Websites Are Hard, Apparently


Last night, as the rest of you were watching cocktail hour melt into dinnertime, I found myself in a city hall conference room discussing a new website for my hometown of Greensboro, NC.

Greensboro's current site is decent, but a bit long in tooth. While planning (p 9 of PDF) a new one, the City has solicited input from users, via surveys, Twitter, and the kind of focus group in which I participated.

Bringing users in early is a good idea. Actually listening to them is an even better idea.

I'm not suggesting Greensboro isn't paying attention -- staffers seem engaged in the process, and hip to its importance. Would that more enterprises followed suit, instead of allowing their "front door to the world to look like the result of an explosion at the font factory."

Clean design was a big concern for last night's focus group, along with searchability, depth of information, interactivity, and accessibility via mobile devices. The basics, really: we want a smart, practical, high-function site, one that looks good in the service of working well.

Pretty much what your users, internal and external, want from your sites.

As Greensboro moves forward, other area governments are struggling with their own web projects. In surrounding Guilford County, poor IT management and an overmatched vendor combined to waste money and ignite political controversy. And down I-40, the City of Raleigh seems to have bought gold-plated software from vendors including Red Hat, but still has issues with core functions like search; the site looks a little hinky on Firefox, too.

I'm not a web designer, and the high incidence of less-than-great sites suggests to me that the job may be harder than it looks. Paying attention to the basics -- the stuff your users seem to value most -- could be the key to getting it right, and doing so on budget.