Otter Tail County is a municipal organization that serves the residents, businesses, and visitors of their area. The county is made up of five divisions with leadership from the County Administrator and governance from the Board of Commissioners. The goal of the organization is to enrich lives, innovate services, and enhance resources.
Like many counties, the website is the most used resource for helping residents find county info. Whether it is finding a permit form or being notified of new meeting docs, the website needed to meet or exceed visitor expectations for finding answers.
Internally, the county wanted to simplify the process of keeping the website up-to-date. That meant logging in, creating content, and updating old content needed to be intuitive even for someone making only a few changes per year.
The other internal goal was to create a single source of information for employees. For example, HR information was previously maintained on a 3rd party website. Employees had to remember where to log into another website and be familiar with an additional interface. The ability to bring these resources into the website could save a lot of time and frustration for an organization with hundreds of team members.
The new website was built on WordPress due to the platform’s flexibility. The previous platform was a closed CMS so it didn’t allow for much customization. We also built the website in multiple phases to test our assumptions. For example, we built a bare-bones concept website early in the project to test the new editing experience for county employees. These testing checkpoints provided us valuable feedback throughout the project. Keeping this feedback loop in place helped increase employee buy-in and keep our vision aligned with the stakeholders.
One of the main goals of the new website was to lead with a universal search. When done right, search engines can help answer any visitor questions and lead them to the right information. We revamped the navigation to make it easier to find info, but we knew the search engine would still be the most important aspect of helping visitors.
The new search engine allows our team to view user statistics and provide specific feedback based on key metrics. For example, if visitors looking for “property taxes” keep clicking on a link that is low in the results, we need to consider giving that content a boost for that search. Continually making slight adjustments means the search results evolve over time and better serve visitors.
Nobody likes having to check a website constantly to find new content. The notification center allows visitors to simply subscribe to the department content that is most relevant to them. Now email notifications are sent out to applicable subscribers whenever relevant content is published.
Visitors can also subscribe to specific projects. For example, a resident can subscribe to a ditch project that is near their house to monitor construction updates.
Interactive Help Form
As much as we’d love for the search engine and navigation to handle all questions, there are always going to be some visitors that need assistance. We could have used a simple contact form, but that often leads to more support questions than necessary, all going to the same county staff person.
Instead, we made a contact form that operates more like an interactive helper. The visitor simply selects from a small group of options over a few steps to find their way. The form will give the visitor suggested resources if it is clear they are looking for something that exists on the website. If not, it still helps the website route their question to the most relevant person in the county. This little bit of extra info from the visitor can help reduce support requests and lower the time it takes to receive an answer from the county.
New Employee Dashboard
First and foremost, we had to keep employees engaged after the project build phase. To start, we integrated a single sign-on feature for the county Microsoft accounts. While this might seem like a subtle improvement, it helped increase employee engagement a lot! It is one less username and password to manage. For a lot of people, that small convenience can be the difference between using the website and turning away in frustration.
After logging in users typically see the default WordPress dashboard. This interface can be a bit overwhelming, especially for users that only log in a few times a year. To make it a more helpful interface, we created a custom dashboard that simplifies that editing process greatly. The users only see the bare minimum info needed along with suggested resources and a help desk.
From an admin perspective, we helped simplify management in a few key ways. We only used a handful of custom user roles so it was easier to keep track of permissions and user access. New users are automatically assigned the basic user role after logging in the first time using their Microsoft account. This allowed new employees to view internal resources without having to bug a website admin for access.
However, an admin does have to upgrade a user’s role to be able to add or edit content. After editing or creating content, notifications are sent directly to Slack to make it easier for admins to monitor activity. To further help in managing content, we built a few custom tools that monitor the content for orphaned pages, view content relationships, and more.
The new website also features a much flatter architecture. The old site was a more traditional hierarchy of content. A flat structure allows for much greater flexibility and removes a lot of duplicate content. For example, a policy page can now be tagged with multiple departments and/or boards. Previously, that page would have had to be replicated for each applicable department or board. Not only is that more work upfront, but it is also more time consuming to keep updated going forward.
Continuing to Evolve
The most important aspect of the website is continuous improvement. There is only so much you can do in the initial build. Regardless of all the data, there are always going to be plenty of assumptions. At the end of the day, you have to release the project into the wild and start collecting new data and feedback.
The new Otter Tail County project is set up to do just that – evolve. Some parts, like the search engine, can improve to some degree on its own. Other improvements require more manual effort but good data can make that process much more effective. Either way, the website is getting better every day!