User experience as a concept has been around since the 1990s, but only in the last decade has it entered mainstream conversations and crossed from the technology sector into the business world. The private sector pays attention to user experience because it directly affects customer and brand experience, which ultimately impacts consumer spending. 

Government websites can benefit from optimized user experience as well. As we shared before in our guide on government website performance best practices, by approaching the digital transformation project with the business mindset, the award-winning GOV.UK website saved £61.5 million ($85.9 million) in 2015. The UK government focused on streamlining digital transactions in order to help users accomplish as many digital transactions as possible online, instead of visiting offices and filling out paper forms.

Replacing paper forms with web forms is the first step in digital transformation. The next step is providing access to content and services on a range of devices, form factors, and assistive technologies. But in order to improve digital service adoption in a country, state, county, or city, government websites must provide quick access to the information the user needs, open up the content to all levels of literacy, education and expertise, and make it easy to use, accomplish tasks, bookmark and share. 

A few examples of digital services that benefit from improved user experience include:

  1. Power outage or wildfire reporting.
  2. Discount or equity program application.
  3. Application for school or college.
  4. Public transportation ticket purchase.
  5. Climate change incentive registration and renewal.

Broadly speaking, the elements of user experience include addressing and optimizing:

  1. User needs and business objectives.
  2. Content design and information architecture.
  3. Navigation and search.
  4. Interface and interaction.
  5. Visual design and branding.

So, how do government websites perform when it comes to achieving the above?

In February 2021, we evaluated over 300 California, U.S., and international government websites for user experience using a derived methodology that combines SUPR-Q (Standardized User Experience Percentile Rank Questionnaire) and evaluation frameworks used in web and interactive design competitions, such as IADAS’ Webby Awards.

In our evaluation, we discovered that out of a maximum of 25 points across five criteria, about 47% of tested government websites score 20 points or above (median: 19, average: 19). It is important to note that our scoring was performed in the government website context. We didn’t use the same scale we would use to evaluate other categories, such as e-commerce, marketing campaigns, or streaming services.

Continue reading below to learn why user experience matters, and how to immediately improve your website’s user experience with a few practical tips. In this article, we will cover:

  1. Why does website user experience matter?
  2. What is an excellent government website user experience?
  3. Five simple improvements for a better user experience.

Please note that this article doesn’t cover page speed performance, accessibility, or usability. We plan to cover these other topics in separate articles. Subscribe to our newsletter and connect with us on LinkedIn to receive future updates.

SymSoft team collaboration

Why does website user experience matter?

Good user experience improves customer perception and contributes to better conversions. Smart user interface choices improve sales and generate more revenue. Successful task completion, such as product search, registration, or checkout process gives users confidence and improves brand perception and trust. The same principles can be applied to government websites and digital products to improve task completion rates or improve the adoption of new policies and initiatives.

Here are a few examples of why user experience matters and how a good user interface, as well as concise, clear, and well-organized content, help audiences to complete tasks:

