Before you begin
This guide is for anyone designing or redesigning a digital presence for a Victorian Government department or agency. It will help you to decide if you need a digital presence. It provides an overview of steps generally taken to create a digital presence, that is:
- why it’s important
- when to create a digital presence
- digital presence options
- developing a website in and outside a government context
- information architecture
- visual design
This guide doesn’t cover user experience design (for example content strategy, interaction design, writing) or technical implementation. Use this guide with the other Victorian Government How-to guides to make sure your new or redeveloped digital presence is best practice.
A ‘digital presence’ defined
A digital presence is more than a website. It can be individual channels like:
- social media
- mobile apps
- digital marketing assets (for example, a banner on a web page or an ad in social media)
It can even be multiple channels working together. Your audience and goals should guide your choice of channel.
This guide generally refers to websites — but you can apply the principles to other digital presences. Note that mobile apps need extra care if you’re deciding to build one or not, so to help you decide (and before you read this guide), read the How to Guide: .
Why consistent design is important
Consistent design improves the way users interact with your digital presence, complete tasks — and even perceive your organisation.
Using common elements, branding and functionality across all your Victorian Government digital presences creates confidence in the information and services. Common elements also help users move easily between different digital presences — even if they belong to different organisations.
Other benefits include:
- providing the certainty the presence is official, and
- meeting obligations to help users access content and services
What standards must be met?
Comply with the Privacy and Data Protection Act 2014, and only collect information you’re legally entitled to collect. You’ll need to craft and publish a privacy ‘collection notice’ (refer to the How-to guide, or the ).
If your digital presence collects personal information, then the physical location of the servers where it’s stored must have the same level of legal protection for private data as we offer citizens in Victoria.
To comply with the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Disability Discrimination Act, and the WoVG standard ‘Conform to Level AA of version 2.0 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0)’, your digital presence must comply with the (WCAG) AA standard.
If your audience is primarily people with a disability (for example, National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) clients), your site must pass the test for the AAA standard. Refer to the How-to guide, .
Manage public records
The Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) (under of the Public Records Act 1973) sets the standards for managing the public records your department or agency create. Always check with your department’s or agency’s records or information management specialist first for the approach to compliance.
Payment card industry (PCI) security standards
The set up the PCI security standards to protect cardholder data. These global standards govern all merchants and organisations that store, process or transmit this data. The major payment card brands, for example Visa, enforce compliance.
Google analytics tracking codes
To allow for a WoVG view of online service delivery, each website you operate must report into the WoVG analytics account using the WoVG analytics tracking code. Check your department’s intranet to find out who looks after analytics or contact your Digital Management Committee (DMC) (or its equivalent.)
IP address management
Getting it approved
Approval process for a new website or digital presence
If you think there’s a legitimate need for a new, independent website, the next step is to get approval from the appropriate people in your organisation — before you start any serious work.
The process varies between departments, but note that:
- having approval from your Manager, Executive Officer or even a committee, is not enough to go ahead to create a new website
- approval is needed from the appropriate governance body. This will be the group that fulfils the function of the Digital Management Committee. If this group doesn't exist in your department, key business areas fulfilling specific functions of the group will probably need to approve your project, for example, areas such communications and ICT
- you may need extra approvals for some elements of the project, later such as website addresses, information architecture, security, content, and branding. These approvals often come from different parts of government. Check your department’s intranet for details of the process and who you'll need authorisation from
- you should also engage early with your organisation’s digital team who may be able to advise and support you with it. If you are an agency, don’t forget to check in with your lead department, they’ll be able to support you through the process
When to create a new digital presence — and when not to
Designing and developing a digital presence is costly and time-consuming — and needs your ongoing financial and personal commitment to keep it current. Before starting any project you should consider whether or not it’s a worthwhile way to invest public money. At a minimum the digital presence should:
- fulfil a genuine audience need
- be unique, not duplicate something that already exists
- have the funds and people needed to keep it up to date
This section will help you to assess your idea.
Build a digital presence when it fulfils a genuine audience need
The first step in designing and developing a digital presence is to thoroughly investigate your audience’s needs and expectations. This will tell you if you should proceed.
