Published 22 July 2020

3 Steps for Shifting Government Services Online During COVID-19

With government offices in reduced-capacity, many cities are now faced with the decision to either pare back government services or shift their services online to maintain access for members of their community.

As a Lead Product Manager at Exygy, my work often means partnering with governments to explore new ways of connecting virtually with their communities. For many civic agencies, digital channels are often under-used because the process for translating an in-person service to the web can be daunting without the right guidance.

Because so many civic agencies are now considering the move to digital, I’d like to share the 3 most common challenges I encounter and easy steps you can take to improve your digital presence.

1. Streamline Your Digital Signage & Navigation

Imagine walking into a government building to file some papers. What’s the first thing you look for? A directory or – barring that – a friendly-looking face to hound. Many civic organizations provide a receptionist and front desk to help visitors find what they’re looking for, but rarely does this courtesy extend into the digital world.

Government websites are often complex and extensive. There can be hundreds, if not thousands of informational pages, forms, and links, which – while comprehensive – can be overwhelming to navigate.

Imagine that you’re in a hurry and want to order a specific meal for your daughter, who has a gluten allergy. Do you want the Cheesecake Factory menu or a quick chat with the server?

It’s about simplicity.

When making your “virtual government” easier to navigate, never underestimate the power of a simple search bar and a pared-down list of key services! Check in with your tech team or webmaster. More often than not, they will have information about the most-visited pages and forms, which will help you decide which links to feature on your homepage. Other tools like Hotjar can give you further insight into what people are doing on your site (and where they’re getting stuck), but also allow you to ask what’s happening. Prompts like, “Did you find what you’re looking for?” are jackpots of valuable feedback that can help you identify pages on your site where people are getting lost, frustrated, and confused. These “problem areas” are then prime places to insert digital “signage”, like a navigation prompt, page recommendations, or a contact form, to help redirect users in the right direction.

SF.Gov (above) is a great example of a government site with clear digital signage. The “Services” section clusters pages into a few categories and uses plain English in both the header and supporting text, so that residents can easily understand where to click. At the top, the search bar is easily visible with its thick blue outline and allows people with specific needs to quickly find specialized content.

For specific needs, I often find that users are more likely to use a search bar (whether on your site or on Google) to sort through content on your site. Where I see users getting frustrated are when the search results don’t provide content that’s actually relevant.

So, is your search helping or hurting you?

In a recent study of searches for e-commerce sites, 64% users found what they wanted in their first search attempt. That same study also found that the chance of success “drops from 64% to 28% when we go from an easy to a difficult search problem.”

To diagnose the issue, look at the analytics. If your site is set up with a web address that changes each time a search is performed, you can look at the data to find out which searches are most popular and which searches are driving the most users to leave your site, rather than directing them to the right content. If all of the searches seem to be driving folks away, then you may want to take a closer look at the search service that your site is using. Depending on what platform your site was built in, the search functionality may be too basic. Tools such as Solr or Algolia can offer visitors more robust results, though they may require some developer support.

2. Give Your Site a Human Voice & Feel

Here’s another scenario. Imagine walking into the DMV and asking the agent, “Hi, where can I renew my car tags?” Without looking up, the agent replies, “Before you begin, you must have your license plate number and the last 5 digits of your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) for a vehicle or the Hull Identification Number (HIN) for a vessel/boat, have your smog certification filed with DMV, if needed, have a renewal notice that shows your current address OR confirmed through the Change of Address system that your address has been updated.” The agent pauses briefly, before diving into another lengthy monologue.

“Woah!” you reply, alarmed. “I don’t need all of this! And I don’t know what half of these words mean!”

When people speak to each other in conversation, we tend to speak simply and directly. We listen, understand, and then provide relevant information in a concise manner.

Many websites do not do this well. Rather than simple language, I have seen many civic sites chock full of intimidating legal language and a dizzying array of forms with long, difficult-to-remember number-letter combinations. At the same time, many online sites (not just civic ones!) inundate their users with too much information at once, making it hard for people to find what they really need.

Why does this happen?

One challenge governments often face when translating their services to the digital realm is balancing legal specificity with human language. Luckily, government agencies also employ the same people that solve this challenge every day– frontline workers, such as case workers, receptionists, or customer service teams. Start by interviewing the employees who provide support to in-person visitors. You can also review available call logs or training manuals. From each of these sources, note how they listen to a person’s need, mentally map the request to a service, and then translate what needs to be done into simple terms and instructions.

Another strategy that I’ve seen work well with government agencies is creating an internal content guide, including clear guidelines on the voice and tone to strike in written and digital communications, as well as a dictionary of common terms, with their plain language translations and definitions. Each of these resources can be immensely helpful when translating content across hundreds of pages into succinct, clear paragraphs that any person can understand.


Digital Gov, a department that provides guidelines for federal government sites, has created a style guide that can be used as a starting point. We recommend adding your own “plain language” dictionary to help translate challenging content into more inclusive language.

What if my site is too big?

If your site has hundreds, if not thousands of pages, I recommend prioritizing, with analytics as your guide. You don’t need to have every single page translated all at once. Instead, find out which pages are the most popularly visited and further prioritize by pages that have either very short (indicating users that visit and immediately leave) or very long (indicating users may be getting lost in content) visit times. If you need to prioritize even more, other factors such as word count and readability can also be useful to help narrow your content redesign.

3. Provide a Clear Path to Help

No matter how well-designed your site is, I guarantee that some will still get lost, confused, or angry. If you’ve followed the steps above, then don’t worry, it’s not your fault. The truth is, people can be looking at your site from any context– absentmindedly, while folding laundry; hurriedly, before their children wake up in the morning, or panicked, having just been laid off.

No matter the case, it is always good practice to include a clear and ever-present way for your visitors to easily get help. Tools like Beacon or HelpScout provide easy integrations to add access to support to your site, while other offerings like Tawk.to, Smartsupp or Chatlio (great if your support team uses Slack) can allow you to connect visitors directly with call support or live chat.

But be sure to avoid this common support pitfall!

If you want to implement help, make sure that your support team also has the tools and resources they need to be able to respond to visitors in a reasonable time. Services like Zendesk or Intercom centralize help requests and can integrate with GMail or Outlook, so that your team can quickly find, assign, and respond to inquiries. At the same time, including clear language to users about expected time of response, as well as offering different channels for different types of support (urgent/sensitive, general/informational, etc), can help your team better prioritize.

Final Thoughts

If you are looking to shift your government services online, the main things to remember are these:

  1. Streamline your virtual signage & navigation: Use data, observation, and feedback to identify the places that users most want to go, as well as where they’re getting stuck the most often, and provide the appropriate nudge to help them get to where they need to be. Some resources to get started: Google Analytics and Hotjar.
  2. Give your site a human voice and feel: Talk to frontline workers to understand how best to translate your in-person services into a digital experience and consider creating an internal content guide with a dictionary of plain language terms. You can also use analytics to decide which online pages to start with first. Some resources to get started: “How to Conduct User Interviews”, Digital.gov Style Guide.
  3. Offer a clear path to help: Make sure users can easily find help from anywhere on your site and, now that most of your users will be online, make sure that your support staff has the right tools and resources to support the increase in online requests. Some resources to get started: Beacon, Chatlio, or Zendesk.

Curious about how your organization might shift its services online? Let’s chat.


Lucy Chen
Lucy Chen
Lead Product Manager

A former designer and recovering consultant, Lucy is passionate about creating effortless experiences with meaningful impact.