Iowa LTAP has moved from CTRE to the Institute for Transportation
Choosing and organizing content
Third in a series of articles about web site development.
Helpful, interesting information is the meat of a good web site. Web users will forgive many things, but if your site is light on information, they won't visit again.
Before you decide what meaty content to include, think about the site's overall purpose and who will be using it. The main purposes of a transportation agency's web site are probably to inform, and perhaps interact with, the public.
Users know what they want to know
Selecting appropriate content for your site will be easier once you analyze your potential users and think about the specific kinds of information they want or need. Potential users include
- people who live in your city or county
- visitors to your area
- other city or county agencies/departments
- your city council or county supervisors
- utility companies
- local businesses
- job seekers
- news media
- your employees
- and many others
Following are sample questions a typical web user would pose:
- Where and when (and possibly why) will streets/roads be reconstructed, repaired, or maintained?
- Main Street's been torn up for two weeks; when is it going to be done?
- In the winter, what streets/roads are passable?
- When will my street/road be plowed?
- When are you going to fix that pothole on Center Street?
- Will you please put a stop sign at Second Street and Park Avenue?
- Do you have any job openings?
- How can I contact you?
- How much is the department spending to replace the bridge over Iowa Creek?
- When will you be accepting bids on the Strawberry Lane resurfacing project?
Does all of this sound familiar? Your agency is probably used to answering these kinds of questions. Make a list of common information requests that you'd like your web site to satisfy. Putting information such as snow policies and road construction plans on the web may reduce some phone inquiries.
Some information requests will be the same for more than one category of users. The condition of winter roads, for example, is a concern of local residents, travelers, your employees, the news media, and more.
Understanding the kinds of information your users are looking for will help you determine not only what kinds of information to include , but also some effective ways to organize it all. The kinds of information you want to publish on your web site should be the ultimate guide to the organizational scheme you choose.
Putting your house in order
So far this whole web site thing may sound like a piece of cake, especially if you're an old hand at writing news releases, and your office staff is topnotch at handling customer and business calls. You may know exactly what information you want to publish online.
Consider this: When you respond to a customer or vendor call or fax a news release, you are providing information but you are not providing a context or organizational structure for that information. In other words, you are providing a piece of lumber, not the whole house.
A web site provides lots of information, lots of pieces of lumber, within the context of your agency-the house. To help users find their way to the information they want, your web site needs to present a clear, understandable structure, not stairways that go nowhere.
One organization scheme for your web site that seems simple and natural is to follow your agency's own internal structure. For example, all information connected to traffic engineering would be found via a link to the traffic engineering department. There are at least two problems with this approach: 1) It can be confusing. What seems like an obvious arrangement of information to an internal audience can be obscure to an external one. 2) It may not support good public relations. External audiences may infer from this organization that you don't really want to share information with the public.
So what are some other options? You can organize information by topic, by task, and by type of user. Topical schemes can be one of the most useful forms of organization. San Francisco, California's public works department web site (www.sfdpw.com/direct.htm) is neatly divided into topics such as disability access, pothole repairs, street cleaning, and utility excavation.
A task-oriented scheme organizes content and applications into a collection of functions or tasks that users will want to perform, such as applying for a license or bidding on a job. While a transportation agency's entire site would not fit this scheme, it may be helpful to think about what kinds of tasks you'd like users to perform on your site. For example, St. Paul, Minnesota's public works department (www.ci.saint-paul.mn.us/publicworks/) offers a "pothole reporting station," and every good web site has an e-mail link for questions or comments.
Organizing your content according to specific user groups may make sense for a transportation agency with clearly defined users such as area residents, travelers, contractors, and news media.
It's also possible to try a mixture of organization schemes. The King County, Washington Department of Transportation (www.metrokc.gov/kcdot/) uses primarily a topical scheme combined with some task-oriented links.
Whatever type of organization you choose, it's helpful to get feedback about it from people outside your agency. By paying careful attention to what your users want to know and anticipating where they might look for it, you'll be able to develop a coherent, easily navigable web site that people can trust.
The next article in this series will cover navigation and labeling, the keys to helping users find their way around your site.