Website and Payments Usability on Government Sites

Typical e-commerce websites have the luxury of tailoring their messaging, site design and layout to cater to a well-defined audience. For most online retailers, their products answer the needs for a specific type of customer, and that customer has expected habits and needs from their online experiences.

Government websites are different. Local and state governments and utilities don’t have the option of catering to only a few users with highly defined expectations. Instead, government sites must accommodate a broad spectrum of users, from hi-tech Millennials to technology-phobic baby boomers or seniors.

Even though the PEW Online Government report shows high-income and well-educated residents are the ones most likely to use online government services and information, it’s in the agency’s best interest to provide payment options across the economic spectrum.

There are three key pieces to ensuring that your online payments systems are as accessible to as many of your residents as possible.

Payment forms should make sense

Anyone who has tried to purchase something from a website with a terrible checkout process understands the value of a payment form that makes sense to the user.

When designing your check out experience for resident payments, it’s important to put yourself in the user’s shoes. Too often, web designers and developers, as well as committees who review websites in development, will choose an experience that makes sense for the business’s, or in this case, the agency’s goals. But these same choices may complicate the usage of the site for the people it is intended for.

Take the simple idea of allowing a user to enter a two-letter state abbreviation versus a drop down of all 50 states. For the web developer, this makes their life easier. There are fewer checks on form submission to make sure the state is entered correctly. But for the user, this is an annoyance. And if there are several of these kinds of annoyances on the form, it can be disruptive to the end user’s ability to make a payment online.

Payment forms should include help in the forms

Contextual help on a screen is important for all user experiences, but especially when your users may not be very technically savvy, or accustomed to the conventions of website layout.

Using descriptive form labels that make sense to the user can help clear up a lot of confusion over what should be entered into the form. Don’t be afraid to use examples to point the users in the right direction, like an account number field that shows the user was an account number should look like (ie “7 Digit Account number – 12345-67”).

Also, be sure that your screen gives visual clues as to what is expected of the user. It’s generally accepted that users don’t read, so giving them visual indicators can move the process along more smoothly.

Agencies should offer multiple payment options

Just as agencies need to ensure the usability of their payment forms takes into account a broad range of residents and their online payment familiarity, so too must these same agencies remember that their residents come from broad economic backgrounds.

While many households have the option of paying bills online, there is still a significant number that does not. According to the Federal Reserve, 27% of households to not have access to a credit card. And even among those that do, they may have a preference for paying utilities, taxes, registrations, and other government-type payments out of their checking accounts. Having multiple payment options, including eChecks, provides residents with the greatest flexibility to pay their bills in a way that aligns with how they manage their money.

Web site usability, and in particular check out processes online, are challenging to get right at the best of times. But for government agencies, the stakes are higher to get it right. Accommodating a broad audience with varying technical skills is both challenging and important for governments. But keeping the user in mind, offering help in the moment, and giving residents options to pay will give your users the best possible experience.

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