  1. User experience is a matter of survival for your business and can be the reason your competition puts you out of business. Large companies such as Amazon, Intuit, and Airbnb have invested heavily into UX and credit their success to improved UX. Research from Forrester (paid report) shows that, on average, every dollar invested in UX brings 100 in return, which is an ROI of 9,900%.
  2. In 2009, UIE redesigned a major retailer site, renaming the “register” button to “continue,” explaining that the registration was optional when completing the checkout process. Sales went up 45% / $15 million in the first month and $300 million in the first year.
  3. In February 2021, Citibank got a $500 million lesson on the importance of UI design. Ambiguous user interface caused a transaction error, and instead of sending $7.8M in interest to creditors, they sent $900M of the principal.
  4. In 2011, Netflix spurred outrage and 800,000 account cancellations when it unexpectedly announced it was increasing the subscription price by 60% without additional benefits, and days later stated that it was spinning off its DVD rental services into another business, Qwikster. Mark Hurst, the author of the book Customers Included, writes: “Customers’ emotional attachment came directly from the convenience and ease-of-use of the service. Netflix’s brand was (and still is) fully defined by the experience it creates for customers. Hastings’ mistake may be summed up in a simple rule of thumb: Harm the customer experience and you harm the company.” (At that time, the stock price fell from $298 to $54 within a year.)
  5. “In a recent project, an airline approached IBM to improve its kiosks to speed up passenger gate check-ins. While the engineers started by improving the kiosk’s software, designers went straight to gate agents to ask why the check-in kiosks weren’t used more effectively. Designers found out that female gate agents struggled to keep kiosks charged because their constricting uniforms prevented them from reaching electrical plugs behind the machines. By finding the root of the problem, IBM delivered a mobile app that significantly eased the boarding process and reduced airline costs.”Anne Quito
  6. To write content that everyone can understand, use plain language. A 2003 Department of Education literacy assessment conducted with 26,000 adults (PDF) showed that 21–23% of adults—40 to 44 million people—in the US demonstrated literacy skills in the lowest level of prose, document, and quantitative proficiencies. “Many of the individuals in this level were born in other countries; had not attended school beyond the eighth grade; were elderly; or had a disability, illness, or impairment.”
  7. “If the customer can’t find the product, the customer can’t buy it”. Usability studies conducted by Jakob Nielsen show that poor information architecture and content design have a negative impact on users being able to complete tasks on websites. It can also leave users frustrated with the website, causing them to leave, and can even cost you money.
  8. Extensive research by Baymard Institute showed that over-categorization can lead to website abandonment. With over-categorization, users are siloed into overly narrow category scopes where they can overlook the bulk of a site’s options. Certain other website navigation approaches such as overly elaborate navigation menus challenge users’ motor skills, unfamiliar labels increase ambiguity, and duplicate links (for example in the navigation and on the page) increase the number of choices and move the user from the cognitive ease of shopping or browsing, into the cognitively strained mode of thinking.
  9. Larking and Picard demonstrated that people perform better in cognitive tests — such as the Candle problem — after being exposed to a more appealing design. For example, the participants who received good typography afterward performed better on Isen’s cognitive tasks as well as on subjective duration assessment (PDF).
  10. Microsoft’s Research on subjective duration assessment demonstrated that people perceive successful task completion as faster, and unsuccessful tasks as slower. We know from research on website performance that webpage performance and the perception of speed are critical factors that improve conversions.
  11. Hitachi Design Center research found a stronger correlation between the participants’ ratings of aesthetic appeal and perceived ease of use than the correlation between their ratings of aesthetic appeal and actual ease of use. This is called the aesthetic-usability effect. With an aesthetically pleasing design, users are more likely to tolerate usability issues, which can lead to unsolved usability problems.

It is clear that government websites’ improved user experiences can empower constituents to more efficiently utilize government digital services, reduce operational and customer support costs, and increase the likelihood of users completing the goals around which the sites are built. Also, for millions of Californians, in addition to the fast loading pages, simple and easy-to-use websites mean more equitable access to digital services.

What is an excellent government website user experience?

When evaluating website user experience, we use a framework common in expert reviews. We looked at content quality, interaction, ease of navigation, attractiveness, cleanliness, and simplicity of the layout. We scored the five metrics on a scale from 1–5 for a maximum of 25 total points.

We also assessed the level of visual design and if websites featured custom design outside of the standard template. We noticed details such as a modern design, distinctive branding, and authentic and engaging photography. We wanted to evaluate how, if at all, a more custom solution has an impact on the user experience scores, and if the two are correlated. (Turns out they are, read more below.)

Top 10 performing government websites

WebsiteScore
www.state.gov25
www.whitehouse.gov25
www.sba.gov25
www.boston.gov25
www.coveredca.com25
www.govt.nz25
www.saveourwater.com*25
www.dmv.ca.gov25
www.usaspending.gov25
www.canada.ca/en.html24

*Full disclosure: Save Our Water was developed by SymSoft for the California Department of Water Resources.

