Left In Lowell

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September 12, 2013

New Website…No Improvement (Update for WORSE!)

by at 9:47 am.

I hate to say this, I really do, but I am pretty underwhelmed utterly disgusted with the city’s new website. On several levels, unfortunately.

Let’s begin with the aesthetics. The site looks 10 years out of date, design-wise. I know that a municipal website doesn’t have to be all Web 3.0 with tons of bells and whistles and hipster giant fonts and illustrated icons, but at least keep up with the times visually. The Pollard Memorial Library comes to mind, their new site looks excellent. In addition, I’ve checked the new city website on my smartphone and it has zero elements of responsive design. Responsive web design is when your site changes its look and layout and interface, at least a little bit, to accommodate different screen sizes and devices. This can be achieved at a pretty primitive level with the use of relative widths rather than fixed (a percentage of the screen instead of specific pixels) and the way you lay out your columns in a page, etc. There are also far more advanced ways to effect responsive design (up to and including eliminating unnecessary content or simplifying the navigation).

Speaking of navigation, the site is actually nearly useless on my smartphone touch device. On a touch device, you do not have the option of a “mouse hover” - when you touch something on the screen, like, say, a top menu item, if that item is activated as a link, you will not get the opportunity to see and choose something on the drop down menu. This is what happens on the site on my phone. You can get to the menu items’ drop downs if you touch and hold (which pops up a browser dialog box I then have to use my back button to get rid of). Then I can select something from the menu. Most average users might not even know to do this, however. And they shouldn’t have to do it, in the first place.

The fact that this was not tested and fixed for rollout really irks me. (This is on top of the fact I have to zoom in to the site because it’s not responsive design, thereby when I do get the drop down menu, which is fixed width and very wide, I have to scroll around to see the items on the menu dropdown.)

OK, so besides a yucky look and feel, a clunky user interface, and outright *failure* on a mobile device, perhaps the new site makes it easier to find things, and be at least useful for people (on a computer if not a mobile browser). Let’s test that…

I decided to see if I could easily find the list of current members of the Election Commission. For starters, I utterly failed. At the end of my journey through pages to find this info, the data appears not to be populated. Don’t go live on ANY website with unpopulated content, people. Web Redesign 101. But the way to get there was onerous, too!

My first inclination was to click on the city department page (City Departments -> Elections and Census). That page is pretty sparse, content-wise (a mistake if you ask me). When I didn’t quickly find the Election Commission link (more on that in a sec), I moved back up to the main menu and noticed that the menu dropdown for City Departments also holds other items you might not think of as actual “city departments,” such as “City Council” and “City Mayor” and “Boards and Commissions.”

Now, with every redesign of a site you’re already familiar with (*coughFacebookcough*), there’s going to be changes that take you more than a moment to get used to. I get that. However, I think there is some mislabeling of menu items here that make that even harder. And, just as an aside, I rechecked the Elections and Census *department* page because dammit, there should be a link to the Election Commission there, and turns out there is. In a busy sidebar, under the label “Department Facts.” WTF?? Talk about mislabeling. Maybe “Important Resources” or “Relevant Links,” not “Facts.” I can tell someone without much user interface (UI) experience designed this content architecture. Sigh.

OK, back to the path we were on, which was to click on the City Departments -> Boards and Commissions. You get to a page with a couple paragraphs and the list of Boards and Commissions you can click on. That seems normal. I clicked on the Elections Commission link.

I get the homepage for the Elections Commission, where there’s an overview, info about meetings, and (if there were any) news and notices. (Personally, I would use an If statement of some kind to not show that at all unless there was data populating it, but maybe that’s just me. I like to avoid things like non-existent data, or “there are no items in this section” sorts of messages. They irk me, they’re lazy. And the link to “View all News/Notices” sends you to a blank page with no news or notices, and there does appear to at least be News on the home page, so obviously a feature that is broken. Again, why go live with so much left to fix?)

OK, so from my perspective, the list of members of the EC should be prominent on the Elections Commissions homepage. Right? Nope. It’s an incidental link inside the content of the page. I don’t like that. But it gets worse. When you click on that link in the content, “Member details are available here,” you don’t get a member list for the EC. You get a weird page with the entire list of Boards and Commissions. Why make me go to the Boards and Commissions homepage only to go backwards and list all Boards and Commissions?? On the main page for Boards and Commissions, there is NO link like “See members of all boards and commissions” anywhere! There is only a couple of informational links inside the paragraphs and the list of clickable Boards and Commissions which lead to the various home pages for those advisory groups. *headsmash*

OK, back to that weird page. (If you look at the link there, it looks like a temp testing link of some kind. Ugh.) If you then scroll down and find the Elections Commission among that list (again), and click on it…nothing useful happens. First, something takes forever to load. Then, the Election Commission “link” sort of goes all bold, and you get a sort of expanded box underneath, and the word “Membership.” With nothing else in it. And when I say it takes a while to load the page again to merely expand this nearly-empty box, I mean it. Whatever script is being executed to “open” said box is crap. It’s calling to the server, weirdly, so it can’t be a nice simple Javascript or Jquery call (at least, not likely). If this is Ajax or some other similar code, it’s the clunkiest execution of it I’ve seen in a long while. (Ajax-like technology is what makes something like the “forever scrolling” on your Facebook feed…Facebook can load in more feed items on the fly when you hit the bottom of the page, by calling to the server for more data from within the page, instead of reloading the whole page all over again.)

