September 18, 2013 By Jessica Renee Napier
When personnel for Fairfax County, Va., began conversations about updating their website's home page, they turned to analytics and heat maps for design direction. Although the development process spanned about five months, the lengthiest component of the project was examining data to draft a home page that would accurately represent county constituents.
“A number of years ago, we started looking at heat maps to get an idea of where our public was clicking,” said Greg Licamele, the county’s director of external communications. “We didn’t want to make a quick judgment. We took about two and a half years to assess the patterns. From year to year and month to month, we saw that the patterns were consistent.”
Out of the 110 links displayed on the home page, 75 percent of the clicks were directed to 29 links.
“We had a lot of real estate that was not being used wisely,” said Licamele. “We were linking people to death. We wanted to focus on the top areas that people were clicking.”
Licamele, along with Lindsey Culin, county public relations specialist, and Anita Rao, county IT program manager, met weekly to discuss home page drafts. Based on the heat maps and analytics, they identified 10 services to display at the top of the page.
Additionally, the team studied other websites, including Virginia.gov, neighboring jurisdictions and winners of the Best of the Web & Digital Government Achievement Awards.*
“We were looking at other websites but also wanted to create something unique to Fairfax County," Rao said. “We wanted to put out a product that is useful, user-friendly and also takes advantage of the latest designs.”
The home page, built in-house, uses a responsive design template, meaning that the layout displays differently depending upon the device users use to access it. Whether site visitors view the home page from a mobile phone, tablet or desktop computer monitor, their layout adapts to the viewing environment.
“With eight out of 10 people using their tablet or smartphone to get information, it’s not a good customer experience to have the site render as it does on a desktop,” Rao said. “Now mobile users can access the same information but in an easier way.”
On the new home page, users will also find it easier to communicate with county personnel. Contact information was previously listed in the footer, but this information is now displayed prominently at the top of the page against the backdrop of a colorful photo that showcases county events and news.
Before the new home page went live on Aug. 23, 700 people, including members of the public, the county executive, county employees and members of the board of supervisors, weighed in on the new design via a beta survey.
“Once we did that initial survey, 68 percent had a positive fist impression,” Licamele said. “There was not a lot of back and forth. People saw this as a home page that represented their county.”
Since the launch, the county made the same survey available. Thus far, feedback is consistent with what was received during the testing period.
“Based on face-to-face feedback, it’s been positive,” Licamele said. “Our home page now works on three key devices. We’ve reduced the number of links, and we’re featuring the most accessed services. It showcases photos of what is happening in our county. We’re improving the customer experience, and we think that we hit a home run.”
Although the home page received a facelift, the site's subpages are not yet updated. In order for the website to maintain a connected feel, the header does remain the same on the home page and subpages. The team said that one of their biggest challenges was deciding whether to redesign the whole site at once, or start with the home page.
“Fairfax County is such a large county, and there’s so much content out there, so it’s not easy,” Rao said. “We wanted to make sure that we got the home page right before we tackled everything else.”
Currently the county does not have a timeline for subpage updates as staff are working on an upgrade to the content management system.
“Our goal is not just to make a pretty site, but that the content that we present is of value,” Rao said. “We want the information to complement the design.”
*Editor's Note: Best of the Web & Digital Government Achievement Awards are a program of the Center for Digital Government (CDG). The CDG is owned by e.Republic, the parent company of Government Technology.