You should only ever create a new digital presence to meet an audience need. This need might be for information, or functionality to:
- answer specific queries (for example, when is the next public holidays)
- research a topic (for example, current water restrictions)
- access or deliver a service (for example, replace a lost driver’s licence)
- help someone complete a task (for example, make a payment)
This research will also help your initial thinking about what the website could be and how users could interact with it through the design process. Make sure your service idea is something people need. Talk to your intended audience to test your assumptions. Your idea for how to help people may not be something they’ll use.
The importance of testing performance
Testing performance is finding out if your website meets audience needs and expectations. It should be ongoing, never be a one-off activity.
You should include testing and review points as you design and develop, so the final product is as effective as possible for the user — while at the same delivering on its business requirements.
The vital element: making sure the digital presence is unique
Each government digital presence needs to serve a unique purpose. Before you start a project to build something new you should explore what’s already available.
You should research if there are any products with a similar purpose or target users. For example, there might be a federal product or perhaps even a privately run product.
You may find several things affect how you proceed:
- your digital presence will replace an existing one — if you're not the current business owner you'll need to engage with the person who is, as they may already have their own project or funding in place to upgrade
- if you're the business owner or the replacement has been fully approved, try to find out as much as you can about the site or presence before it’s decommissioned. This valuable information will help you design the new presence. This could include who is using the current website, for what, and which elements of the current design are and aren’t working for them
- a relevant digital presence already exists elsewhere in the Victorian Government – could the existing site be improved or refreshed to meet your user need?
- if multiple websites have a similar purpose it can confuse users. Engage with the relevant owner(s) of the existing site(s) to see if there is an opportunity to expand the content or function to meet your audience’s needs
Also, if another organisation has a digital presence with the same purpose – this might affect you depending on the nature and quality of the information or service they provide. If there’s no specific reason why the Victorian Government has to provide the information, an external digital presence might be able to, if:
- it provides good, objective information
- it delivers a good user experience
- its purpose isn’t commercial
- it’s delivered by another non-commercial organisation, for example, another tier of government
- it's cost effective
Manage your risks
As with any government project or initiative, having the right environment for your proposed site is vital to your success.
A great idea can be brought undone easily with poor timing and a project can struggle to meet its ultimate goal if your funding is insecure. You need to be certain the key decision makers see the value in what you're proposing — and don’t think it’s too risky. You’ve probably put a great deal of thought into the value and opportunities for your digital presence — but you also need to think about the potential risks, including:
If there are significant risks in any of these areas, you'll need to convince those approving your digital presence you understand how to mitigate or control them so they don’t stop or significantly affect your delivery.
Your options for a new digital presence
If you do meet all the criteria for a new digital presence, you’ll need to consider the channels your audience prefers and the digital options available to you. Is it a website? Social media presence? Mobile app? Something else?
For example, sharing information that isn’t time sensitive might suit a website or mobile apps, but building awareness is much easier to do with a social media channel or a direct email campaign.
If you're working within a department or agency, it’s generally easier for your audience to find and use your services if you build it within the Victorian Government’s existing website structures.
This doesn’t mean you won’t get a nicely designed homepage — it just means your digital presence integrates with the broader vic.gov.au design and structure, which means more people will find you.
You have 3 options:
- content presence – one or more regular pages, more of a ‘brochure’ style on an existing website with a landing page and branding. Discuss your requirements with your organisation’s digital team.
- sub-site – eight or more pages and includes its own navigation. It keeps the relevant vic.gov.au header and footer. These are normally built into existing websites. Discuss your requirements with your organisation’s digital team. Example:
- independent website – a standalone site that has more flexibility around its design. The site should still use a Victorian Government domain ending in vic.gov.au and follow the Brand Victoria style guide. To create an independent website, follow the process ‘How to get an independent website’ described below. Example:
How to get an independent website
Even if your website is unique, meets user needs and has the right context — it still needs a compelling case to justify building it as an independent website. You’ll need to convince your Digital Management Committee (or equivalent) there’s:
- significant value to the user in the site being independent
- a need for independence, for example, unique security concerns or legislative requirement
- enough money to develop the new design and infrastructure
- already a content plan you can use to show there’s a site’s worth of valuable content, that will be regularly updated
- a communications plan to create traffic in the necessary timeframes — given it’s going to be harder to find through the existing vic.gov.au channels (this should include social media channels etc.)
