Examining Municipal Government Design Trends

Municipalities are becoming increasingly interested in revamping their existing web presence with new design concepts and attributes. We’ll assess the value each of these trends has in engaging citizens.

In this piece, we'll examine the following design trends, providing examples currently in use by municipalities across North America along the way.

  • Hero Banners
  • Custom Icons
  • Cards
  • Mega Menus

Hero Banners

As the first visual component that users interact with when landing on a website, hero banners are one of the most effective ways of leaving a strong visual impact. A hero banner is a large, high-quality image that takes up most of the page’s width. They are designed to be eye-catching, and often feature bold statements or calls-to-action.

Hero banners, often incorporated into slideshows, are increasingly popular among municipal governments worldwide because they serve as a fine opportunity to showcase a location’s appeal. The most obvious and common images used for hero banners are views of the town or city’s skyline or natural beauty, like the below examples:

Government of Utah Hero Banner

 

City of Boston Hero Banner

Stunning landscapes and awe-inspiring skylines aren't the major strengths of all municipalities. In these cases, hero banners can be effectively used to tell stories and profile citizens. In fact, high-quality photography of anything that captures a symbol of the municipality will usually do the trick, such as Waxhaw, North Carolina's water tower:

Waxhaw, NC Hero Banner

Or the City of Montreal's human focus on their new website:

Montreal Hero Banner

Hero banners are a powerful way of leaving a strong first impression on site visitors, helping drive real-life visits to the municipality or create a more pleasant digital experience for citizens. Naturally, due to the amount of real estate they take up on the screen, it’s important to make sure the photography is extremely high quality, the image chosen conveys the message appropriately, and the colours are vibrant and impactful, without distracting users from content.

Custom Icons

When adopting big, bold trends like hero banners, it is important the smaller details are not forgotten. Custom icons are a playful way municipalities can express the uniqueness of their brand through colour and style. There is a certain sterility to using stock icons that is all too familiar with most people who use the web regularly. Custom icons are a simple and subtle (but equally impactful) way to create an inviting atmosphere, leave the impression that this is a truly modern website, and that great care was taken to get the details right.

City of Boston Custom Icons

Custom icons are not just about style - they can provide an easier way for users to quickly identify topics by associating them with visual elements, improving the navigability of the site. However, if implemented carelessly, custom icons can produce the opposite effect if they lack clarity. In these cases, the icons merely add noise to the site that increases user frustration as they attempt to complete their tasks. Designers should avoid trying to convert complicated ideas into icons to mitigate this hindrance to the user experience.

Cards

Inspired by the emergence of Material Design by Google, the card component has steadily risen in popularity over the years on all platforms (not necessarily related to Google products). Cards organize information on a webpage in an easy-to-digest manner. They showcase important topics in bite-sized chunks, that are visually similar to physical cards.

One of the benefits of material design elements like cards for a webpage is the innate familiarity users feel with these graphical elements since they are based on real-life objects. This creates a more inviting user interface for citizens to engage with.

While cards are fun and great for categorization, keeping them clean and free of any excessive detail or 3-D elements to give them that extra “real life” look should be avoided at all costs, as it makes a website look extremely dated.

NYC Website Cards

Mega Menus

Although it is the standard in online retail, this is one trend that municipalities should be heedful of adopting. Mega menus are navigational aids that contain drop down elements triggered by the user as they hover over it, typically located at the top of a web page. Within this drop down a mega menu frequently contains a list of categories and all of its individual sub-topics. As a result, this method of showcasing a website’s navigation can easily contain large amounts of information that users must then parse through in order to find what they are looking for to complete their task.

From a business perspective, mega menus are a logical and efficient way to list all of a site’s offerings under different topics and headings users can identify. Unfortunately, mega menus often become a burden to the user experience. They regularly become dumping grounds for information, and there isn’t a strong prioritization of content displayed or guided user experience - simply a list of topics to select. A rule of thumb in user experience design is to not let the user think. Creating frictionless digital experiences is key, particularly for municipal governments trying to engage citizens. Why make paying for a parking ticket any harder than it has to be?

Montreal Mega Menu
Mega Menu on the City of Montreal's existing site

 

With that in mind, a growing number of municipalities are structuring their content based on what services the typical user needs most, as opposed to listing all services in mega menus. If your website manages extensive volumes of content and you feel mega menus are necessary, it is best to supplement mega menus with a clean, simple, and powerful search bar to encourage users to search before combing through lists of topics. Perhaps the search bar could even be placed in the center of an elegant hero banner?

Montreal Site Updated Navigation
Improved navigation on Montreal's new beta site. Note the human-like "I want to..." prompt as opposed to a list of services.

 

Takeaway

It is clear that a growing number of municipalities are adopting design trends that continue to improve the user experience of their citizens. These design trends can be consolidated and summarized as a single general trend: a shift from business-centric design to user-centric design. While the business mindset is logical, it is often unintuitive and fails to address the user experience problems that arise naturally when human primates are placed in front of computers.

At OPIN, we believe that the clever and strategic use of design for visual storytelling, making an impact, and engaging citizens is the future of digital government. Feel free to look over some of our past work with governments, or subscribe to our newsletter for more content like this.