Columbia website to undergo redesign

An advisory group wants to make the website more user-friendly.
E-Government coordinator Sam Shelby discusses ideas for Columbia's city website with Internet Citizens Advisory Group members Wednesday. The board looked at other cities' websites as well as brainstormed its own ideas for ways to make Columbia's website more user-friendly.

Columbia’s Internet Citizens Advisory Group met Wednesday to discuss making changes to the city’s online billing system, as well as a redesign to improve the city government’s website.

During the meeting, ICAG members said the site’s main page was too cluttered.

“(The site) is just too busy the way it’s designed right now,” ICAG member Jonathan Sessions said. “There’s just so much text.”

Columbia E-Government Coordinator Sam Shelby showed the group a tabbed box that would contain the links which make up the front page’s content.

The box would have four section tabs, which would each hold several links, including city news. The new addition's tabs would cut down on the number of links immediately visible to visitors.

The group said one of the problems with the website was it was not designed all at once with a unifying theme, but was updated at the request of various city departments.

"What we have right now (on the city website) is a hodgepodge of things people have requested over the years," Shelby said.

Sessions said navigating the site was not as simple as it should be.

"(Site search) is often the fastest way to navigate the site," he said.

ICAG member Anna Hargis said using usage statistics to decide how to organize information on the site would correct navigation issues.

“Usage statistics should guide the website redesign,” she said.

ICAG member Dustin Dunstedter said he had visited many other city government websites to search for the best website design.

He presented some of the strongest websites to the group, including the Long Beach, Calif., government website that uses a simple graphics-based layout to present information to visitors.

“The key to us being successful is to look at what other cities have done,” Shelby said.

He said the group was also looking at non-government websites to get ideas from a design standpoint, though they would focus more on examining other government websites.

“City websites are going to be more appropriate to the city redesign,” Shelby said.

Shelby said the city intends to have the website redesigned in one year.

The group will meet in October before its regularly scheduled November meeting due to the impending redesign.

ICAG also discussed Columbia’s paperless billing sign-up page. The group made a recommendation to the city to incorporate the sign-up into the existing online bill pay system, instead of having it as a separate system.

"Signing up for (paperless billing) was an unintuitive nightmare," Sessions said. "This needs to be no more difficult than accessing your account and attaching an email address to that account."

One part of the website that is easy for residents to use is Nixle, a service that sends alerts about public safety threats and community events via Web, e-mail and cell phone. Shelby showed the committee statistics showing an increase in usage. The service had 485 to 613 users signed up to receive alerts from five of the six city departments that use Nixle. These numbers were up from the 131 to 170 people using the service in April. Public works, whose usage falls far below the numbers of the other five departments, has 31 users, an increase from the same month.

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