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How One Wisconsin County Totally Transformed Its Confusing Website

Sheboygan County Wisconsin

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Sheboygan County’s IT manager details the thought process on a successful Web redesign.

A couple years ago, the website for the government of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, was just another mind-boggling online local government gateway. The navigation structure may have made sense at one point, but it was a mess. So was the content-management system. The county’s website wasn’t visually appealing. It even used some clipart.

County officials decided to totally revamp their online portal two years ago in the website’s first major redesign since 2000.

While a website redesign is often an aesthetic opportunity to pick different colors or choose new fonts, Sheboygan County viewed it as a strategic moment to not only restructure how important information was organized and presented but also as a way to unclog a major internal operations bottleneck: the lone programmer who maintained the website.

Today, there are more than 80 county workers who are actively involved in editing content and maintaining parts of the retooled site, hosted at the rebranded and easier-to-remember Web address:

Sheboygan County worked with Santa Monica, California-based Vision Internet to help plot out the redesign process and create a new aesthetically-pleasing (and award winning) website with a more straight-forward content organizational and navigation structure.

GovExec State & Local recently chatted with Sheboygan County IT Manager Josh McDermott about the process his local government used to think about how to redesign the web portal and restructure the county’s web operations.

GovExec State & Local: What was the old website like?

Josh McDermott: It was basically a static website where we needed a dedicated IT staff person to maintain it. As far as the visual aspect of it, it wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing. If you look at the mid-’90s, it was probably an OK site, but as things evolved, as technology evolved, it really had an outdated look to it. There was clipart on it. It was completely unorganized.

Getting information out there came down to who wanted what on where. There wasn’t a formal policy with information on the homepage or on department pages [and] things of that nature.

There was an IT bottleneck, really, when it came to the process for getting things updated. What we had was one staff person who took all the requests and did all the programming. And if they were here today and had time, he might get it done [today]. Otherwise, it might get done tomorrow. It might get done Monday.

It wasn’t totally efficient. I don’t think it was totally as transparent as it should have been.

GovExec State & Local: Did the county get complaints from users in the county about the website or suggestions of what the website could be? Or was it more of situation where internal users pressed for change?

McDermott: It was both. It was a navigation nightmare. It wasn’t easy to find information. So if we had elections, if we were posting minutes and agendas for the county board, it was multiple clicks to get to information.

It wasn’t very organized . . . [there were] lots of links. Really, it boiled down to refreshing our image but also becoming much more efficient at the same time. We wanted to do both. That’s why we proceeded with redoing the website.

GovExec State & Local: What were some of the thoughts about how can we untangle the mess of the old website and create something that is more reasoned and easier to navigate? How long of process did it take to figure out what the priorities were?

McDermott: It took a little bit of time. The total project was nine months. A lot of the legwork being done was me reaching out to each department and saying, “All right, what do we need? What do we absolutely have to have? What would be nice to have?” And: “What is trash? And: “What are things are you looking for migrating to this new site?”

The other thing with the old site was that it had its limitations and it kind of boiled down to the staff member if they wanted to go out of their way. It wasn’t dynamic.

It’s important to get employee feedback on these projects and make [employees] feel part of the solution because they are ultimately responsible for the information on it.

. . . Our old website, out on the web server you’d look at it and it would be 500 pages of just static HTML pages. It was all done in Dreamwaver. So trying to cut that down. That alone helped clean up the navigation. The other elements of it were the documents associated with the website. There were thousands of documents, probably 2,000 or 3,000 documents.

What we did was looked at all those pages [and cut] all those pages down [and cut] all those documents down [to] figure out what was duplication. We might have had documents maintained in three departments that were posted on three department pages. The idea moving forward was to centralize that where it’s only one document but maybe it appears on three department pages.

But really, cutting down the volume in the scope of it all was helpful and organized it better. From Vision [Internet’s] standpoint, they had a few unique ways of organizing it. So you have your standard “About the County,” or “About the Department” areas or the County Board areas. But they also offer other ways of finding the same information.

[For] people coming to the website looking for a marriage license . . . on our old website, you’d have to go to the County Clerk page. People coming to the website aren’t thinking, “Oh, I’ll start with the County Clerk, then I can find the marriage license information.” Vision helped us retool that but also offer multiple ways to find the same information.

They had the Department section, so the County Clerk was listed there. But then we also created an “I Want To” section. In “I Want To,” you click find, and then, “Oh, I want a marriage license or fishing license or tax information” or whatever. Same thing with jobs. [Put emphasis on] just your heavy hitters and make them available in multiple ways.

That also helps from the user perspective where people have different ways of going about things—different ways of finding things. So it gives them more options and more channels for the information they need.