Home page of Seattle.gov in early 2011

Improving the Usability of Seattle.gov


In 2010, the City of Seattle had not done a website redesign in almost a decade and the one they were planning was the most drastic they had ever attempted. The process had stalled out as disagreements over the direction of the new design deepened. The Department of Information Technology needed to assess how well their new ideas would work but they weren’t sure how. That’s where I came in.


  • Asses and improve the usability of Seattle’s first homepage redesign in nearly a decade, all on a shoestring budget.
  • “Teach them to fish” so the city would be capable of running usability studies on their own in the future.

Dates: June 2010 – October 2010 (4-5 months)

Audiences and Stakeholders: The 600,000+ Seattle citizens; The 10s of thousands of Seattle business owners; the 100+ employees of the Seattle Dept of IT; the Mayor’s Office

My Roles: Usability Researcher for Knowledge As Power (a former 501(c)3 organization)


  • Produced a report of recommendations for the city which improved the usability of the proposed redesign. We helped simplify the IA and navigation, and impressed upon them the importance of aesthetics when it comes to user trust and perception.
  • The usability study was successfully produced on budget of less than $1,000.
  • The stakeholders – including the mayor and the city council – were delighted with our work.
  • The resulting website won a Best of the Web award for city government.
  • We broke down communication silos; departments that had not worked together in 5 or more years realized this lack of communication was an active disservice to Seattle citizens.


At around the time we started the project, the Seattle city website had looked like this for almost a decade. This is actually pretty ok for circa turn-of-the-century web design, but the world had moved on.

In order to run a usability study, we needed to first choose tasks, which lead me to conduct a content inventory/audit for the current site. It quickly became clear that this could not be exhaustive if we were to stay on track, but thankfully 3-4 levels deep was all that was necessary

A snippet of a content inventory, which shows lots of words connected to other words by lines, arrows, and bubbles


I based the study on Krug’s methodology. Getting all of the website stakeholders to work together (or even be in the same room) had been something of a hurdle for the city in the past and, after the content inventory, I knew this had to change if the usability study results were to lead to any real improvements. We had the backing of the Mayor’s office and knew invitations to participate would be honored, so I thought the live observation room would be a great approach.

Cover of Steve Krug's book "Rocket Surgery Made Easy"

Recruiting was also up to us, so we made up some quick-and-dirty tear off flyers and spent the better part of a day posting them on telephone poles and on community bulletin boards around every neighborhood in Seattle. That was a lot of work to get ~dozen participants, but it was worth it to get a nice variety of folks.

A flyer advertising the usability study with tearoffs

We actually ran two studies as a between subjects A/B usability test. The city wanted to have an understanding of how the redesign improved over the old design, so it was necessary to be able to compare how the tasks fared on both the old site and the proposed redesign.

A person trying to navigate around the old City of Seattle website
Testing tasks on the old site.

As part of the process we produced some wireframes for them as a way of communicating the sort of changes they would be able to make to their proposed redesign.

a wireframe drawing of a proposed seattle.gov website
This wasn’t produced from whole cloth, it’s a massaging of the ideas they had already put together as a way of communicating recommendations

The debriefing session (which I wish I had pictures of) after the stakeholders watched the users in real time was near miraculous. The shared understanding of users’ struggles helped them build new professional relationships and made it easier for them to accept recommendations for improvement, most of which they adopted. One stakeholder even confided that the observation sessions helped clear log-jams that had been intractable for years.

Our end-product was a series of reports. Feel free to read through one of the reports.