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Palo Alto's new web site is user unfriendly

Original post made by diana diamond on Aug 3, 2007

So I was really looking forward to the City of Palo Alto's new web site. After months of development, after several delays (it was to be unveiled in the spring), the site was opened on Thursday.

It is a navigational mess.

The old site was a clumsy place to find things. Do a search for "Alma railroad crossing" and you got every document that had the word "Alma," "rail," "road" "railroad," "cross" and "crossing" in it – typically 976 search results. Sometimes the results didn't even pertain to the topic I was looking for.

But this new site, which the city spent $225,095 to develop, plus an annual $25,000 annual set-aside to maintain it, plus the cost of a professional photographer to take photos for the site, is not a great improvement. I wish it were because many of us rely on this site to know more about the city.

As starters, the slate-colored background makes it difficult to read the white type. And if you want to copy and paste a section into a Word document, the pasted type is white, which then requires an extra step to turn it into a readable black. (Most corporate sites are now white with black type to avoid this problem.)

One search result for "water rates" that I tried to paste into Word appeared as a one-inch wide strip of information, and I could not figure out how to expand the cells.

Second, the search engine is dreadfully slow. It took 11 seconds to find the "utilities department," and then I got 16 results – none of which gave me the home page of the Utilities Department. Ten of the 16 were for staff positions – like "associate power engineer" and "associate resource planner."

Third, the home page has little information. Under "City Council" was an August calendar with "August 6" highlighted. Period. If I wanted to see the council agenda for that day, I had to go to a different site.

On two searches the engine simply froze.

I went to the City Attorney's office site and only found a brief listing of the attorneys, with a bio of the head of the department, Gary Baum. Surely the attorney's office does some work that should be posted on the web.

Okay, this is just the second day and changes will be made (I hope).

But I keep on wondering why Palo Alto did not model its site after other cities. I checked the City of San Jose's site and it is much more user-friendly – and the search engine is considerably faster.

The new web site is little improvement and still user unfriendly. But it's a solvable problem.

Comments (114)

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2007 at 8:01 pm

Why is PA city govt so often the "gang that couldn't shoot straight"? It does seem like we try to "do it our own way" which usually means not building on what others have done before. (Wanna good web site? - find one you like and copy it - then make improvements off of that.) Where does this mentality come from - the City Manager, the voters, the Council, thought leaders?


Posted by Alice, a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 3, 2007 at 8:03 pm

Not to mention that all saved links are now broken and resolve to a blank screen (not even an error page). Sigh.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2007 at 12:53 am

Did anyone on the website development team ever use Google for searching? Why didn't they just put a Google bar on the site – like Palo Alto Online did?

I searched for erickson (our city auditor) and got only one hit -- after 12 seconds! By comparison, I Googled "city of palo alto sharon erickson" and got: Results 1 - 10 of about 99,800 for city of palo alto sharon erickson. (0.27 seconds).

The search results on the Palo Alto site are presented in categories -- not by relevance!

The search results page says: For your convenience, search results provide a comprehensive list of items that contain your search term(s), divided into categories by type of document. Whether you seek a news item, calendar item, or a PDF from our extensive database of reports, please make sure to scroll through the list to see find the category of information you are looking for.

Convenience? How can it be convenient to have to look through a list of 8 categories to find what you're looking for?

The search results page also says: Minutes, agendas, reports and resolutions can be searched using a "document search." This is a more complex search that looks "inside" our documents to find the keyword text of your search. Use this link to begin your search.

HUH? What am I searching if I DON'T use the document search? Does this mean that a press release, for example, is not a document?

Another problem is that some searches provide a result that says, for example, "1 Item Found," but doesn't tell you where it is! There's no link provided to that item.

I received this from a council member regarding my concerns: Much of the basic data is being indexed and more and more will appear in the next weeks. Because information is not in silos but cross referenced, the referencing is important and they may not have made the right choices for some information. The plan is to "re-launch" the website in 3 months with information based on feedback so please use the various feedback methods to let them know what can be better.

What was the point of launching the site now if no data is available? What's with all the jargon of silos and indexing and cross-referencing? How come Google can find the information when the search engine on the site cannot?

The people responsible for this should be fired.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 12:56 am

I just had a look at the new site, and my first impressions were negative:
- lots of text in tiny, blurry fonts
- extensive use of all caps for labels and headers
- pages with light grey text on a darker grey background
- many pages that don't render correctly in Firefox 2
- pages that don't render correctly when you select "Text Only"
- unusable page for submitting feedback on the site

It's really pretty amateurish, compared to, say, the Palo Alto high school website. But hey, it's probably carbon neutral!

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2007 at 1:00 am

One more thing. . . it would probably be a good idea to change the self-congratulatory text on the home page:

"An energetic team of designers, technicians, programmers, and editors took on the monumental task of rebuilding our web site from the ground up. From hardware to software to protocols to graphics to text, the web site you're viewing has been built with you, our customers, in mind.

"No longer do you have to know anything about the structure of the City organization to find the information you need. Thanks to a powerful new search function and a database that serves up information whenever and wherever you look for it, you will spend less time getting to your subject of interest."

Considering all the problems, this is laughable. And, how many websites have you ever seen where the bulk of the real estate on the home page is dedicated to patting the developers on the back?

Posted by Louise, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 1:04 am

I find it amusing that the photo icon for the "Visitors" section of the website shows Stanford's Memorial Church. But wait -- there is NO information on visiting Stanford or other places visitors typically want to visit under "Visitors"!! Check it out for yourself: Web Link

In fact, if you search for "Memorial Church" using the ballyhooed new search engine, you get this absurd page long list different types of of "No matches found." And check out what results you get when you search for "Hewlett Packard"!

At least they could have put in a link to the Chamber of Commerce site -- they have a Virtual Visitor's Tour with addresses, map links and some other useful information.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. Let's try clicking on the first item under "Visitor's News" -- what did the esteemed web designers deem most newsworthy?

