, finance, fashion — that our challenges were not unique, we’d like to share a few of the most important lessons that we learned.
- Your user is the center of the universe. Large organizations have a tendency to create websites in their own image. Over time, a digital platform can begin to reflect the company org chart or a list of product groups. But this doesn’t necessarily translate into your ideal user experience — as jargon and acronyms can replace common search terms, or information architecture becomes less intuitive. It is critical at the outset of any overhaul that everyone at the table agrees that the user comes first. It will also make your job much easier, as establishing this approach puts everyone on the same page for decision-making down the line.
- In God we trust, everyone else bring data. This is a favorite expression of Mayor Bloomberg, a deeply data-driven leader. Designing any digital experience can become an emotional debate, especially when you have lots of smart stakeholders at the table and a diverse and varied user base. Data is a great tonic to subjective conversations. For the City of New York, traffic metrics and search analytics informed our information architecture, navigation, terminology, and content placement on the homepage. For evidence, check out the “Today” bar that displays Alternate Side Parking, schools and garbage collection status on NYC.gov. This information is the top driver of traffic to our website, so now it’s front and center, and reducing call volume and cost in our customer service operation. And we've embraced data post-launch to measure success and constantly analyze user response.
- Make mobile your first consideration. Another insight gleaned from our data is that 25% of traffic to NYC.gov comes from mobile devices, and that number is constantly increasing. Regardless of what you are building on the web, mobile will be key to the future of your growth. For NYC.gov, this metric led us to create the first fully responsive government website in the US. Whether you are on a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer, you’ll find a great experience when you access NYC.gov. It’s harder to build this way up front, but it’s the right investment if you’re serious about delivering a consistent, user-centric experience. And long term it’s also smarter, as we will maintain a single code base that responds flexibly to how our users access NYC.gov.
- Focus on service. For years, nyc.gov and 311 Online, the City’s customer service platform, were considered separate products. But when we looked at the data, we realized that most people were going to NYC.gov in search of 311 info and services. This led us to a no-brainer: deeply integrating 311 customer service tools for the first time on the NYC.gov. Now users can start a 311 request right from the homepage with the accordion-style 311 Booker, something almost no other city enables. Our focus on service also led to the launch of My Neighborhood, a tool that lets users enter an address and instantly find police precinct, school district, library, garbage collection schedule and community board info.
- Don’t skimp on search. On NYC.gov, we found that search is the primary way that our users navigate the website. To overhaul internal search, we leveraged Google’s search technology and worked with experts to optimize it for our users. Now search results are more closely in line with what our users want, and we are constantly tweaking our search to improve the experience.
- Every page is your homepage. We found that most users arrive on City government content pages primarily from search engines like Google, not through our homepage NYC.gov. With this in mind, we created a universal navigation that assumes every page is your first entry to NYC.gov. For example, the footer displays a changing list of top 311 requests, so that if you haven’t found what you’re looking for by the time you reach the bottom of the page, the site might guess the reason for your visit. And if you’re still confused, a second search field is waiting for you.
- Show your users what’s in it for them. We transformed our storytelling process for the new NYC.gov, moving away from traditional press releases and embracing the content formats that work best online. On our homepage, this means larger visuals, live video streaming, shortened summaries, bigger fonts and a call-to-action for every story that helps users understand how an announcement can add value to their life. To achieve this, we appointed our first-ever NYC.gov Editor in Chief, Amanda Konstam, who leads content strategy in partnership with the Press Office, agencies, and our Digital Communications Director Ivy Li.
- Get fresh perspectives from the smartest people you can find. To kick off the process of overhauling NYC.gov, we hosted a hackathon — the first of any city government. To attract talented developers and designers, we partnered with tech and creative educational institution General Assembly. After 48 hours, the 12 prototypes created by over 100 participants challenged our conventions and helped us to visualize NYC.gov anew as a platform for customer service.Learning from the hackathon, we realized that it was critical to engage design experts with experience and independent perspectives to fully overhaul the website, and through a competitive process selected Brooklyn-based HUGE to lead the charge. The result is a government website that doesn't look or act like one, which we hope helps to set a new standard for digital civic engagement.
Our work has just begun. In the next phases of NYC.gov you’ll see the launch of agency websites in a new, fully responsive template, and a toolkit that helps New Yorkers get more out of their City. For now, we are grateful to the hundreds of individuals who contributed in ways small and big to the overhaul of NYC.gov, and remain committed to making sure it serves the residents of the greatest city on earth.