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Grosse Pointe Farms

May 15, 2013

Farms introduces improved city website with new features

Residents will be able to pay bills, register for programs online

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — Like most communities, the Farms has had a website for a number of years.

Unfortunately, as residents and other visitors have pointed out, it wasn’t a particularly good or attractive website, nor was it easy to navigate. And as city administrators can attest, it wasn’t easy to update.

Well, that was then, and this is: Wow. A completely revamped site quietly debuted online last week at the same address — www.ci.grosse-pointe-farms.mi.us — and was slated to get a formal rollout during a May 13 City Council meeting. Residents will find more timely information, better graphics, a host of scenic shots of the city and much more, all with a modern design.

“My favorite thing is how easy it is to navigate,” said Assistant City Manager Monica Irelan, who served as the main administrative liaison for this project. “You can find whatever you’re looking for.”

A redesigned website was one of the goals of the relatively new Communications Committee, which was formed last year. The Grosse Pointe Park-based Costello Design Group submitted the winning bid for the redesign.

City Manager Shane Reeside said the project cost the city $35,000, toward which Irelan said the city’s nonprofit Grosse Pointe Farms Foundation has pledged $10,000. The redesign took about seven months, Irelan said.

“From the ground up, the website has been rebuilt,” Reeside said.

One of the problems with the old site, said Irelan, was its platform.

“The old site was actually on an old platform that’s no longer used,” she explained.

With the new site, Reeside said they’ve been able to expand features and can add new ones in the future.

Users should also find it much easier to offer feedback or get answers to city questions. Irelan said every page has a question and inquiry link where people can send an email that will automatically be directed to the proper official, depending on the page. She said they’re promising people who send queries that someone will respond to them within 24 business hours. This could be anything from a question about a city service to help with a permit.

At press time, as of May 15, residents were supposed to be able to register for parks and recreation programs and pay for those online.

“It is our goal to provide more comprehensive tools for residents of Grosse Pointe Farms to register for classes, download and submit park forms and to provide a web-based program to distribute current information on activities and programs,” said City Council member Martin West, chair of the Communications Committee, in a press release.

By the start of the 2013-14 fiscal year July 1, residents will also be able to pay city bills like water and taxes online, check their water usage and see their city bills, and obtain dog licenses, park passes and building permits, among other options, Irelan said.

“The goal is to make it user-friendly and to automate as much as we can,” she said.

Officials hope this encourages new business development and construction in the city, as well.

“Not all contractors (who work in the Farms) are local,” Irelan said of being able to fill out and file permits electronically. “That way, they can take care of business from their office.”

The Farms now has its own page on Flickr — under an icon at the top of the homepage that looks like a pair of binocular lenses — where residents can submit their own photos for inclusion, she said. The city’s Flickr page is at www.flickr.com/photos/grossepointefarms.

“We openly welcome anyone to go to the Grosse Pointe Farms Flickr (site) and upload pictures,” Irelan said.

Residents, community groups, churches and others will be able to upload event listings to a calendar, as well, she said. Like the Flickr page, listings will be reviewed before they’re linked on the city’s website.

To view the city’s new website, log onto www.ci.grosse-pointe-farms.mi.us.

This is a huge improvement over the old site, there is no denying that.
The design looks great and I hope some of the other pointes notice the step forward the farms has taken here.
However, when building a website these days, either as a redesign or a new project, there are two features I think that are often overlooked or over-shadowed by an impressive visual layout. This new website seems to have missed the mark on both.

The first is the mobile experience. The number of people using a phone or tablet to access the web is not a user base to ignore. Smaller screens and sometimes slower internet connections can ruin the experience for these users on your site. Any web developers working with current technology knows a website can be built to automatically adapts to the size of a device's screen so the user isn't pinching/zooming/scrolling all over the place just to read a webpage. With the upcoming registration/payment features I would think this feature even more important. But upon visiting the site on my mobile I saw the scrunched-up, unreadable page I had to zoom in on to read.

The second is accessibility. The navigation for the new site is definitely more organized and has made it easier to find things. But there are people who use assistive-technologies (such as screen-readers) for all sorts of reasons in order to help them navigate the web. Making a site read well for them too is not something that should be overlooked. Its even been incorporated into the Americans with Disabilities Act (see section 508 of ADA). Again there are simple things developers can do to improve (ARIA roles, alt tags, tab-indexes) the experience for these types of users but I've failed to see any of them implemented here.

While this is a great new look for the farms site and is much easier to navigate for most people, its unfortunate to see this kind of investment fall short in a few key areas.