Item # 1 is the Palo Alto Art Center Summer 2007 Exhibitions, June 21–September 9, 2007. You might think that this would take you to the general Art Center page, with basic info and a brief listing of current exhibits. No such luck. It's right into a florid description of a particular artist's paintings, complete with event information for a reception on June 21. This is sure to impress the socks off any visitors who happen on this site (I'm joking here)-- do check it out for yourself:
Web Link

Even more impressive: whoever made decisions about what to include on this top visitor "news" did not see fit to provide information about where this fabulous exhibit is, or how to get there, or when it might be open.

Item #2 is even better. It's a listing of "Parks and Facilities" -- just the name and address. No actual information that a visitor might use to decide whether to head to Foothills Park or Johnson Park. And no Yahoo map showing the locations, or even a simple HTML map either. Despite oceans of blank gray space on both sides of the listing, our visitor must scroll down FIVE screens to get to a virtually unreadable link to to a PDF of the hard copy map in the Enjoy Catalogue. And whoever set that up did not even know how to make the PDF open large enough to read.

99% of any visitors or potential visitors who happen on this website will decide after two or three clicks that this must be a deliberate spoof; the city at the nerve center of Silicon Valley couldn't possibly consider this a "customer friendly" website. Who was in those focus groups, anyway??

Posted by Art Kraemer, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 1:09 am

I tried putting Creek level monitor in the search box and got a explanation of what it is, but I still haven't found the original creek level monitor that is to be used to determine the height of water in creeks and had been previously touted as a major part of our flood early warning system

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2007 at 1:23 am

I was in one of the focus groups. I suggested a Google search bar. Many good suggestions were made, but I bet the real direction came from the city council and various other influential folks in our city government. Why else would one of the main menu items be "Environment Palo Alto"?

If you want to read something really embarrassing, see: City of Palo Alto Launches New Web Site at Web Link

The last sentence says, "We hope you find that the new City of Palo Alto web site befits our status as a leader in high technology."

Posted by Bill, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 4, 2007 at 9:34 am

You are being far too polite in your comments.

I agree the old site was bad. But a brief review of this new site leaves me more than a little disappointed. The graphics overall leave me with the impression they cared little about usability, and mostly about 'pretty images'. Grey is not the color of the City of Palo Alto. Where is the City's logo? My eyes strain in general at the combination of small text, white text, and unnecessarily large photo's which seem more appropriate for a coffee table book than a City Web Site.

The search function is abysmal. I typed 'rent Lucie Stern' into the search engine, and got back no links of any kind. I typed in the same into Google, and got the precise links (all of which now resolve to a blank screen since the City changed it's entire link structure).

Far too much smug and congratulatory text throughout the site. It seems like they are trying to create a site that might win an award for visual beauty.

Some of the navigation is a little better (really hard not to be better than the old one). But overall, this is a very poor job - certainly not worth $225,000. BTW, these days companies can have entire sites created of similar complexity for well less than $50K. Startups leveraging talent in India and other offshore locations can so this for less than $20K.

It seems like the mayor wanted this to be her signature piece and highlight the City's new commitment to environmentally sound processes. How about just something that we could simply navigate and get what we need? I would agree that PalyOnline is a far better experience than this new web site. Other's have pointed to more detailed shortcomings, many of which I saw as well.

This is a C- effort on the part of the City of Palo Alto. I hope there are no speeches at the City Council meeting about how wonderful this is, and how anyone associated with the project should be rewarded and commended.

Posted by Look on the bright side, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 4, 2007 at 10:46 am

I think the pictures are awful, the partial body of a woman running on the first tab and the two silly blonds in ecstasy over shopping, and the LIBRARY tab doesn't show a library, it shows a child outdoors with a book.
Look at the bright side. Maybe this public debacle will finally get this City Manager fired.
Not for protecting the disgraced Utilities manager and then letting him stay on to maximize his generous retirement,
not for agreeing to put a soccer field where a hotel should be,
not for giving away so many millions in a loopholefilled contract with the BMR builders,
not for making a contract with Waste Management Inc that agrees they can raise rates at their own discretion.
Maybe this public disaster will finally do it.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2007 at 11:30 am

On the old web site there was a page that would list the permit applications by week. I can't find that page anymore.

Try finding out the "Hazardous Waste Drop off day", it took me about 15 - 20 minutes to find informatio about what day it is, and what time.

They should measure how much time/work it is to find information... I think the web designers/city staff would find that it's more difficult.

Posted by karen, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 11:32 am


They wouldn't have to go to India. If I weren't retired, I would have done this for them for $20,000 easy, and done an infinitely better job. Heck, probably any random person in Palo Alto could have done a better job.

I give this one an F. You're too kind giving it a C-.

Posted by karen, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 11:43 am

Okay, I looked for the creek level monitor also, as I got flooded in 1998. Nowhere. Let's hope they fix that before the rainy season, and make it easy to find. It used to be reachable in one or two clicks from the home page.

Hmm, the web site displays the same fine work that has not fixed the Chaucer Street bridge problem, now nine years still in existence.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2007 at 11:45 am

From the Palo Alto Weekly: Web Link
"The new site features a chic grey background with green lettering and large, engaging photographs. It has information classified by category, rather than department, and a redesigned search engine that goes even beyond a Google-style search, Information Technology Manager Lisa Mainarick-Bolger said."

I wonder if Google stock has dropped on this news.

Posted by pat, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 2:17 pm

Did the old page have Email addresses for the current counsel persons, I thought that I once emailed a candidate to offer my time and support for there running again. Getting there email info from the city page?

Posted by karen, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 2:24 pm

They need a centralized email and phone list for all employees. Probably organized by department, but if all departments are there on one page you can find whomever you're looking for by control F on either the name or department.

