I recently got married. This is, I’m told, a thing a lot of people do. And it was a pain in the butt to figure out how to do, legally.
Full disclosure, I know government stuff. I know how this kind of stuff works and I know why it works the way it works. I used to work for State government. But I found myself continually frustrated in dealing with such an ordinary thing. Here’s how my process went:
- Does a web search for “marriage license Indianapolis”
- Throws computer out the window
It’s like the City of Indianapolis is playing a cruel joke, isn’t trying, or just wants to inundate their employees with phone calls. As is evidenced by standing around the building for a minute. Assuming you can get past the 70’s decor, men with guns and badges, and security protocols and confusing door layout. It’s like walking into a third world airport.
But my thoughts here today are on the digital stuff. Because when you do a search for “marriage license Indianapolis” you get a bunch of ways to search for marriage certificates, and then it trails off to some weird third party clickbait sites trying to tell you about marriage.
Near the top of those results is the mycourts.IN.gov site is where you can start a marriage license at the State level, and then it gets passed off to the county level later. It’s nice to have, but in a weird spot. As a user, if I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t know what that was.
All of Indy.gov is showing its age. And I remember when it got refreshed about ten years ago or so.
There are a lot of problems with the site. Namely, no one seems to be paying any attention to it. Which, depending on your perspective, might be how we approach everything in this city.
Case in point: the featured “Live Indy” piece on the homepage leads to a page with a boring letter from the Mayor, and video that doesn’t exist anymore, and some ugly buttons with dancing PDF icons.
What’s wrong with Indy.gov?
- Indianapolis does a poor job of promoting Indy.gov. It’s on the back of police cars…and that’s about it for most people. I’m sure it’s on letterhead, but how often do you get a letter from the City?
- The site isn’t responsive or truly mobile friendly to the point of pride. To its credit, if memory serves, it came along at or around the same time as mobile devices started picking up.
- The site is organized exactly like City government. More on that in a minute.
- The URLs are a disaster. Under no circumstance should they all have “eGov” in the middle of them. That’d be like if all the sites we did were something like yoursite.com/SuperPixel/contact-us/
- What’s promoted on the site is the last of what most people reasonably care about. Like Government Access TV.
- The RequestIndy app, which we’ve had for a long time and a similar service in Detroit was heralded this week online, is borderline unusable. It’s finicky, requires too much obscure information, and rarely gives useful feedback. More on that, too, in a moment.
- Organizations along the side of the page, which takes up a good chunk of the homepage, are organized by person, except “The Courts”, which is shoehorned in there like a bad afterthought, all without recognizing “The Courts” is not a person.
- There’s a terrorism alert widget. This is like the weather widgets of the 90s.
- Pages were done half-heartedly, by people who are not writers, and by people too “inside the bubble” to grasp what people are really thinking. More on this, too, later.
- Pages don’t even link to things you’d think they would. Like this being the homepage for Trash service: http://www.indy.gov/eGov/City/dpw/Pages/home.aspx. It literally doesn’t work because the scripts don’t work in Safari on my $1300 Mac in my lap right now. Apple is the largest company in the world. Stop hiring IT guys who still think Apple users are somehow using toys.
Basic truths about government responsibility
Lets work through all this and unpack what’s going on the best we can. And let’s also understand a few truths about the Internet, government, and how it works with residents.
- Marion County has a high density of people in poverty, like any urban environment. The poor and the very young increasingly use their mobile phone or tablet as their primary computing device. Indy.gov is not for them. It’s barely usable.
- Government has a responsibility of being a provider for the lowest possible specifications. By that I mean government sites have the exclusive duty of targeting “everyone”. At no point does any other site ever need to say, “We’re here for everyone.” Not even Coca Cola tries to target its site to “everyone”. Thus, government generally can’t get away with using fancy new technologies or dropping support for old devices and browsers.
