Should Your Municipal Website Be Responsive?

Find out what really matters and why—before you begin your next website redesign project

responsive website or mobile-friendly wireframe

The act of taking on a city, town, or county website redesign project is similar to giving birth to that second or third child. You are looking forward to the joys of your new baby, but you can’t help but dread the long labor and the sleep deprived days ahead that you know you must endure.

Unlike that new baby in the house, you can do most of the preparation ahead of time to assure that your municipal website redesign is immediately rewarding. First, let’s talk about the pros and cons of responsive design. Then, find out what is far more important than the design phase, and why towns shouldn’t make the mistake by spending the bulk of their focus there.

City administrators come to us when they realize that their town website is past due for a major redesign. We often hear comments like:

“We want to go mobile!” 

“We need an App!” 

“We need to be cutting edge…”

Or the most common one:

“Don’t look at our current site. It is a mess…”

They are often concerned, embarrassed, and they dread the whole prospect because there is so much to consider and it gets more complex every year. So, let’s get down to it.

Your main goal: give them what they want!

What do you need from your town’s website? You need it to deliver what your customers want. They want to be informed—as quickly and enjoyably as possible. They don’t go to a city website looking for cool technology. They want the information they are seeking to be at their fingertips (literally). What does that look like for the best municipal websites? 

Oh, and no worries—you can still be very cool without compromising on functionality or customer service if you do it right. 

What is responsive design? 

The purpose of responsive web design (RWD) is to create a website that will provide the optimal viewing experience for your end-users, regardless of the device type they are using. That would mean easy reading and navigation with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling. As always, there are pros and cons when making a change like this. 

woman using smartphone to view mobile-friendly website

What are the advantages?  

To meet the needs of our ever-changing digital world, which includes hundreds of screen sizes in both landscape and portrait orientations, something very “responsive” was developed. Thus the name. Now, images can be automatically adjusted, columns moved, and non-essential elements eliminated when viewed on a smaller device. 

For example, you’ll eliminate a beautiful image in the banner or background on the phone view, leaving the town’s logo above dropdown navigation followed by content. You get all the basic functionality without using bandwidth to download photos that would be too small to enjoy anyway. It will still be attractive and professional and will serve the primary purpose of fulfilling your customer needs (getting to the information they need quickly). This might not be the case if you are selling artwork online, but for cities, towns, and other municipalities it is essential. Always put your audience’s needs first. By providing full access to your website on all devices, you are doing just that! 

What are the disadvantages?

Some older browsers don’t support responsive design perfectly. Internet Explorer, in particular, has some issues with some elements. This is an ever-changing situation and will eventually correct itself, but you might have some issues if your municipal computers are using older browsers. But eventually, due to security issues, you will have to upgrade your municipal computer browsers. 

There may be a cost involved. Responsive designs, by necessity, have some design limitations so that they can utilize the various screen sizes. Responsive sites are designed in modules and chunks, and you might dream up an elegant design or image that doesn’t quite work the way you hoped in responsive design. The more elaborate the design, the greater the chances that the cost will increase as well. 

If you aren’t judicious about what you eliminate from the smallest versions (smartphones), your site may take much longer to load. You need to keep this in mind as you design your responsive municipal website. Always think “customer experience”!

What really matters!

If you are looking at a website redesign, responsive should be at the top of your list. Especially if the analytics from your site visitors indicate that those using mobile devices are gradually increasing. You’ll be doing your website visitors a favor.