Posted by karen, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 2:25 pm

By employees, I include council members.

Posted by diana diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger
on Aug 4, 2007 at 2:25 pm

diana diamond is a registered user.

One other "feeling" that I had in looking at the new Web site was that it had a PR bent to it -- from the opening proclamations about how great it was, to the scant amount of city information on various sites. Most city web sites are a composite of all relevant documents about the city -- our Web site seems to be a distillation of material. Or have I just not drilled deep enough .... but is there anything there if I do???


Posted by Bill, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 4, 2007 at 3:26 pm

Diana - you are precisely correct. Looks like their goal was to build 'buzz' around their new site, and win some of those coveted national 'awards'.

It seems like they hired a designer who does 'brand' pieces for high end stores, and created a 'puff' web site that would look trendy and cool, yet be of very little functional value to City Residents.

It is really sad we spent this much money on a site that offers so little improvement over what we had. I do not need need to see half page images of a woman jogging with half her belly exposed on a City Web Site (look at them Main Image in the Living in Palo Alto themepod).

And these people get every other Friday off.........

Posted by helpful hint, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 4:34 pm

Suggestion: Be sure to forward your comments to the City Council (, not just post them here.

There is also a comment or missing content link at the bottom of every page on the site, which could be a good way to get the missing link for the creek monitor fixed. But more general comments on structure or color etc may be best directed to the City Council.

Posted by trudy, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 5:10 pm

That's what it looks like! Thanks, Bill - a department store site.

Posted by GSB, a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 4, 2007 at 5:29 pm

Thanks to this, I appreciate Mountain View's website so much more.

Posted by Annette, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2007 at 5:40 pm

Thanks to Diane for starting this site to express our frustrations.

The new city web site is terrible - I give it a F- The old site had a few problems but it was vastly better than the current attempt. Palo Alto, as the home, of key information technology ideas and products deserves a sparking crisp full-function lighting-fast easy-to-use site. Sadly we have none of these in this artsy fartsy new attempt.

The council must be brain washed. When I complained, one council member told me it was "pretty elegant and clean" I find the grey on grey very dingy, depressing and very hard to read.

The site is filled with inappropriate pictures and embarassing fluff for articles. Much of the verbiage belongs in a brochure for the city of Palo Alto...not on the web site.

What happened to the old logo of the City with our tree? Why did we abandon our symbol to something that looks artsy?

And we paid money for this????

What will it take for us to go back to the old system? rather than try to prop this mess up and spend more money on outside consultants.

Posted by Look on the bright side, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 4, 2007 at 9:27 pm

I'm an artist and my first reaction was Amateur! What experienced designer doesn't know that white on gray is hard to read?
And my second reaction was youngsters. Young people know alot about some things but are clueless about the wider world. So I'm guessing, and it is just a guess, I know nothing about who they are, that the designers are young and enthusiastic but they were given too much freedom.

Which brings up the question, Who in the city were they responsible to? When you hire consultants you have to work with them and guide them so that they produce what you need. This is too public an event, it can't be shoved under the rug. There are too many experts and just plain smart people around to pretend it is really all right. The city manager needs to speak up clearly and in detail.
Did they test it? first internally, then maybe with city employees, and then externally with some typical users?
Just for fun I looked at the Santa Clara city site. Web Link
Never seen it before but I clicked around and found what I was looking for immediately. No hype.
Some of the groupings are illogical, like Twilight concerts followed by Your Utility Bill, and what is a Know Zone?
I like the suggestion in the previous post -- go back to the former web site. Don't throw more money at this one. Does the contract allow for a partial refund if the work is unsatisfactory?
Writing to the City Council is fine. Better yet, show up at the 7 oclock council meeting on Monday and speak briefly at the beginning. They probably won't be able to discuss at length something that is not on the agenda, but there is sure to be some response.

Posted by a web designer, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 4, 2007 at 9:47 pm

People will have major problems due to the lower contrast (white on gray) impeding readability, especially with the colored linked head and sub heads. The navigation is not very well thought out, kind of confusing. However, I am impressed with the stats on the left side of the home page. It is vital that we all know our latitude and longitude, don't you think?

Posted by software guy, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2007 at 9:48 pm

It may not be fast, but it sure is hard to use.

Posted by Senior, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 5, 2007 at 11:12 am

Whoever's idea was it to use that black background? The fonts on the texts are so small you can barely read them. I am a typical senior with deteriorating eyesight and this website doesn't help. Palo Alto is full of seniors I bet I'm not the only one having trouble.

Please bring back the old website, at least we could read it.

Posted by joyce, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 5, 2007 at 11:55 am

Just in case someone who can fix this looks at this thread, there is another one at
Web Link

Posted by no excuses, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 5, 2007 at 3:28 pm

Right on to all those who have identified some of the most blatant problems that have been pointed out above.

Here are a couple more:
1. Looks like all the old pages have been decommissioned, or at least when you try to use a link that worked last week, it doesn't work anymore.

2. Even where there is a new page with exactly the same content as the old page, what happens if you try to use an old link is that you mostly get a blank page with "File not found" or similar such wording.

3. In a few cases, you do get forwarded to the new site -- but only to the search page!! I tried using this multiple times, so far the search function has been unable to find any of the content that I was looking for.

But what I really want to know is, why didn't someone recognize the risk of launching the new site without keeping the old one as a backup until the kinks could be worked out?? How could they be so overconfident?

There are no excuses here -- the taxpayers should not have to pay for this waste of money, or the cost of correcting it. And whoever approved putting all that self-congratulatory hype all over the site needs to remove it immediately and find someone who actually knows what residents, visitors, businesses (and their employees!) want from a municipal website, and how that is different from the a booster club or the Chamber of Commerce.

