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The problem with having too many designers in the kitchen (or government website)

Ashlee Harris
Apr 23, 2018 · 5 min read

At the City of Austin, we’re working on a new digital services project. While performing research with residents, we’re also talking and listening to the staff who manage department digital content every day.

Some things we’ve heard are:

  • “The current site’s design (austintexas.gov) isn’t pretty enough.”
  • “I want the redesign to look like a private sector site.”
  • “I just want to design my department’s site myself.”

We hear you, and that’s why we’re making strides in content strategy, technical features, and the visual design with the testing site, Alpha.austin.gov/.

While we’re upgrading the visual design, there’s still some lingering asks for staff to be able to completely design their own sites or have a design for their department that is completely different than everyone else, but that could pose some major problems for our organization and for our residents.

Imagine if City staff in every department had the ability to design their pages the way they wanted, with different fonts, colors, layouts, and standards. Our site could end up looking like this Mr. Potato Head:

  • disjointed
  • confusing
  • and kind of ugly
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A Mr. Potato Head doll put together poorly, source

There’s a reason having visual design consistency is not only a global design best practice, but something you’ll also see on most private sector sites. Here’s why.

Visual Inconsistency Confuses Users

Residents do not look at the City as discrete departments. They look at us as “The City.” While we may sometimes get lost in the operations of our individual departments, we still are a single organization, and our digital properties should reflect that.

When users visit our site, the look and feel should be consistent across it. It should not be green and fuscia on one page, purple and neon yellow on another, 10pt. Times New Roman font on one page, 32pt. Comic Sans font on another.

This type of inconsistency can be jarring for a user and makes a site confusing and difficult to navigate or comprehend. Just take a look at these top 50 worst website designs for an example of what inconsistency can do. This is why it is so important for there to be a consistent look and feel to our site design.

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Diagram example of inconsistent page design, source
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Diagram example of consistent page design, source

The testing site’s design is being developed by experienced user interface and user experience designers and will have brand standards that maintain this consistency into the future.

This will ensure that we make the website experience as easy and seamless as possible for our residents.

Visual Inconsistency Decreases Site Trustworthiness

When navigating through a website, users need to visibly be able to tell that they are on the same website during the entire experience, no matter what page they move to next. This maintains the trustworthiness of the site.

This is even more important for government sites. Residents need to be assured that when they’re providing their personal information or reviewing sensitive information that can often be on government sites, that they are in fact still on said site.

When you have a site design that varies so significantly from page to page, or department to department, that decreases the users ability to use the site and trust in the site.

Visual Inconsistency Leads to Inaccessibility

As a City, our website must be accessible to all users, even those with disabilities. The design of the site directly relates to the accessibility of a site.

What colors work for those with colorblindness? What font sizes work for those who can’t read small font? What types of fonts work? What font spacing works? What color contrast ratio works?

These are just a few of the considerations we must make to design a site that is accessible and compliant with the American Disabilities Act. When your site is not consistently designed, this becomes extremely difficult to achieve.

For example, let’s say Julie is a visually-impaired resident. She visits the City website because she wants to go in to talk to someone from the Small Business program.

She lands on a “Start a Small Business” service page. The page has a sentence on it to alert residents that the department’s whole office is closed that day. Staff made the sentence’s font red, hoping it would stand out more for residents.

However, Julie is colorblind, and the red font is near the department’s chosen green font they normally use, making the alert sentence indistinguishable. Julie doesn’t notice it and instead sees the office address. When she gets to the office, she’s frustrated that she took off work and came to the office, because it’s closed.

Only when a site has a design team that works to ensure the entire design is accessible and consistent can these types of issues be avoided.

Take a Note from the Private Sector

Chick-fil-a. Target. Wells Fargo. Google. These are major, global companies, much larger than the City of Austin. One thing they have in common is their design consistency.

Chick-fil-a, for instance, uses black, red, and white with the “cow handwriting” font consistently, no matter what campaign they’re doing.

Let’s say you’re on their site and you set your location to a certain store. If you change that location, the entire site design doesn’t change. If you look at the breakfast menu section, the design doesn’t change if you move over to desserts.

If our goal is truly to have a fresh, modern, beautiful design like private sector sites, then we need to take notes from them on consistency.

All of the above mentioned things are why we are performing research and having a team of user interface and user experience designers develop a consistent look and feel for Alpha.austin.gov.

With that, future iterations of the City of Austin website design will be clear, aligned, and smile-inducing like this Mr. Potato Head.

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Mr. Potato Head, source

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