Content design puts residents first: Somerville’s new website makes information accessible and actionable

Posted on February 8, 2024

Somerville's new homepage

Challenged with a disorganized, outdated website, the borough of Somerville, NJ sought a solution. With expert guidance from ProudCity and Department of Civic Things, Somerville used a service-minded content design approach to transform their website.

Somerville is a vibrant town buzzing with families and young professionals, but their website made it difficult for the local government to effectively serve the close-knit community.

Staff and residents struggled to find important information on the site. Essential updates were buried in PDFs and pages were filled with too much content. Also, the outdated content management system made it difficult for staff to update the site.

Ultimately, the website held Somerville back from being fully transparent and responsive to the community. Somerville knew they needed a new website that was user-friendly and service-oriented, so they partnered with Department of Civic Things and ProudCity to make it happen.

Somerville’s story

Located just outside New York City, Somerville, NJ, is home to 12,000 residents. The Borough attracts visitors and residents with historic charm and modern amenities. Many people return to Somerville to work and start families, which reflects the town’s strong community pride.

For such a dynamic town, Somerville’s online presence simply did not serve the vibrant community. Duplicate content, inaccessible PDFs, and disorganized pages led to confusion. Residents struggled to navigate the website, find information, and follow instructions because pages were packed with information.

Here’s an example of a typical department page, with long lists of documents and services:

Screenshot of Somerville's Fire Prevention department page on their old website

Staff attempted to organize and update the site’s content, but quickly hit roadblocks. Due to the platform’s outdated technology, Somerville’s staff were unable to make desired changes to the website. Ultimately, maintaining the old site became unsustainable.

Somerville’s administration knew they needed to start from scratch:

“It wasn’t about a redesign for aesthetics. We needed a brand new website. We needed a new system.”

Choosing a vendor

Patty, Somerville’s Director of Communications, was responsible for the new website project. Although she faced an uphill battle with a lean budget, a one-person team, and a tight deadline, Patty quickly got to work.

After meeting with multiple vendors and exploring various options, one website vendor stood out. In addition to their user-friendly technology, ProudCity focused on how Somerville’s new website would serve the community.

ProudCity is a platform that makes it easy and cost-effective for local governments to launch and manage a variety of digital government operations, including websites, payments, meetings, and more. Department of Civic Things is a Certified ProudCity Service Partner, supporting local governments with content expertise.

As a one-person department with limited resources, Patty needed reliable support to build out content and finish the website in a few short months. ProudCity recommended Rebecca with Department of Civic Things not only for her expertise in user-friendly content design, but also local government operations. And because of ProudCity’s affordable pricing structure, Patty had room in the budget for Rebecca’s services.

With over a decade of local government experience, Rebecca seamlessly stepped in to help Patty create effective, service-minded content for the entire website.

Rebecca worked in local government for over a decade, serving as the first Director of Digital Service & Open Government for the City of San Rafael, CA. In that role, she developed the City’s digital strategic framework and led an organization-wide human-centered design training program.

Rebecca’s local government expertise stems from working in multiple departments, including the City Manager’s office. Department of Civic Things helps local governments serve their communities better through content design and plain language.

Department of Civic Things’ content design approach

Partnering with Department of Civic Things went beyond writing content for the new website. Rebecca incorporated other aspects of content design into the project, including user experience, plain language best practices, digital accessibility, service delivery, and more. Rebecca’s holistic understanding of local government and communications expertise ensured the content buildout progressed quickly.

Here are the project highlights:

No more PDFs

Lengthy PDFs were replaced with clear, easy-to-read pages. Now, information is more accessible to residents.

Here’s an example of a typical multi-page PDF that includes a form, some instructions, as well as rules:

a multipage PDF with a form, instructions, and rules

Action pages

Steps and instructions written in plain language guide residents through tasks. This saves time for both residents and staff. One department leader said he used to spend a lot of time on the phone giving people the same information that’s now included on action pages.

Here’s an example of an action page, with consistent sections of services content so people know when and how to complete a task:

screenshot showing an action page on Somerville's new website

Resident-first focus

Information on the website is organized based on what residents need to know. Rebecca guided Patty on what information to include on each page. This saved Patty time when seeking input from departments. Rebecca also supported Patty by quickly turning complex content into plain language.

“It was really nice to work with someone who had so much experience working with the public and knowing what kinds of questions people are asking.”

Clear communication

Rebecca and Patty kept in touch constantly, which helped keep the project on track. Under ProudCity’s strong project management, the project kept moving in the right direction despite the inevitable delays that come with working in local government.

“Rebecca and I were such a great team – I felt like I had a teammate. She’s so fast and that helped me to move fast. We were marking things done and moving on to the next thing.”

The final product: a service-minded website

Through content design and collaboration, ProudCity and Department of Civic Things helped Somerville turn their outdated, ineffective website into a service-minded resource for their residents in just a few short months.

Take a look at Somerville’s new website:

Community-serving content

The new website is easy to navigate. Residents and staff can easily find and share information.

Based on analytics and anecdotes, we learned parking information was very popular content. Here’s an example of a new landing page for information that was previously scattered or missing from the old website:

screenshot of Somerville's new parking webpage

Responsive, user-friendly forms

Residents can fill out a new contact form on the website to communicate directly with the town. This feature already helped a resident notify the town about a parking issue. Receiving this information allowed staff to correct the issue right away.

Easy content updates

The user-friendly features on ProudCity’s platform makes it easy for staff to edit website content quickly. Updates that used to take days to weeks now take seconds to complete, which is essential for departments with limited resources.

Enhanced customer experience

Staff and residents are empowered with quick access to helpful and current information. The up-to-date website already helped a parking enforcement officer provide excellent customer service to residents in the field.

“In the past, he didn’t know where on the website to direct residents. It was kind of a guessing game. He would try to help them, but he felt limited. He’s surprised at how easy it is now. He was able to easily pull up the information on his phone and show them.”

Next steps

With expert guidance from Department of Civic Things, Somerville published a modern, service-minded website in a few short months. Despite challenges with limited staffing and a tight budget, Somerville now has an online resource that empowers staff, connects with residents, and responds to the needs of the community.

For small departments, like Patty’s, seeking expert assistance to finish projects on time and on budget is sometimes the right solution. Department of Civic Things specializes in helping small local governments transform their online experience to better serve their communities.

Inspired by Somerville’s online transformation?

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