Posted by Not so fast, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 5, 2007 at 6:54 pm

Another feather in the cap of our mayor--add this to her list of achievments for this year

Posted by Curious Observer, a resident of Mountain View
on Aug 5, 2007 at 7:06 pm

Curious Observer is a registered user.

Do Palo Altans have something against Asian people? Blaming the mayor for the redesigned site is ridiculous. The negative comments about the mayor on this thread and others makes me wonder about Palo Altans tolerance of others.

Posted by Noah, a resident of University South
on Aug 5, 2007 at 7:15 pm

Your post is, if anything, funny. I had no idea (at least conscious) that the mayor was Asian. I do have an idea that we just spent $240,000 on a very poor website that is far less useful and lower quality than what we had before. I'm also aware that we are going to (or already have) hire a "green coordinator" for "$151,000 in salary and benefits" (source: Web Link).

I'm personally not very happy with the direction our city government is headed. It seems happy to spend large sums of money on salaries and contracts for non critical, non resident serving items such as this website and green coordinator. At the same time, it has no funds for our already $28M of past-due critical road & infrastructure maintenance.

Speaking directly to the issue of this website, as a software engineer with 10+ years of experience and related education in user interfaces, this website is a total disaster. The mayor / council should immediately reinstate the previous website and discontinue *all* payments to this contractor. Their work is one notch above criminal - ignoring all accepted standards of usability. Not to mention that it is lacking in any actual content, and uses a terrible search when a perfectly good one (50x faster) is available for free (see Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc).

Posted by DFT, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 5, 2007 at 8:39 pm

Hey guys, keep up with the news! The manager will not hire an environmental person and instead has assigned a few who are already on staff to put part time into the effort.
No, Curious, we aren't especially prejudiced. You are making an inference from one writer, a troll who inserts his venom on many threads. The mayor apparently voted against his appointment to a commission (though he was appointed anyway) and he is unable to let it go. He wants to punish anyone who does not support him.
I suggest she get in touch with the police whenever he is around, because his trolling is obsessive even here, where it is irrelevant. Lots of folks know who he is, it's no secret.
What can you do about a person who gives the appearance of being normal, but isn't.

Posted by Noah, a resident of University South
on Aug 5, 2007 at 9:36 pm

Thanks for the update DFT. It's good to know we're not spending *new* salary and benefits money on the "Green effort".

I do question why those four city employees couldn't perhaps spend their "spare time" on more urgent matters for our city, like the roads and infrastructure?

Posted by joe, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 5, 2007 at 9:55 pm

The old web site really should be reinstated. There is a lot of missing information with this new one, among all the other things wrong with it. I think the new one is so bad that it is unfixable, and embarrassing.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2007 at 9:57 pm

Yes, the city has assigned four current employees to a green committee, but their respective departments will share the $151,000 that was to pay the salary of a new employee.

Web Link

Posted by Not so fast, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 6, 2007 at 6:23 am

DFT--didn't you post something similar using the name Observer, a resident of the Evergreen Park neighborhood, on Aug 3, 2007 at 1:09 pm in the following thread :
(Web Link)

For the record, I have never been up for any appointment to any commission and the mayor has never voted against me.
The mayor is the so-called leader of our city and needs to bear some responsibilty for the decisions that come out of our city. It is clear that this website involved a significant investment of money etc and it is not up to our expected standards.
Criticisim of elected officials is part of the american process of the exercise of free speech rights. I am not sure why Observer/DFT is so protective of the mayor. And I am sorry thet DFT/Observer considers my criticism of an elected official to be venom. ALso if my identity is no secret, then please publish my identity in this thread so everyone can share your secret.

Anyway DFT you should get yopur facts straight--the money for the enivronmental comissioner will be spent on salaires for 4 people wh will do the work as Pat mentioned above

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 6, 2007 at 11:08 am

Diana, You've got this one right - good comments.

When the website changes were first announced I was somewaht taken back at the projected cost - $225K for a straightforward municipal website? Really?? "How is that?", I thought, having commissioned complex websites for far less.

I buried my skepticism, expecting a whiz-bang product that would be first-rate, with lots of neat bells and whistles, and including first-class usability features.

I have four words for the payables desk at City Hall "Get your money back!".

Most of the big problems have been stated above, but there are many others. This website would NEVER have passed muster in usability tests in the private sector. I'm wondering how much usability testing was engaged by the designer.

My pet peeve is the search engine - it's pathetic.

Frankly, unless we see MAJOR improvements (not just cosmetics, which are badly needed), I think citizens shuold demand that our city refuse to pay the bill. Further, if we have already paid the bill, I suggest making a claim against the designer and builder of this website until a random sample of experienced, mid-level, and naive users have tested the site for optimal usability. Sheesh!!

Posted by Annette, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2007 at 11:42 am

Mike, please send your comments to and
They need to hear the points you made. Thanks

Posted by Steve, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 6, 2007 at 1:41 pm

Can't remember the last time there was unanimous agreement on any Palo Alto Online Town Square Topic

Posted by diana diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger
on Aug 6, 2007 at 2:37 pm

diana diamond is a registered user.

I can't remember a time either when everyone agreed with a blog I wrote. I have heard lots of people talk about the new web site, and I have yet to hear any -- repeat any -- favorable comments.

The big question is how will the city fix it?


Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 6, 2007 at 4:01 pm

The city can fix it by insisting that the job be done RIGHT, and either withholding payment, or filing a claim against the constractor if payment has already been made. Someone made a killing on this shoddy piece of work, and I, as just one citizen, demand some answers.

I was just looking into some of the text. Seriously, the prose on many pages is at 7th grade reading level - at best. It's hackneyed prose, and that's putting it mildly.

The first thing I noticed was what the first poster put up - grey background and white text. Good grief! - on a MUNICIPAL website!!! That's a technique that some commercial websites use to keep people from easily cutting and pasting text. WHY - on a PUBLIC INFORMATION WEBSITE would that be the case (unless some one wants to make it difficlt for citizens to copy and paste text, which I don't believe for a nanosecond, because staff often bends over backward to get information out).