- enough money and staff time to maintain the site and keep the content fresh for its planned lifecycle
Developing a website in a government context
Creating a website for a government entity is different from building a website in other environments. Government websites provide vital information to help members of the public understand and make good decisions around important aspects of their lives — so they must be trustworthy and accessible.
To ensure this trust, your work is expected to meet higher standards for security, user experience, measuring performance, privacy and accessibility etc. This can make the process different (and more rigorous) to what you might be used to. So before you start, consider the following.
Building inside your department’s environment
The marketplace offers free and cheap tools. You can create and publish a simple website in under an hour. However, these tools won’t meet the Victorian Government’s high standards of security, privacy and accessibility.
As a result you'll need to consider that timelines for creating a new digital presence in your department will depend on many factors, including:
- researching user needs and experience, information architecture and functionality
- sign-off times for designs, information architecture and content
- scale and complexity of the build
- availability of expertise
- user acceptance testing, such as security penetration testing
The costs will vary between departments, but can include:
- project management costs
- external design or development costs
- external research costs
- content production or editing costs
- support agreement costs
- licence costs
Your design should always focus on the user experience rather than the technology you use to deliver it. But you also need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the platforms or content management system (CMS) your department already uses.
Browsers and operating systems
Your design, particularly for websites, must work very well on every device your audience uses, which means on smartphones, tablets, and PCs. Not all designs are fully achievable on every operating system (for example iOS, Android) or every browser — some elements of visual design or functionality can be very hard (or even impossible) to implement.
It’s worth speaking with someone who understands the systems in your department well. They might be able to recommend adjustments to the design that could save your organisation a lot of time, energy and money for development. If a particular system, software or framework MUST be used, factor it into the design process. Make the limitations of a particular system clear to your designer at the start to minimise revisions.
Where the standard functionality of a system (‘out of the box’ or ‘off the shelf’), can’t deliver what you want, you might be able to get custom development work done. As it isn’t part of the standard version of the system, it's important to remember it will not get upgrades at the same time as the rest of your system.
Whenever you upgrade your system you'll have to upgrade this functionality too or it might stop working. So, budget for the funds you’ll need to set aside for this future work.
Take the ease of maintenance of your digital presence into account from the outset. For example, there’s no point creating a digital presence if it relies heavily on frequently updating images or content and you don’t have time to do the work.
Building outside your department’s environment
Using external agencies is an option for some or all parts of the digital design and development. It usually speeds up the project’s completion. Sometimes it will end up costing you less overall than doing it in-house.
However, any outsourcing has its own risks, so carefully consider these with input from your Digital Management Committee, Communications Division and ICT Division before you engage someone. It’s important to remember:
- all products will have to meet the appropriate guidelines
- there can be issues with connection between your department’s systems and anything hosted/built externally
- there can be high extra costs on top to the initial quote where your project changes scope (very common), or if there are delays (for example, with sign off)
- ongoing maintenance of externally designed, developed or hosted digital presences can be problematic
There are many ways this will affect you if your organisation doesn’t:
- have the skill set to maintain the product (for example, specific coding languages) or manage the regular security updates for the underlying platform
- access to the correct software or platforms
- you should have a Service Level Agreement (to state in simple clear terms) the costs and expectations for both parties
- you may have ongoing hosting, support or licensing costs
Good user experience research informs your information architecture (IA)
Information architecture (IA) is a form of design that helps people understand your website so they can find information and complete tasks. It involves organising the structure and content by:
- labelling and categorising information
- designing navigation and search systems
- identifying and using language and vocabulary schemas
- designing the website layout.
The challenge when developing IA in government is how to balance audience need with the business need and environment. Make sure your project plan allows ample timelines for user testing and business negotiation on the IA. It will take time to reach an agreed approach. This can be a few days on a small website to many weeks for larger projects.
The traditional approach of developing your IA first is now superseded by researching user experience first — and then building an IA that reflects the research findings. This is a far less wasteful way to deliver a relevant digital presence — simply because it uses an evidence-based approach before development begins, and not after.
Standard elements of government websites
What does your IA have to include?
Every Victorian Government digital presence must include these key elements to create a consistent experience.
