Across metro, cities give homepages a facelift

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 7, 2012 - 4:20 PM

Cities are revamping their websites to boost interactivity, efficiency.

Once, City Hall was the community's front door. Today that portal is more often a city website.

People want to race through that digital door, find what they need and get out, with no fussing. That's why city after city in the west metro is updating and in some cases replacing their websites to make digital interaction easier for residents.

Edina and Eden Prairie hired professionals to create the framework for new websites, while Richfield and Minnetonka are rebuilding theirs mostly or totally from within. Bloomington is discussing an upgrade of its website. Budgets for the projects vary, from up to $110,000 for Edina's highly interactive website to less than $25,000 for Richfield's more modest effort.

They all share a philosophy: that the user, not the city, is the priority. While the old websites were organized the way cities are -- by department -- that's being scrapped for sites that reflect what residents want to know.

That means that in Minnetonka, which will unveil its new site next spring, residents will no longer have to search to find parks and trail information under a link for public works.

"When people come to the website we understand that they don't want to browse and spend a lot of time there," said Jacque Larson, community relations manager. "Our goal is to make it simple, easy and quick so they can get what they need and go on."

Obsolete technology

While some city websites that are being replaced are only five years old, they are technologically antique. Edina's old website was built on now-obsolete programs that made every page unique. So if a phone number or address that was on 10 pages on the website had to be changed, someone had to physically remove and replace the information on each and every page.

"It introduced the chance for errors and the site became really, really large and unstable," said Jennifer Bennerotte, Edina's communications and technological services director. "It needed a complete overhaul."

In the spring, monthly use of Edina's website topped 53,000 unique visitors and more than 3.3 million hits. Parts of the new website, which went live in June, are still being built. Because people went to the city website for school information, the new site has a link to the school district's home page. Soon it will also have a better e-commerce system, allow residents to make online reservations for city facilities like meeting rooms and playing fields and add an in-house "extranet" site that employees can access from mobile devices to get employee news.

The search engine is improved, and Edina will put lot surveys online and searchable by address. In a city with lots of redevelopment and residents who want information about projects that affect their neighborhood, having those documents online should save staff time, Bennerotte said.

Eden Prairie, with a website that has over 40,000 unique visitors each month, launched its new site in April. The home page features prominent "buttons" that take users to popular sites like parks and recreation, the community center, licensing and billing and frequently asked questions.

The project cost about $40,000 and has gotten a good reaction, said Kari Spreeman, communications coordinator. It features an interactive map gallery and eventually will host all city documents, City Manager Rick Getschow said. By the end of the year, Eden Prairie hopes to make the process of submitting plans for remodeling and redevelopment projects paperless, with everything submitted and accessible online.

"We want to get to the point where 100 percent of transactions with the city are online," Getschow said. "It will save us money and make it easier for the customer."

Mobile capability

All of the new city websites have a version tailored for easy reading on mobile devices like smart phones and tablets. St. Louis Park did an internal retooling of its site earlier this year, partly for that reason.

The need is there. Marc Drummond, Minnetonka's Web technologies coordinator, said that 20 percent of the traffic on the city website now comes from mobile devices. That's an increase of 50 percent in just the last four months.

"The layouts have to look different and load quickly," he said.

Testing on Richfield's new website is occurring this week and the new site may be up and running as soon as today. The city's old website was over a decade old -- so old, in fact, that Media Coordinator Lucas Johnson said that he doesn't know how many hits the site gets or how many users it has.

Richfield's new site is all about community, with the same user-friendly features that other cities are adding. While an outside firm did the design and back programming, the money-conscious city had staff spend long hours creating content for the new site.

"It's been labor-intensive," City Manager Steve Devich said. "Besides saving money, you have a lot of work and frustration at the front end. But I believe that by doing that folks will have more ownership of it. ... They know how to change it if it needs to be changed."

That website may be the first contact people ever have with Richfield, and it has to create a good impression, Devich said. In Edina, Bennerotte said the website is intended not only to be an easy stop for residents but to "enhance the Edina brand" by connecting to social media and conveying a message of community.

Edina's new home page has rotating photos of real-life "hometown heroes" who have made an impact on the community, and at the bottom of each web page is a clickable link to their stories.

"It's not the buildings or the landscape that's important, we need people to tell our story," Bennerotte said. "It's the stories of people who live here and use our facilities that creates the truest sense of community."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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