This is anonther unfortunate case of letting the subculture of municipal management subcontractors - and municipal management product/service buyers - go unfettered into the night with mandated revenues.

I have seen this happen recently in other areas, where consultants come in and offer pablum for big bucks. It's a gravy train that seems to run on its own momentum in an otherwise pretty well-managed city government.

Posted by Karen White, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 6, 2007 at 4:23 pm

I'd suggest replacing the "Visiting Palo Alto" page entirely with the informative and accessible content found on the "Destination Palo Alto" site, found at Web Link. This site is visually appealing, well organized and informative.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 6, 2007 at 4:24 pm

start here, scroll to city websites for populations of 50,000-250,000

Web Link

What's especially bothersoome is that the wen designers who did this seem to be "learning on the job". We should demand a redo, and continue to do so until they get it right.

Sory fotr the multiple posts; this is a pet peeve. How in this day and age in a place like PALO ALTO, can someone screw up a website so badly, for $225K!

Posted by Time for a change, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2007 at 5:46 pm

Maybe it is time to puncture the myth that this city is well managed.
Maybe it is just as well that this failure is so blatant and is just the tip of the iceberg for a lot of the non-management we pay for.
Examples of overspending are all over the place. Even tonight there will be a report or an amendment to the giveaway contract he negotiated with the Below Market developer.
We need a better city manager. He was touting this thing just a day or two ago in Frank's Weekly Memo. Something badly needs fixing and it starts at the top.

Posted by Mary, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 6, 2007 at 7:10 pm

Has anyone found the Creek Monitor yet? If so, let the rest of us know where it is.

Posted by 1000 percent behind Frank, a resident of Monroe Park
on Aug 6, 2007 at 7:33 pm

FRANK'S FOLLY. Diana, here's a positive take on the city's new website.

It is SO BAD, everyday it is up, it reminds every user what our Cracker Jack Palo Alto city management team can do when they put their collective heads together, invests a couple of years of creative effort (remember how Frank keeps reminding us how limited and precious staff time is) and $250,000 of our hard-earned tax dollars.

This issue will never go away, it will live in Palo Alto infamy. It will forever be available on the Wayback Machine, even if they yank it down tomorrow. Remember, our $250,000 is gone, down the tubes, kaput. To pull a massive blunder like this in the heart of Silicon Valley for the world to see takes highly paid outside consultants, to be sure. Consultants only our disconnected city staff could think were doing a fine job. This should have been their first clue: "If you put quotation marks around your search query and you face south, look for your answer in one of the 8 baskets on grandma's porch. If you find no answer, please remove one quotation mark and your right shoe, face north, and try again. No matches found. Better luck next time and thank you for playing the Palo Alto Search Game."

This should finally be Frank's one-way ticket out of here. If council doesn't have the backbone to can this incompetent whose reputation was riding on the development of this massive failure of a city website which served to make Palo Alto the laughing stock of the Internet world as we know it, then every hold-over councilmember should be recalled. You know the New York Times will be on this like a bad smell.

See, Diana, how this could become a good thing?

Posted by afraid to speak up, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 6, 2007 at 7:44 pm


I actually like the site. I think it's sleek and a big improvement over the old site, but I'm afraid to say so after reading the vicious attacks from the posters here. Why so much venom? It's just a web site!

Posted by Annette, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2007 at 8:07 pm

Hello to Afraid to Speak up:
Why do you like the site? Have you tried to find anything? Let's say the planning commission agenda or a block party permit or the creek monitor? Have you tried to copy/print some text or anything from the screen? Have you tried to find Carl Yeats's phone....all ideas suggested before in this blog.

Let us know what you think of the site then.

I was told today by a high level staff member, who dislikes the site, that the city was slowly adding links and attempting to fix some of the problems.

BTW, this demonstrates some of the issues....There was no beta test, no useablility test etc. The city released it without the site being fully tested. I think folks are upset about this and the very high cost considering the lack of function.

Posted by Palo Altan, a resident of Professorville
on Aug 6, 2007 at 8:22 pm

It is funny that 30 Palo Altans can count for 65,000 residents. Get a clue and focus on real issues not a website. Typical Palo Alto Residents!

Posted by k, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 6, 2007 at 8:28 pm

I just checked out the site and think it is aimed at impressing out-of-towners rather than providing real-life practical usability for residents. It certainly looks fancy at first glance. It's not easily useful for my own needs as a resident.

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 6, 2007 at 9:19 pm

Search for: "creek monitor", three more clicks and there you go: Web Link

Posted by afriad to speak up, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 6, 2007 at 9:34 pm

I took the challenge from "Annette" and found most of the items quite easily, some from links right on the front page. The exception was the phone number for Carl Yeats, but the ASD department number is right on the department main page.

As for printing and copying, when I hit "print" I get a reversed version (black text on white background) which printed perfectly! If you want to copy and paste specific text, click on the "text version" to show the reversed version and cut-and-paste to your heart's content.

Those who object to the photos and gray background have their own perfectly viable version to make them happy.

I suspect that all of the hullabaloo is from people who have a knee-jerk reaction to change.

Posted by Bill, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 6, 2007 at 10:12 pm

Let me take a guess that our city employees who had something to do with this have now jumped to defend themselves in the persona of Afraid to Speak Up. The language seems like someone young, and their familiarity with acronyms like ASD and immediate knowledge of a reverse print function embedded somehow in the site bely their affiliation with the project. Just a hunch, but you know, probably a reasonable one. And, please don't insult us and say that if we don't like the pictures, we can use the Text version of the site. You should be afraid to speak up on this one.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2007 at 10:40 pm

Text version? How many professional websites can you name that have a "text version"? Total nonsense. How many professional websites have a "slate grey" background?