The top-performing websites above combine best practices, such as:

  1. Simple design. The simple design usually comes off as attractive, unless oversimplified. But more importantly, using fewer attention-grabbing elements on the page reduces memory strain and choice overload, making the communication and messaging clear and easy to follow.
  2. Clear affordances. In the user interaction world, affordances are hints and cues on how an interface element can be used. Successful websites offer many affordances throughout the page, such as navigation cues, interface graphics, and linguistic and pattern affordances. 
  3. Easy navigation. Easy navigation steers the user toward the correct information they are looking for. This includes providing breadcrumbs and intuitive dropdown options, as well as matching navigation and link labels to destination page titles. On the topic of easy navigation, as long as the user can follow a clear information scent, they don’t mind exploring multiple pages going beyond the never-proven three-clicks rule.
  4. Engaging visual design. In most of our top performers, visual design is accomplished by appropriate iconography and authentic photography. A good visual design directs the user to the task they need to accomplish and contributes positively to content findability.
  5. Plain language writing allows users to easily read, understand, and use the website. Good patterns include using pronouns to speak to the audience, active instead of passive voice, and simple verb forms.
  6. Smooth interactions between the users and the website with every interactive element, dropdown, button, and link. In successful websites, animations are used in moderation, and only to provide meaningful user interface feedback.
  7. Custom modern design, website-optimized branding, and high-quality graphics. Top performers pay attention to details such as optimizing the user experience on mobile or selecting authentic graphics. For example, the state.gov website drops the seal from the header on mobile devices and offers convenient mobile navigation. The usaspending.gov website features an animated illustration of budgetary details in the hero area, which is both attractive and useful.

Websites that didn’t score well

Websites that earned poor ratings across one or more metrics:

  1. Prioritized the content about their organization, and its mission, vision, and successes, instead of promoting user-oriented content and access to digital services.
  2. Featured automatically advancing photo carousels that we couldn’t pause, missed interactive states such as hover (mouseover), active, or current page links, and surprised us with an unexpected result of an interaction.
  3. Missed breadcrumbs and the current page signals, buried links to external websites in the on-site navigation, featured difficult-to-use dropdowns and mega menus, missed signals for external links.
  4. Tried to provide more than one content topic on most of the pages, had unnecessary highlights on every page of the website, and displayed insufficient typographic hierarchy and contrast, making it difficult to read long passages of text.
  5. Featured generic and poor quality photography, illustrations, and icons that don’t provide additional meaning. Many times icons are used in place of bullet points, which adds cognitive strain to the user as they try to understand the meaning of the icon. Another trend that we noticed on many California state websites is the use of the same photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and other iconic natural beauties. Despite such vibrant photos, users might be confused about which state website they just visited.
Students using technology.

Five simple improvements for a better user experience

  1. Regularly review website analytics. You’ll never know what visitors are looking for if you don’t observe website metrics, such as page visits, document downloads, and webform interactions. Document downloads and interactions are not tracked automatically in Google Analytics, but they can be set up with Universal Analytics properties or Google Analytics 4 Events. We often find that a handful of popular pages generate the majority of traffic. It’s worth addressing such pages first when improving content, accessibility, webpage performance, and interactive features. 
  2. Learn how people use the website. Learn why and how visitors use the website by watching them navigate the content or perform specific tasks. Common user research methods include usability testing, card sort, and tree test, but there are many more, such as visual design validation, and they can be combined in mixed-method user research that maximizes each user session. For best results, establish a regular cadence and conduct user research at least once a month. User sessions can be as simple as loading up the website over a video conference call with a participant and asking them to complete a task, or publishing a survey.
  3. Improve page loading speed. Studies have shown that fast websites increase online transactions, reduce customer support inquiries, and lower website abandonment rates. By order of priority, optimize images, video files, and fonts, combine and minify CSS and JavaScript files, disable unused plugins, and enable caching. Read more in our website performance best practices guide.
  4. Rewrite high-profile pages. User-centered content means inclusive content. Translate expert language into clear instructions and streamlined information by following the plainlanguage.gov guidelines (there are many more content style guides applicable to government websites). Aim for the ultimate experience and provide concise information in Google Search results descriptions that are useful even before the visitor clicks to visit the website.
  5. Develop an accessible design system. Design systems improve brand recognition, increase trust and credibility, and reduce the learning curve for new visitors. Maintain accessibility compliance and improve website usability with comprehensive design guidelines and interface examples.

Conclusion

Website user experience is easy to improve by implementing a simple but systemic strategy. Once the fundamental processes—such as regular analytics reviews and user sessions—are in place, you can take it a step further and establish practices that will address user experience problems with more focus and intent.

We have extensive experience in setting up organizations for user-centered design and improving their digital assets. For all questions, please reach out to our team of experts. Our favorite approach to solving user experience problems is Design Sprints, which we utilized in award-winning projects developed for SMUD Utility, California Community Colleges, and the California Energy Commission.