La PORTE – A Michigan City company will soon begin development of a new online home for the La Porte County government after the County Council gave the green light on funding for the project Monday.

The council approved the county Board of Commissioners' request to spend no more than $30,000 to update the laportecounty.org website. SERA Solutions, a Michigan City-based website design and development firm, will perform the work, intended to modernize the existing website, which was last overhauled in 2003.

SERA Solutions owner Seth Spencer presented preliminary plans for the redesigned site to the council during a workshop session earlier this month. The company plans to improve the website's ease of use, including making it more mobile-device friendly; and update its aesthetics to better reflect the image of La Porte County, Spencer said. 

"Some of the text content will be the same, but there will be entirely different pictures, images, content and layout," Spencer said of the site, which he said "served it's purpose, but this is a step toward future-proofing the county."

Commissioner Sheila Brillson Matias, who spearheaded the effort to overhaul the website, explained the background behind the project to the council during the workshop. She described the current site's 16-year-old, dial-up era design as "not our best work" as users increasingly rely on smartphones and tablets to browse the internet.

"When you look at La Porte County, we have so much here," Matias said. "We aren't able to tell our story [with our current site]."

According to a proposal SERA Solutions presented to the council, the new site will be built for and tested for a variety of screen sizes, with content and images automatically resizing themselves depending on the user's device. The company will also create a custom design for the site, based on feedback from county officials and the community, and featuring updated photographs.

Streamlining navigation is another of SERA's priorities for the site. Matias has heard many complaints about how difficult it is for users to locate information on the current site, which has more than 150 pages.

Spencer said the process is "just at the ground level of preliminary planning stages" and SERA will be building the new site "from the ground up."

Before the actual design work begins, SERA will be looking for feedback from site users, including county employees and residents who visit the site.

"We want to get some input into what people use the site for, and what they would like to see – what can be done better," Spencer said.

Exactly how that feedback will be compiled is now being figures out, he said, but online surveys of users might be among the options. It will include ways to make the site more user-friendly, and visually appealing.

"We have a lot of great visuals in La Porte County, like the lakes and the scenery and the buildings, but you don't see that on the site. Part of the public input will be what images would they like to see there."

He estimated a three-month development period for the refreshed site following that public input process and including a one- to two-week training session with county employees to show them how to use and update the system. A target of getting the site online in 2019 is "reasonable," Spencer said.

The new site will cost around $200 more per year to host than the current site, added IT Director Darlene Hale.

As for updates, Councilman Mark Yagelski asked how officials will ensure that employees keep information such as meeting minutes and agendas updated regularly, which has been a problem in the past. 

Matias said the commissioners have proposed that department heads give someone from their office the responsibility of collecting content for the site every week, which they will forward to those tasked with maintaining the site for editing and uploading.

"Spending money to build a website and then not maintaining it is money wasted," she said. "I'm sure you would agree, that's not anything we want."

Spencer said while the site is outdated, he thinks the county got its money's worth.

"I think the county has done an outstanding job of getting value out of the current site," he said. "The employees who use and run the site have gone above and beyond to maintain it and keep it relevant. It has worked well for what it was meant to do, but this is a different time and people expect more from a website than they did 15 years ago."

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