While the consultants certainly did a terrible job, who at City Hall hired them, gave them directions/specs, approved each phase, tested the site, "managed" the consultants and – amazingly – paid them? We need some accountability from those on the inside who were given responsibility for the site.

1,000 percent, I LOVE your Palo Alto search game! Brilliant!

Mike, thanks for the link to the best e-government sites. There are some good local sites, too:

Mountain View: Web Link

Menlo Park: Web Link

Belmont: Web Link

San Francisco: Web Link

And none of the above thought it necessary to develop their own search function!

Diana, the big question is not HOW the city will fix it, but WILL they and CAN they? I doubt this is fixable, short of chucking the whole thing and starting over with a competent team.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 6, 2007 at 10:57 pm

At the end of tonight's Council meeting (8/6) members of the City Council commented on the many e-mails they had received critical of the City's new website. They all felt criticism was premature and that as people learned to navigate it's many pages they will like it and use it.

Bern Beecham commented that some e-mailers had complained about the font size. He suggested that you simply use the enlargement function on your computer to enlarge the font size.

The city does plan to review it's content and make any necessary changes in two or three months.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2007 at 11:22 pm

No, the criticism is not premature. This is just defensiveness. One shouldn't have to "learn" to use a website. There are thousands of websites, if not hundreds of thousands. The good ones are all intuitive and work pretty much the same way -- no learning required.

The font size is an issue, but a small one in the overall scheme. The content may or may not be a problem. Hard to know until it can be found. Font size is an issue, but a small one in the overall scheme. The content may or may not be a problem. Hard to know until it can be found. Beecham should be reading these blogs and the emails sent to the city council to understand the bigger issues.

The problem is the architecture, the overall design, the underpinnings – especially the search "capability." These are not minor flaws that can be fixed with a bit of tweaking.

Some interesting insights can be gained by going to the FAQs page at:
Web Link

It appears these FAQs are intended for city employees, e.g., "When you find content that needs to be edited, print that page and make your editorial notes in RED PEN directly on the printout. When your edits are completed, submit the page to your department's Web Content Editor. A list of Web Content Editors can be found on the Web Site Review Resources home page."

This is particularly enlightening:

What are FAQs?
Frequently Asked Questions are a content-type that is displayed in a special FAQ layout. The content is posed in a question/answer format. FAQs allow you to produce lists of useful infomation for site visitors. One object of FAQs are to minimize phone calls and email to CIty Staff.

On the home page, bottom left, you'll find these links:

Quick Finds
Using the Search Box
What is a "Themepod?"

FAQs on Using the Search Box is at Web Link

Isn't it amazing that Google requires no instructions for use? Just type and search and it gives you the results you would intuitively expect.

What is a "Themepod"? is at: Web Link

Here's the answer: Themepods are collections of "like" web site items. Aren't you glad you asked?

The real information we derive from these FAQs is the thought processes of the people behind the website, which explains the final product.

Posted by Its Bad Management, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 6, 2007 at 11:45 pm

Look at the bright side listed some reasons for getting rid of this city manager, in addition to this embarrassing example of no-management. Bright side left out two big reasons.

1. Frank tried to hire the top Stanford Public Relations executive as a Manager in the Planning department even though he had no experience in planning. None. Zero. Frank was trying to insert a Stanford insider into our government staff shortly before Stanford's expansion plans became public.
It was a move worthy of Karl Rove but most people probably don't remember it even though it was public. To hire a senior member of a project applicant's staff just prior to the submission of their application would be worthy of impeachment if it happened in Washington. The PR guy is back on the job at Stanford working on the expansion. (To the people who wonder why there is suspicion of Stanford's plans, this shoddy maneuver should give them a clue.)

2. Paying 20 million dollars to ENRON when other cities refused to pay and won their case. His bad judgement cost us a manageable budget.

Bright side has listed these 4 Frank Follies:
protecting the disgraced Utilities manager and then letting him stay on to maximize his generous retirement,

agreeing to put a soccer field where a hotel should be,

giving away so many millions in a loopholefilled contract with the BMR builders,

making a contract with Waste Management Inc that agrees they can raise rates at their own discretion. (caused rise in our utility rates)

Posted by Noah, a resident of University South
on Aug 6, 2007 at 11:58 pm

* The apologists for this new website really do sound like they had a financial or other personal stake in the project. They're not saying they like anything, just coming up with odd workarounds (See "afraid to speak up" a few comments above).

* Here are some undeniable facts about the new website in contrast to the old one:

1. The City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) used to have it's own useful website (, which is now replaced with the new unacceptable one. This is bad. should land directly on the utilities information.

2. All non-html links such as city forms used to have sane URLs for easy search indexing, bookmarking, etc. Over the past year for example I've tried to make our home more energy efficient and remember the "smqualify" (smart energy rebate qualify) search term. Here is the old URL (first result from Google):
After much search around the new site, here is the new URL:
Web Link

Which one do you like better? Which one at least attempts to use the URL as part of the information architecture of the site? This is an obvious regression in the utility of the site.

3. The search function and associated landing pages are terrible, and get in the way of real content people rely on for *information* rather than style.
Google Search for "Palo Alto creek monitor": First two results are direct links to the old pages with the actual creek monitor on it. (They don't work anymore because of the new site). Search time: 0.16 seconds! search for "creek monitor": (After much searching and clicking on about 10 incorrect links), the link you want is several pages down under "other search results". Search time: probably 5-15 seconds. After searching, click "Flood and Storm Information" followed by "Creek Monitor", which is of course in a vastly smaller font and different style than the main link "Creek Level Monitor" which goes to a puff piece on how the creek monitor works. As if any resident cares when the storm hits how the monitor functions!