In your IA and design you’ll need to consider how you’ll include:
- copyright obligations (the Victorian Government has a commitment to creative commons licensing where possible)
All of the above must link from each page from the same location, for example, the footer (use the examples in the footer of vic.gov.au, and edit as needed but make sure your legal team checks it before you go live). You should also have:
- an about us page or section explaining the nature of the website and its owner
- an effective search facility if there’s enough content to warrant this
- a sitemap, index (or both)
- a statement on each web page saying when the page was last updated or reviewed
- context-specific contact details
- information on government publications relevant to the website, if any
- information on any other services/programs relevant to the website, if any
- print-friendly functionality.
For corporate websites, you’ll need these extra elements:
- a complete list of legislation your agency operates under/administers, and a link to the Victorian Legislation and Parliamentary Documents website
- a high-level organisation chart
- the most recent annual report
- a link to the Victorian Government media releases page
- careers information and a link to the Victorian Government careers website.
Only let a professional work on visual design
Creating a good design for a digital presence needs a professional’s touch. Even though everyone has ‘great’ ideas on visual design; designing for digital needs a professional practitioner’s expertise to make sure it’s user focussed, accessible and will work with your organisation’s digital environment.
Before you engage anyone to design, discuss your design needs with the appropriate business areas internally. They may have existing resources to help you deliver what you need. If not, they should be able to help you to find a designer with the necessary skills, brief the designer, and assess the elements of the designer’s proposal such as scope, cost and timelines.
Your designer will need to understand the Victorian Government branding requirements before they start work. To help make sure all Victorian Government websites meet current best practice, have a consistent look and user experience, refer your digital designer to this How-to guide: .
Two development practices serious practitioners use
The processes, systems and standards for development vary between Government organisations — but two elements apply to all.
Make your digital web presence universally accessible
You legally need to make every reasonable effort to comply the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0, and where your target audience is those with a disability, to AAA level. Every element of your development is assessed to this standard including:
- HTML validation
- page structure
- site structure
- visual design
- multimedia (includes video)
- geospatial information.
Sharing code saves money, saves time
When you invest in the development of a digital presence it's important to consider how your work can be reused in your organisation and across the Victorian Government. Especially if when you're developing something that isn’t ‘out of the box’ or ‘off the shelf’ and needs to be customised.
Code sharing is best practice in government, because:
- it reduces timelines and costs. If your organisation develops a solution and shares it, other organisations can save time and money
- it allows others to further develop it — when other people take your original work and evolve it, you can use their code to benefit from new functions or features they add
- even if your organisation now uses different systems to other organisations, you should always develop code with the intention of sharing — digital environments shift quickly.
Note: Through DPC, WoVG has started work on a single online resource for code and resource sharing (think of it as a fuller version of github). For the moment the most relevant How-to guide to the ideal of sharing code is .
Choosing the right publishing platform (Content Management System)
You should always have a Content Management System (CMS). If you don’t your designer will need to make the change on your behalf every time you want to make a change which will be incredibly costly. Most departments have mandated or preferred Content Management Systems (CMS). Minimising the number of CMSs saves time and money around training and technical upgrades. Check with your lead department first.
If you have some choice, you have three main options for a CMS:
- an Open Source CMS, Usually free, often with an active development community, for example, Wordpress and Drupal.
- a custom built CMS: designed to fulfil your online business needs today, but can date quickly (your business needs can change even before it’s finished)
- an off-the-shelf or proprietary CMS: a standalone CMS package, or a CMS designed to be used with a vendor’s other enterprise software, for example, Microsoft Content Management Server. May well need customisations to suit your needs, and these can be expensive to maintain.
The CMS you choose depends on what you want to do with your website (your requirements). However, it can be helpful to look at other requirements documents and talk to current users to make an informed decision. Most Victorian Government departments are now moving towards open source CMS.
Testing your digital presence for release readiness
Testing a digital presence to see if it’s really ready for release is a specialised area and needs careful planning.
Testing how your website meets audience needs and expectations should not be a one-off activity in your project. You should include testing and review points as you design and develop, so the final product is as effective as possible for the user – while at the same time delivering on its business requirements.
Adding security, protecting citizens’ privacy
Security and privacy are separate specialised areas of digital design and development.
Refer to these How-to Guides:
Reviewed 19 August 2019