- Citizens don’t have time to consider political spats or hierarchy. They have laundry to fold, kids to pick up, dinner to prepare, and they’d kinda like to watch a little TV for a minute. People organize their days and work around tasks. “Get marriage license”, “set out trash”, “Pay parking ticket”, “Go to jury duty”, etc.
Generally, most people try really hard not to interact with the government they’re part of. It’s for the same reason they try not to interact with EMTs or the police. It’s rarely pleasant, it’s complicated and time-consuming, and often is more trouble than it’s worth — sometimes even requiring lost wages or incurring expenses. It’s a constant slap in the face.
Common use cases for a city website
So what are the top 5 things people reasonably need to know with some regularity, or are very common, or should be really easy to find out?
- “Will my trash get picked up today?” Yesterday was Columbus Day. It’s a weird pretend holiday. Did the trash run? Is my pickup delayed a day?
- “How do I get a marriage certificate?” As I alluded to earlier, this is not simple or clear.
- “How do I register to vote?”
- “Who are my representatives?” Like Councilor.
- “How do I get this [basic] issue fixed?” Like debris, obstructions, graffiti, pothole, etc.
This is where you get information on trash pickup: http://www.indy.gov/eGov/City/dpw/Pages/home.aspx
There is no mention of service alerts. It’s assumed you should just know. This page’s navigation menu fails on Safari, too.
Googling for “marriage certificate Indianapolis” is useless, we’ve learned. But what if you search for “Marriage Certificate” on Indy.gov? You get 1 result, which takes you to this useless page:
Again, I don’t want to see other people’s. I want to get my own!
“Justin, they’re called ‘marriage licenses’, not ‘certificates’.” Okay, fine. A search for “marriage license” turns up 3 results. The first one, titled, “Main Marriage License Page”, brings you here:
Clicking “Marriage Licenses” on that page takes you in an endless loop if you’re in Safari or Chrome. It fails to load any other page except that one you’re already on.
Let’s assume you figured out or know that the Clerk’s Office is responsible for marriage licenses.
So you end up on the Clerk’s site. Look at that menu under “Marriage Licenses”. It still includes a page for this: http://www.indy.gov/eGov/County/Clerk/Marriage/Application/Pages/Blood-Test.aspx
Then get rid of it!
Still don’t know how to get my license. And this is where most people would give up and call, hoping that it wouldn’t put them in Phone Tree Hell. The answer is quite simple:
Show up with your fiancé at the Clerk’s Office in the City-County Building, be of legal age, and bring a copy of your ID. It costs $18 for Marion County residents.
(My words, not theirs.)
Again, this is the site being organized around how attorneys and government workers think, not how people actually behave or use services. That may work in a small town or city website where budgets and tasks are smaller, but Indy’s world class. It’s a major urban center. It has different priorities and constituents.
Moving on, let’s ask how we can register to vote. Too bad you ended up on this page:
How completely useless and unhelpful. Again, it’s requiring a phone call and making more work for city employees and for users. It’s forcing me to switch mediums and throwing me at the whim of a Google search and god knows what other site.
But lets assume we’re registered, because we did that at the (State) BMV. We just want to know who our officials are because we moved to a new address.
From that last link it kicks you off to a new tab, a new department, a new look, to a bunch of PDFs of maps:
This is arguably the most infuriating thing to me on the entire site. This requires you to either know your district number, or, search through each PDF until you find the one that looks like your part of town. Again, completely useless, lazy, user-hostile, and downright embarrassingly inadequate.
So now that we’ve established I can’t get married, decided I can’t or won’t vote because this is needlessly cumbersome, where do I go to get this dead deer off my street? Or fix that pothole. Or really any basic city service that’s not a police or fire run?
Under the title “Mayor’s Action Center”, which is frustratingly vague (“I don’t want the Mayor’s help, I just want the street people.”), you get to this page:
One of the banners across the top encourages you to download a years-old iPhone or Android app that barely works with any quality on iOS anymore. Another clicks over to this URL:
Another one of Indy’s increasingly similar-sounding, poorly branded initiatives not to be confused with RebuildIndy, SustainIndy, and now RequestIndy.