In addition to making the responsive design choice, there are some even more important aspects of your redesign that you should implement, including: 

  • Logical navigation. Don’t get too creative. Stick with tried and true navigational architecture. There is a reason it is used most frequently—it works, and people understand it. That means horizontal navigation (across the top or under the banner area) and drop-down sub-navigation if you need it. Use quick or category links to target specific audience needs (parents, students, staff, community) as an additional navigational area as a way to organize for a specific audience, but don’t make these categories your primary navigational structure. Not everyone will fit into those categories. 
  • Think “customer needs” when you are creating pages and content. It isn’t about what you think is important but about what your municipal website visitors need. When you talk about you (your town, city, county), be sure it is from their perspective of interests. That means you must write the content for them—including tone, word choice, and topics. If you don’t know what your shareholders want to find on your community website, survey them and find out.
  • ADA compliance. Your municipal website needs to be accessible to those with disabilities (just like your building does). You simply can’t afford to exclude anyone from access to the information they need. That means it must comply with WCAC 2.1 standards and be fully accessible. That means every document attachment, every image, and your navigational structures. So, the ongoing information you add to your website each day must continue to be compliant. Responsiveness is a part of that compliance.
  • Tell your stories. Don’t just add items to the event calendar, but share stories about challenges overcome and success stories about community members, local businesses, civic leaders and staff.  As humans, stories trigger our emotions and alter our attitudes like no other form of communication. It is stories, not data, which carries the most influence on us. It is imperative that we earn the confidence and loyalty of the community members who entrust us to run our local city and county governments. There are thousands of stories happening every day—but too few are shared. If there was one critical goal for an effective civic website, responsive or otherwise, it is to be the communications hub for sharing these stories.

What you probably don't need!

  • You probably don’t need a Mobile App. Those are great when it comes to serving up a specific need. Do you want to buy a ticket online? An App would be great. But they are very limited and not designed to take the place of a full municipal website. It just won’t get the job done. If your site visitors only want the calendar or current news, an App might be okay (if they don’t mind downloading it because they always use those features). And, you don’t have the expense of an App to add to your budget. Responsive design may eliminate the need for an app as you can create an icon and have community members bookmark your municipal website right on the main screen of their mobile device or tablet. (Just be sure your civic website mobile view includes links to those most popular resources accessed by your community members. You can find out what those are by looking at your website analytics.)
  • You don’t need a mobile site. These are sites designed very specifically for individual devices but can cause you to have to update two websites. Before the advances in responsive design, this was the big thing. With so many different devices and sizes available now, it is impractical to create a layout for each device and resolution, and it continues to grow every day. Responsive design accomplishes the same job.

When it's time for your civic website redesign

When you are ready for a redesign, we recommend that you select a vendor who can provide responsive website designs that are also ADA compliant. It is typical that responsive designs are developed with the mobile view in mind first and then move up to the full-size desktop and laptop view. 

You want the simplest view on the phone (which people use mostly for quick information and not leisurely browsing). You certainly want to limit the amount of bandwidth data and download time it costs your site visitors (which can be painfully slow and expensive with graphic heavy images or lots of data transfer taking place). However, you should be able to include anything you want on the full-size desktop version of your site.

smartphone with person viewing responsiveness

Steps to Success

Start by conducting your due diligence. Building a comprehensive communications tool, like an effective, well-managed civic website, is one of the most important projects you can accomplish for your municipality.

  • Consider the content, including what, where, and how you’ll keep it managed and in top form year after year. 
  • Create branding consistency—style, colors, fonts, tone, and purpose—on every page of your site. 
  • Use a style guide to which everyone who touches or submits content to the website adheres. 
  • Integrate your social media platforms with your website strategy to drive your messages to where your audiences spend their time. 
  • Build a plan to put processes in place to populate and manage your website. Let your audience needs and your plan drive your design needs.
  • Then, and only then, do you start looking for a website developer to design your website. You don’t want the tail wagging the dog, so decide what you need first so that you don’t end up with something that doesn’t serve your audience needs. Select a vendor who understands the unique needs of municipalities—and they are unique.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what responsive website design does, and like all design considerations, it is but one aspect of an effective website, you are on the right track. 

No need to feel like that new parent—dazed and confused and living with sleep deprivation—because you’ll keep the end goal in mind throughout the development phase. If you do, your new baby will quickly be sleeping through the night and before you know it, getting a full-ride scholarship.