Another Search (I honestly mistyped it, not for this comment):
"permit inspectoin" - returns 0 / zero results on Spelled correctly, all of the good results are after 1 1/2 pages of fluff news pages with no contact or useful information of any kind.

On Google. "permit inspection palo alto" returns the correct page in 0.22 seconds as the second link.

Posted by Noah, a resident of University South
on Aug 7, 2007 at 12:02 am

***City Council: Please revert to the old website immediately! The new website is a disaster and actively harms our interaction with our city government***

One final link and comment. Search for 'permit inspection' on the new site and click on the first link "Development Center". What a load of self-congratulatory garbage. Here is the large tag-line on that page:

"The City of Palo Alto Development Center brings together representatives from several departments within the City to provide efficient and courteous service in one central location across from City Hall."

That page may be efficient and courteous, that is if the goal is to not provide any contact information, email, phone, address, or otherwise!

Posted by joyce, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 7, 2007 at 7:00 am

Palo Parent, re "Search for: "creek monitor", three more clicks and there you go"

I searched on creek monitor. Then i clicked on the first five results and had to skim thru five pages without finding the creek monitor. There I go - away from the site, muttering to myself and here.

Posted by afraid to speak up, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 7, 2007 at 7:49 am


No, I am not a city employee. I simply like the site. That's no reason to treat me like a criminal. Obviously, anyone who disagrees with your scathing reviews has no place on this board. I feel like a piece of fresh meat in a tiger cage. I'm outta here.

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 7, 2007 at 8:02 am

Joyce: Perhaps it's just a different procedural process that one needs to follow:

Main page, search for: "creek monitor"

Click#1: "Other Search Results / Creek Level Monitor"

Click#2: "Flood and Storm Information"

Click#3: Select either "Creekcam" or "Creek Monitor" links.

Add it to your favorites and you're back to one click away.

Posted by Bill, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 7, 2007 at 8:12 am

Afraid to Speak Up -

Now I am even more convinced that you are a city employee or somehow involved in this project. People on this Board have been civil, but pointed in their remarks. Far more civil than the majority of Palo Alto Online Forums. If you love the site, you should defend it - help us see what we are missing. Castigating everyone, and then running away, is cheap and easy.

Perhaps the best thing to do would be for you to suggest how to improve the site. Help us get out of this mess. Perhaps you had something to do with getting us here in the first place. The only thing we want is a useful site, and a good return on our investment.

Posted by afraid to speak up, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 7, 2007 at 8:41 am


what's "cheap and easy" is blasting the site without any constructive suggestions. Calling for the blood of those responsible, suggesting that the city should sue the designer, and dumping the site are not helpful ideas.

BTW, I am NOT a city employee, and your belief that only someone on the "inside" would defend the site shows how closed your mind is.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a real life to get back to.

Posted by joyce, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 7, 2007 at 9:48 am

Palo parent, my comments in brackets on your message:

Joyce: Perhaps it's just a different procedural process that one needs to follow: [As opposed ot the google first item is likely it]

Main page, search for: "creek monitor"

Click#1: "Other Search Results / Creek Level Monitor" [Ah, the 17th ! 17th! item returned, three pages down - is this a joke?]

Click#2: "Flood and Storm Information" [Well, at first I do not see this, i see a few sentences and a big blank grey area. Then, reinforced by your telling me the link is here I look elsewhere in the page and see "Flood + Storm Alto." (This is what happens to the text on this site when one tries to set a larger font so the site can be readable.) Would anyone otherwise find this in a mess of gobledygook up at the top? No.]

Click#3: Select either "Creekcam" or "Creek Monitor" links. [And there it is, unfindable without directions.]

Add it to your favorites and you're back to one click away. [Sorry, I have my favs used up. The old web site had the creek monitor reachable from the home page, right where frightened people could find it immediately.]

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 7, 2007 at 10:23 am

None so blind as those who will not see.

You poor, poor dear! Do you mean that you actually had to look at the 17th link on the page?! Oh the humanity, this disaster can probably be rated up there with the crash of the Hindenburg.

I am not supporting the new PA website nor discounting the power of the Google search engine, I was just merely trying to help you out by showing how I found it my first time in three clicks.

C'mon Palo Alton's, I know August is a slow news month but must the sky always be falling?

Posted by joyce, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 7, 2007 at 11:12 am

Dear Palo Parent (aka web site implementor),

If you really think the results being the 17th item on the list is acceptable, now we know how the new web site got into being.

By the way, you are leaving out the clicks or scrolling to find the 17th item, and the clicks and reading of the ten preceeding items it might be in to see that the monitor is not in those pages. Let's see, that makes 1 (search) +20 (back and forth to the pages) + 1 (for the 17th page) + 2 (for scrolling) + 1 to get to the monitor = 25 clicks.

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 7, 2007 at 11:56 am


Didn't you know the first step to getting out of a hole is to stop digging?

As I said in my last post: "I am not supporting the new PA website nor discounting the power of the Google search engine." Why would you: "clicks and reading of the ten preceeding items it might be in to see that the monitor is not in those pages" when the link named: "Creek Level Monitor" is right there? When you look up the word "stupid" in the dictionary, do you start on page one until you stumble into the "S" section? Scrolling down doesn't count as a step as that is a variable of your screen size and resolution. Get out your Fisher-Price computer manual if you must and change it. All I was saying is that I found it in three clicks.

As for me being the "aka web site implementor" see sentence #1 and stop embarrassing yourself in such a public forum.

Posted by Karen White, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 7, 2007 at 11:59 am

Someone posted a helpful comment that the new City website will be available forever on the "Wayback Machine." I tried to use this to access our old website and successfully got to the home page and some other pages, but the links were not available. Does anyone know how to use the Wayback Machine to retrieve the old site?

