Web Design by the People

Fairfax County, Va., turned to its residents to help design a Web site that could bridge the digital divide.

by / October 1, 2001
In colonial days, Virginias legislative body decided it needed a fair to promote commerce, economic development and a sense of community. The Fairfax Fair was born from that mandate. More than two centuries later, Fairfax County used its annual exposition for a little self-promotion: It launched its Web site at the 1996 Fairfax Fair.

Just as Fairfax County has progressed since the early days of the fair, Web sites have come a long way since the initial boom of the Internet. There is a greater emphasis placed on design and ease of use. Site operators want the people they attract to stay there for as long as possible. After all, Web sites are mainly for informational use and if the details are too hard to find, then the site is not doing its job properly. To better serve customers, organizations are scrutinizing their Internet presence to make sure it is as customer friendly as possible. This is especially important in the area of municipal government, where a Web site is supposed to allow citizens to quickly and easily get answers to their questions without picking up the phone.

Five years after its unveiling, Fairfax Countys Web site has more than 15,000 pages of information and is visited by one million or more users each month. The large amount of information prompted the county to redesign the site to make sure users had easy access to the information they wanted. "The basic idea - is to bring information and services to the public and make them accessible and convenient 24 hours a day," said Dave Molchany, chief information officer of Fairfax County. "This is a clear-cut strategy to cross the digital divide for our citizens and businesses and to provide a government without walls, doors or clocks."

Making Changes
In late 2000, the county began to gather information for the redesign of its site, which included input from surveys and focus groups held with citizens and businesses. "One of the most important aspects of the redesign was citizen input," explained Merni Fitzgerald, Fairfax County spokesperson. "This site is their site, and the best way to ensure that we were on the right track with the redesign was to involve citizens in the process."

One thing the county learned from the focus groups was that citizens are not always aware what tasks each department or agency within the county handles. The redesigned site, which was launched in June 2001, was organized so that users can find their information without prior knowledge of what each county department does. "We chose to redesign the site to allow faster and easier access to the information by organizing the information by subject topics as opposed to the former agency-centric organization," Fitzgerald said. "In addition, we wanted to give the site a consistent look and feel and provide users with a common navigation throughout the site."

In addition to its information resources, the new Fairfax County Web site offers many business services designed to make life easier. "A new feature of the site is a comprehensive list of e-services found at the bottom of the homepage," Fitzgerald said. "We wanted to make all those available in one central location to allow quicker access, and it also educates site users about all the electronic services available on the site." These include applying for a county job, renewing library books, paying taxes with a credit card or electronic check and checking on the status of an inspection, permit or building plan.

The new look and feel of Fairfax Countys Web site is only phase one of the redesign project. Phase two will have the county moving to a content management system that will allow staff to use information across platforms, according to Fitzgerald. "A content management system will give citizens greater access to information because it will also allow users to access information from handheld devices or cell phones," she said. "Our site is dynamic and can be easily updated and improved as future information needs of citizens change and as technologies advance."