Gets an Upgrade

When you're trying to run one of the biggest cities in the world, having a presence on the Internet should be fairly high on the priority list. After all, the Internet is no longer the curious technological Frankenstein of the mid-nineties, but a robust informational tool - and, while a little late, it finally seems as if the City of Toronto gets it., the city's official internet portal, finally received a facelift today, and rightfully so. Frankly, the only labyrinths I prefer are of the David Bowie variety, so any departure from the site's maze-like past is certainly a welcome change. So far, I like what I see; while the home page is the only section to receive the update thus far, it's only a matter of time before the city shows the remaining pages some love as well.

Following this morning's update, I spoke with David Wallace, Chief Information Officer of the City of Toronto, hoping to find out more regarding the design refresh. Instead of updating the entire site at once, Wallace says the city is taking steps towards a progressive launch over the next six months.

"What we wanted was to start with a fresh look, so that users would know we had a taken a new approach to the design of the site," explained Wallace. A big part of that design, he says, is giving users what they want, and not what the city thinks they want.

"In short, the old website was static, heavily link oriented, very busy, and was not entirely user centric," said Wallace, who speaks, not only of his own findings, but of user opinion as well.

After all,'s current design is, at best, difficult to navigate. I can sympathize with those who've gotten hopelessly lost, only to resurface ten minutes later, no closer to the information they hoped to find. Sidebar links have led me to entirely new sections, making any chance of return almost impossible without retracing my steps.

Hoping to fix problems like these, the changes to the city's homepage are excellent examples of the simple and streamlined design Wallace and his team are working towards. The four, main sections of the site - divided for citizens, businesses, visitors and city officials - provide common points of interests from which to direct users. A new drop-down menu at the bottom of the screen, powered by Google Translation technology, offers 23 languages with which to view the site - an excellent way to engage the city's diverse cultural community.

Keith McDonald, who is designing the site, and has been updating its progress via Twitter, notes that involving Toronto's citizens has been an important part of the city's design philosophy. At the top of the home page, says McDonald, is a drop-down box with a simple question: what do you want to do?

"It collects the 15 most popular things people are asking for, so people can get their things done more easily."

But should users need to fall back to the site's search functions, McDonald and Wallace want to make sure things work as smoothly as possible. Every time a user fails to find what they're looking for, the team fine-tunes their integrated Google search engine for more intelligent results. Updating the metadata used to tag each page is but one of Wallace's goals, improving not just the content of the data to be searched, but the context as well.

After seeing the first in a series of updates introduced by city staff, I'm optimistic that the changes that have been applied to the homepage thus far will eventually extend to the site as a whole. The new design, while both simple and easy to navigate, would do wonders for the site's overall usability, especially when coupled with all the Javascript goodness used in making the home page tick.

"We're looking to move to more dynamic content management tools, not only for more efficient content updates, but ... for community based updates as well," explains Wallace. "By the end of 2009 and 2010, we hope to have a really solid user base following the site."

With a population as large and diverse as Toronto's, perhaps a new design is all that's needed to make that dream a reality.

What do you think about the first stage of the City of Toronto's website redesign? What things would you change?

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