So I’ve clicked many many times, and I have to wait for this ugly, clunky page with the list of advisory boards forever, and then I get…nothing for my pains. Great. Thanks.

Now, you might think this is being nitpicky. But this kind of “real world scenario” testing is what a real web designer/developer does in the process of building and coding out a website. Not to mention, someone with experience in Information Architecture, which this site badly needed (it has a lot of information, which people need to find, with the minimum amount of info thrown at them, but a minimum number of clicks to get there - always a precarious balance). Then there’s the ugly ass design. I just cannot fathom why the city didn’t hire an outside firm to get this project done - at least the IA and the design. The site infrastructure itself seems kind of “out of the box” and not implemented well, either. I don’t know what CMS this was built in, but I think it sucks so far. Without peeping under the hood I can’t tell if it sucks for content authors, but I’d place a bet on “I could have found a better one if they asked me.” I understand that resources are scarce for the city just now, but someone like me with $15,000 and three months could have rocked this project. (Not that I would ever, ever want be contracted by the city, imagine the howling!) I bet the city spent at least that in using up the time of the internal IS department to work on this site.

It boggles my mind. Maybe the city needs a Website Commission. I’ve love to be a member of it, if only because goddammit, I want this done right for a change.

Update: Oh. Mah. Gawd. I just looked at the code. This website uses tables for layout. Of MENUS. Not only is this 2001 coding, it’s TERRIBLE for accessibility. It’s the equivalent of building a new City Hall and forgetting the handicap ramps. And many (most?) of the images have no alt attribute, which is, again, like building a new public bathroom and forgetting to make a handicap stall. It’s seriously bullshit. This site should be blown away right now and the old one brought back until a PROPER website with PROPER coding can be created, preferably far, far away from whoever designed this piece of crap antiquated code. A city website with no good accessibility code is, if not illegal, totally unethical. The state of Massachusetts has made accessibility a core component of its web properties. I don’t know if cities and towns are asked or demanded to stick to those standards, but man. I’m talking, really bad here.

Update II: OH MY FUCKING GOD THERE ARE FONT TAGS. When I said this was 2001 code, I wasn’t being fascetious. Font tags have been depricated since 2003 (see article’s datestamp!)

I give the hell up. Seriously, pull this website DOWN immediately.

8 Responses to “New Website…No Improvement (Update for WORSE!)”

  1. Judith Durant Says:

    Geeze. I just took a quick look. Don’t ask me why, but I often check the Assessors Database. I did not have the time to try to figure out how to get the data that used to be at my fingertips. And what’s that weird “I want to…” with a bizarre list underneath? Just for kicks I viewed the list and chose “Contact” and then “Contact the Gang Hotline.” It’s a good thing I don’t need to report anything, cuz here’s what I got:

    Our apologies…

    The item you requested does not exist on this server or cannot be served.

    Below we have listed some items that might correspond to what you are looking for.

    If you know you have the correct web address but are encountering an error, please send a mail to the administrator of this site.
    webmaster@lowellma.gov

    Thank you.
    Page Not Found

    UGH!!

  2. Lynne Says:

    Yeah, the deeper you dig, the more broken. There are “news feeds” which pull in nothing, Related Links sidebar sections with nothing underneath them (better implementation in the script would be to test for null and not show the title “related links” unless there were some).

    But the accessibility and the touch device problem is unforgivable. You do NOT go live with a governmental website with 94 accessibility problems on the home page (and another 1000+ “possible” problems). Accessibility is supposed to be a core value of a governmental internet property. In this day and age especially! Accessibility standards are years and years old!!

  3. Frannie Says:

    Lynn , thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts about the new website. When I used it yesterday, I thought for sure it was me and I was just being impatient since I always found what I was looking for with the old system but having a terrible time with the new site. I think most website challenged people such as myself would say, what is the rush to put this new site on-line without getting the bugs worked-out? But after reading your comments, forget the bugs…..it’s all about the design. Now what happens……….

  4. Lynne Says:

    I really do think the city needs an impromptu (ad hoc?) Internet Properties Commission staffed with people like me (maybe I’d even put in my resume) to write an RFP and supervise this sort of work. Obviously the internal people do not know what they should be looking for, and/or have no time to do this properly. The city needs to budget a capital investment in this.

    Almost no medium to big company does a full web redesign completely in house. It’s too large an undertaking with too many moving parts. Even if you HAVE web designers on your staff.

  5. Taxpayer Says:

    Would there be links from City sanctioned websites to unsanctioned web-sites as there are now?

  6. Magnolia Says:

    May I offer my opinion from the viewpoint of a plus 70 with minor vision problems.
    I have a 10 year old granddaughter who could do a better job. I did not bother going beyond the front page because I had to put my nose on the screen to read the blue on green listings. At least Lynne and friends would have thought of the contrast and size of print issue as well as the other issues mentioned here. And , yes, I do know how to enlarge the print - but why should I have to, I could read it on the old website. So Lynne, if you start a petition or something to lambaste the city, please let me know so I can sign it.

  7. Lynne Says:

    Magnolia - you hit on one of the points which a test of accessibility brings up when you run the site through - contrast between background colors and link colors have to reach a certain threshold. (I just used a couple of the many online testing websites and they brought this up.)

  8. Gail Says:

    I was able to get to the department I needed with a couple of clicks, but other than the photo of the official and phone numbers, there is no information. You are right, it has gone from bad to worse.

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