The other day I was walking down Capitol, under the I-65/70 overpass, just north of 10th street. There was a shipping pallet that had been abandoned or fallen off on to the sidewalk.
I actually have the RequestIndy app on my phone and pulled it up. It’s slow and looks like crap on my phone since it hasn’t been updated in forever, but it’s all I’ve got.
I tap my location. “This isn’t an address” it says. So I tap again. “This isn’t an address. Make sure you’re not tapping on a street.”
Okay, it evidently wants a building address. Except I’m under an overpass. There are no buildings that close to me. So I tap the closest one and do my best to share in the notes that this is between two other streets, under a highway, and not really where it says. I fill in all my information and submit it. It took at least 5 minutes of me standing awkwardly on the side of the road.
I never get a response or an update. Things just go into the ether and either get handled or ignored. It’s a terrible experience because it’s somehow capable of sending me a confirmation email, but not a “Hey, we got this!” email when it’s taken care of. Which would be a fantastic touch, particularly if you’re the Mayor and want to make it sound like you walked out there yourself to pick up that debris.
A couple days later the pallet was gone. I don’t know if someone else took it for a Pinterest project or the City actually came and found it.
All this is to say: Indy.gov needs help. It’s obvious the City contracted for a site and an app with eGov Strategies, they did the job, and, at the time, it was quite nice. But then the City did what so many clients do: they abandoned it. Or, they turned over key parts to City employees who clearly aren’t in the best position to write about these things, or don’t really care. It has led to a website that is a collection of PDFs, Word Docs, and non-native technologies that don’t work well for employees or residents.
So what’s Indy to do? A lot, actually:
- Implement consistency standards. Appoint someone, probably in the Mayor’s office, to be the official overseer of what gets published. Make sure it has headings, correct formatting, paragraph breaks, and actionable links that are helpful in completing a task.
- To add to that, organize page layouts around tasks, not departments or units.
- Eliminate every unnecessary word. Like this fluff from IMPD:
We are pleased to introduce you to the IMPD through our web site. Use the links on this page to learn more about our department and to access a number of online services. You may contact us at the location noted below or by sending us a message.
- Keep a professional designer on hand to ensure no one ever looks at the website as “done”. It’s never done. You wouldn’t hire an attorney to write your law once and then come back in 7 years.
- Eliminate all jargon from the site, except where required by law, and then make sure there’s a handy definition easy to click on for clarification.
- Stop linking to half a dozen sub-sites and apps in various places in the navigation, or at least do so consistently. Under “City and County Administration”, there’s a link to “Health and Hospital Corporation”, but not the library, airport authority, or IndyGo?
- Further, establish a design standard that goes for everything from police cars to phone apps to the various other services. biz.indy.gov is one such example. And that’s from a link that says “Boards and Commissions”!
- The homepage should feature all news from all departments that are actually worthwhile. It’s updated too infrequently, with little guidelines on what makes the cut, and buries arguably important information.
- Get developers involved with assisting in search optimization. Assume most people won’t know to go to indy.gov, but instead start at Google.
- Make sure everything works smoothly, if not smoother, on mobile devices than on desktop. Banish every propriety plugin imaginable. Like Indy Snow Force’s plow tracker/Snow Viewer, which is in Flash.
Indy can do a lot with good data, and people from the Mayor to the candidates for various offices keep saying that, but the first place people should go, the place that sets the tone and lays the foundation, is a site in chaos.
I recognize the monumental task this is. I recognize the limited budgets, the client interaction the developers no doubt originally had, and I recognize that it’s hard. But it’s a long-term, relatively cheap, economical, and 24/7 outreach service. There’s no reason why Indianapolis couldn’t have the best municipal website in the country that brings everything under one roof. A world-class website that makes waves and sets the standard.
Imagine that everyone knew you could start a business, get a variance, schedule time with a Councilor, report a problem to the police, find budgets and contracts, see their officials, and get help nearly on-demand with any problem through Indy.gov.