Cities' digital entryways are getting a makeover

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2012 - 11:40 PM

Sometimes with large pricetags, cities are reinventing websites that are often hard to use and not much to look at.

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City of Rosemount's new homepage

Asked to peek at the websites of a sampling of south-metro cities, Michael Schlotfeldt finds a lot to object to.

But it's when he's asked to do something as simple as locating the agenda of one city's next council meeting that the professional Web page designer really grows exasperated.

After struggling for two minutes and 12 seconds -- an eternity in Web time -- he finally declares: "I give up. I have no idea."

And that, says the president of St. Paul-based Plaudit Design, sends a terrible message.

"Because it's so hidden, it feels like government is not welcoming, like they don't want your input. They've designed this to keep you away, is what it feels like -- as though it's a tool for insiders to exchange documents among themselves."

Navigability -- the ease with which a newcomer can find important information -- is a big reason there's a growing movement across the metro to overhaul the way cities present themselves to the public.

"It's extremely difficult right now to get to any actual document or data on our site," said Brad Tabke, the mayor of Shakopee, which is about to narrow a large field of Web design applicants to a workable number and then set them loose on a re-think. "It must be 20 clicks just to pull up a council agenda."

The issue is important. Even small cities' websites draw thousands of visits a week.

New designs

Newly emerging designs not only are easier to move through, but in some cases they are startlingly attractive. Plymouth's site, for example, floats above a seductive background image of early morning mist rising from a lake.

The new sites are pricier and glitzier and meant to sell the city to audiences including site selectors for businesses, showing yourself off as attractive, distinctive, full of life.

"We wanted easier navigation and a more contemporary design," said Rosemount communications coordinator Alan Cox, whose city recently unveiled its new look. "I'm not sure we needed to be cutting-edge, but we wanted to appear friendlier, to put the community's best foot forward."

Older sites often use Identi-Kit images of leafy suburban scenes that might as well be clip art. Newer ones hire professionals to capture warmly lit evenings on dewy grass, and tell you exactly which park that is.

Older sites think like city engineers, giving you options like "burning permit." Newer sites think like corporate marketers, giving you options like "amenities," which lead in turn to "splash pad" and "dog park."

Eden Prairie's site presents huge and fast-changing vistas of friendly, smiling cops and families and games of soccer. Farmington, more typical of where most cities still are these days, features a tiny snapshot of an empty playground.

"Some of the images these cities are presenting of themselves are just sad and lonely," Schlotfeldt said. "Why am I looking at a row of scraggly little trees? Why am I looking at an empty park bench on a concrete slab?"

The painfully candid answer is, they may not feel they have the money or the expertise to do better.

Money is tight, Cox said, and "few cities can afford webmasters. I know I certainly am not that myself, though I've begun to feel like one" after months of working with an outside consultant.

Different philosophies

To move quickly from one city's virtual front door to another's is to find a world in rapid flux, with completely different philosophies in play.

Prior Lake's page, for instance, teems with options. It has nearly 40 separate links along one column on its right-hand side.

"I feel completely overwhelmed as I look at that," said Schlotfeldt. "I don't even know where to start."

Although he hasn't done a city site, he has worked with enough public agencies to see the dynamic at work: "Everybody wants their own stuff out there."

Conversely, the options are there. It doesn't take forever on Prior Lake's site to find a link to a council agenda. You don't have to guess, as you might in some radically stripped-back sites, whether it's under "government" or "news and events."

Cities also are using the sites to set up more refined systems of notification. While promising not to spam you, Apple Valley lets you decide whether you want to hear news about ice skating, golf, liquor sales or a host of other specialized topics.

Offering services online

They're also moving gradually toward more online services. Savage last week began putting out the word that its residents can pay water and sewer bills online at "cityofsavage.com". The name itself an interesting move in a world in which many cities still use nerdy government versions like "www.ci.lake ville.mn.us" ("ci" means "city").

Online billing is not only a convenience for residents, said Amy Barnett, Savage's communications director, but "is expected to increase efficiencies for city staff by decreasing the amount of transactions staff handles by phone."

Cities hope to find savings from better use of the Web, because glitzy makeovers can be costly.

The amount of money an Edina is willing to spend on its site redesign -- more than $100,000 -- would make council members in many less-prosperous cities gasp. Others are doing admirable work on far less.

Rosemount's new site -- praised by Schlotfeldt as slick, contemporary and easy to navigate -- cost $24,606 for the redesign and first year of service, and $3,572 for the second year.

"We have the 'premium' level of service," Cox said, "but there are additional options beyond that. For instance, we could have paid several thousand dollars more to have one of their staffers visit here, interview department heads and write up recommendations early in the process."

In Shakopee, Mayor Tabke is hoping to economize, using models that others have pioneered and his own community's expertise.

"A lot of city websites coming out now are being done by a couple of major civic website creators," said the mayor, "and most seem to be costing between 30 and 50 grand. I have absolutely zero desire to spend that much money on a website.

"It needs to look good, but even more it needs to be practical. The prettiest is not always the best. We're looking less at other city websites than at business sites. What does Apple do, what does Amazon do? We don't want to look like every other city, because we are not every other city."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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