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2024 Guide: Best Government Website Design Practices

Improving User Experience, Security, and Quality

A close-up photo of the front of a grand building. The building has a row of tall, white columns with ornate details at the top. There is a clear blue sky in the background.

One of the key ways that governments communicate with citizens is via online platforms — and people expect the same high-quality, user-focused design on government websites as they do on private sector sites.

When it comes to designing government websites, there’s a lot more to consider than choosing the right fonts and color scheme. Government sites are a portal for citizens to interact with their governing bodies — and as such, visitor needs and behaviors should be taken into account at every phase of the design process. Beyond professional design elements, the best government websites are easily navigable, offer high levels of accessibility and data protection, and consider their duty of care for constituents through thoughtful design choices.

At Palantir, we’ve accrued decades of experience transforming government web properties, and creating user experiences that constituents love. In this guide, we present our insights based on our experience with government web design projects to help you on your digital transformation journey.

Of course, the design processes in every organization are unique — if you’d like to talk about how best to fit user-focused design processes into your organization, get in touch.

Establishing a Digital Governance Framework

Government website design is not a one-time project — each time you add or update webpages, subsites, forms and portals, maintaining and adhering to a cohesive set of design standards offers several advantages. Having a consistent visual identity across all of your web properties builds professionalism and trust, and having clearly-documented principles for security and accessibility, for instance, is useful for compliance. This is where digital governance comes into play.

In the simplest terms, digital governance lays a foundation of policies and principles (including accountability and decision-making authority) for your organization’s entire digital presence. Digital governance ensures consistent adherence to policies around accessibility, security, and quality assurance — all of which are particularly crucial for government websites, where compliance to such policies might be legally mandated.

Ideally, you’ll already have a robust digital governance framework in place, which you can adapt to include design-specific policies and procedures. If not, our comprehensive guide will set you on the right track.

At the highest level, a digital governance framework is comprised of three key elements:

  • Governance committee (or committees): The relevant stakeholders who will discuss and determine the governance policies. Who has insights and information about the design decisions that users need?
  • Published governance policies: Central, easily-accessible policies open to the wider organization.
  • Change-making mechanism: Documented processes for amending the policies, and who can affect change.

Once the relevant people and processes have been identified, you can begin to consider the specifics of website design.

User experience (UX) best practices

Government websites serve as an interface between citizens and their governing bodies, so it's crucial that the content is clearly presented, easily navigable, and designed with visitors’ needs at the forefront.

At Palantir, we focus on user-centered design: design that is based upon a deep understanding of people’s needs. We consider visitor behavior during each stage of the design process, and we continuously refine our designs based on thorough testing and evaluation. We also stay apprised of the latest developments in UX, ensuring that the websites and digital services we develop are as accessible and intuitive to use as possible.

Visual Design

From a UX perspective, the key tenets of great visual web design for public organizations are quality, consistency, and simplicity. The visual identity of your website is important for inspiring trust — high-quality graphics and layouts project a professional and trustworthy image. This is especially crucial for government websites, who provide critical information to site visitors and often handle very sensitive user data. Making sure this quality in visual branding is consistent across your website is also key. For example, many government websites offer online services, which require visitors to share sensitive personal data — visitors are less likely to feel comfortable sharing such information if the form itself is low-quality, poorly formatted, and doesn’t look consistent with the visual branding of your other web properties.

The simplicity of your website will not only lead to a smoother visitor experience — it’s also more inclusive. Having your website’s information clearly presented — without too many animations and unwieldy drop-down menus, for instance — makes it more accessible for people with disabilities, as well as those with low internet bandwidths. You should also consider how best to optimize your visual design for different devices, such as mobile.

Content Design

A comprehensive design plan will include your content information architecture, and how pages are sorted and navigated on your site. The ability to find and access the relevant content is critical for effective design — so understanding where visitors expect to find information on specific topics within your navigation tree is crucial. To optimize content architecture, we frequently use Optimal Workshop's tools, such as OptimalSort and TreeJack, to understand how website visitors categorize information.

Security and accessibility

Building security through design

Your business must comply with security measures specific to the laws of the region(s) you operate in. Sites processing data of visitors in Europe need to comply with GDPR, for instance; in the U.S., healthcare-related services must comply with HIPAA, and services for children need to adhere to COPPA regulations.

Generally, some facets to consider when designing secure sites include:

  • Access control: Implement secure login protocols such as strong passwords and two-factor authentication.
  • User data collection and storage: Only store necessary data, and put policies in place for storing, editing and deleting such data.
  • Privacy policies: Have clear, concise, and easily accessible policies.
  • Third-party services: Ensure that services such as analytics or payment systems comply with the relevant data protection regulations.
  • Software updates and patches: Decide who is responsible for regularly installing software updates to cover potential vulnerabilities.
  • Security audits: Decide how often audits should be carried out, and who is responsible for conducting them.

Designing for accessibility

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are an established benchmark for making sure your website is optimized for accessibility. They’re the basis for web accessibility laws in more than 40 countries, including forming the basis for the digital guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the U.S.

At the highest level, WCAG compliance relies on your website being:

  • Perceivable: This includes offering captions for visual content, adding text alternatives for non-text content, and making content audible.
  • Operable: This includes making sure content is easily navigated, can be navigated via keyboard, and doesn’t contain media that might cause seizures.
  • Understandable: This includes using text that is easily understood, making content appear and operate in predictable ways, and helping users to avoid making mistakes.
  • Robust: This includes maximizing compatibility with current and future user-centered tools, including assistive technologies.

Continuous improvement and maintenance

A strong governance framework includes a robust maintenance plan, and thorough documentation of policies that emerge during the design process. Feeding design-related policies (for example, style guides) into your governance plan, and making sure existing policies are up-to-date, ensures brand consistency across your digital properties.

Some questions to consider are:

  • Are there specific color schemes and themes that should be used for certain web properties?
  • Are there specific style sheets (CSS) that should be used for new pages and sub-pages?
  • Are there accessibility guidelines that all new designs must follow?
  • What accessibility compliance testing should new designs undergo?
  • Are there dimensional guidelines for image size (for fast loading), or for the site itself (for responsive design)?
  • If you work with external designers and consultants: what guidelines and documentation should be handed over to them for new projects?

Maintenance of existing sites

Review and maintain your site design regularly. Establishing a regular review cadence means you can ensure consistent delivery of services, respond to and mitigate emerging security risks, and incorporate changes that emerge from testing and user feedback.

Establish who is accountable for carrying out audits and maintenance, and then agree on the triggers for changing and updating websites.

Some questions to consider:

  • Who can propose changes?
  • How are point releases and security updates reviewed and implemented?
  • How will these changes be discussed and decided upon?
  • Who is responsible for implementing them?

As with every stage of our design plan, it’s also good practice to capture the results of these discussions in your governance documentation.

Takeaways: Best practices for user-centered design

Great government websites present information clearly, comply with the highest standards of security and accessibility, and are regularly reviewed and adapted to visitor behavior. They also adhere to a robust governance framework for the best possible oversight today, and in the future.

Ensuring that a deep understanding of visitors’ needs is infused into every phase of a design plan can be daunting — especially for organizations for whom user-centered design is an entirely new concept. We specialize in instituting human-centered working practices at every level of organizations — and we’d love to learn how we can best support your unique digital transformation.

We want to make your project a success.

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