Posted by user, a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 7, 2007 at 12:19 pm

That the site "looks good" is not enough. It may appeal to those for whom a "sleek" appearance is sufficient reason for being, but not to those of us who expect to be able to use the site. It should not have been enough for the designers, city council, or city management. The point of a website is to inform, to provide it's users with the information they need in the quickest, clearest, least cumbersome manner possible. This means, at least in part, readable pages, search boxes that produce useable, relevant results. I have some questions: Why doesn't the old URL refer to the new site? Why does one get a blank page instead of an error message? Why does the so-called "Know Zone" appear to be advocating eavesdropping? Why is the door icon meant to represent "City Departments" closed? (I think I know the answer to that question) Why grey? Why white on grey? Why is it so difficult to find the library's website? Why are the Kids and Teen pages for all intents and purposes HIDDEN? Do you seriously mean to suggest that a CHILD or TEEN will find these drab, flat sites appealing? Did these "designers" think to ask any computer savvy 8-year-old to use this website? Did they ask an older person whose eyesight is not so hot, if she could READ the text? What on earth were you thinking?

Posted by David Bubenik, a resident of University South
on Aug 7, 2007 at 1:08 pm


The file structure that the old website's links were designed to navigate may not exist anymore. A website is structured like a disk drive; the various files which are the link targets are organized into folders and subfolders and so on. If the new website uses a different folder/subfolder organization, or just renames a few critical folders, the old website's links are toast.

Posted by Annette, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 7, 2007 at 1:35 pm

Another usability feature that is not OK: With my standard size monitor (no I don't have a big flashy one - I have a small office) I cannot fit an entire web page on my screen. Isn't that a basic usability requirement? Is anyone else having this problem?

Posted by joyce, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 7, 2007 at 1:39 pm

Palo parent,

I understand you're upset. You created a spectacularly bad web site, but I suspect it's due to inexperience. Maybe you're two years out of college. If you stay in the field and get some experience, and, most importantly, training in usability, you might be able to do good work.

In the meantime, you and your buddies made a giant amount of money, far more than you should have, so take some comfort in that.

Posted by jack, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 7, 2007 at 1:56 pm


I sent the wayback machine folk an email asking your question.

Interestingly enough, a few links work. I guessed at the tree link by appending tree to the main page url
Web Link

and did get to the trees page. When I clicked on a link in that for city owned trees, it brought up the correct page.

Posted by susan, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 7, 2007 at 1:59 pm

What does "9-80 Friday - All Administrative Offices Closed" on the home page mean? The 80th day of September? 9 am to 80 pm?

Posted by The site is too slow!!, a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2007 at 2:13 pm

Simple and "affordable" website content management:

Web Link

However, it is not exactly a "blazing fast" piece of code. Or is the servers?

Posted by ?, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 7, 2007 at 3:45 pm

"the City has developed a 31-mile dark fiber ring for ultra-fast Internet access."

Doesn't dark fiber refer to unused fiber?

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 7, 2007 at 4:23 pm

Interesting FAQ:
Email links to City staff will be replaced with generic mailboxes to reduce the amount of spam email sent to city staff. Email links to non-city addess (sic) are not allowed.

Re usability, you know the website is bad when the city has to provide handouts on how to use the it, e..g,:


Planning and Community Environment home page:
Web Link
Weekly reports of certain types of development activity:
Click "Forms and Publications" on the right side of the Planning and Community Environment home page. It should be right at the top.

Municipal Code Online:
Web Link
Monthly update on Planning projects and issues:
Click on Planning and Transportation Issues of Interest under the News Updates in the Planning and Community Environment Home Page.

Check your permit status:
On the Development Center webpage, click on the Check Permit Status link.

Project pages:
On the Know Zone page, click "City Projects". You can find information on new and old projects such as:
• Stanford (under "Private Development")
• Charleston/Arastradero Corridor Plan (under "Transportation")
• College Terrace Traffic Calming Project (under "Transportation")
• El Camino Real/Caltrans Demonstration Grant Project (under "Transportation")
• Neighborhood Traffic Calming Program (under "Transportation")

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 7, 2007 at 4:39 pm

World's Worst Website Web Link
Designed to graphically demonstrate common mistakes of web designers. Offers suggestions and links to examples of good and bad web page design.

I suspect this was done a long time ago, but there are some basic rules that always apply -- and seem to have been overlooked in the city site:

"An easy to use navigation structure is essential to any well designed website! Important information should never be more than 2 clicks away."

"Keep your backgrounds simple. White or light colors usually work best."

"Misspelled werds and impropr punktuation, make yur web look amaturish, and unfinishd. Awlays run a spel chek befor yu uplode!"

"In addition to the problems outlined above, remember DOWNLOAD TIME is one of the most important factors in your web design. Most web surfers will not wait for more than 10-15 seconds for your page to load before they move on. Use pictures sparingly or use thumbnail images."

Posted by Davey, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Aug 7, 2007 at 5:54 pm

Isn't it at least a little ironic that the same city which has leaders studying an ultra-fast city-run fiber to the home system has a website that feels like it's being served by a 300 baud modem?

Posted by PA Resident, a resident of Professorville
on Aug 8, 2007 at 12:47 am


I am sure that you have been a perfect person all your life. You deserve the Top Palo Alto Citizen award and should be enshrined into the Palo Alto Citizen Hall Of Fame. Please run for Council so you can fix our City!!

Posted by bob, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 8, 2007 at 8:44 am

In Mozilla Firefox you can change font size by going to "View" in the tool bar, click on "Text Size" and then choose either increase or decrease. The text then stays the same size whenever you change pages or close and reopen the web page. Great for seniors who won't have to keep changing the font each time.

Posted by joe, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 8, 2007 at 8:56 am

Re: "Email links to City staff will be replaced with generic mailboxes to reduce the amount of spam email sent to city staff. Email links to non-city addess (sic) are not allowed."

It's quite simple to put human-readable email addresses on a web page that aren't scavangable by a spam spider. You'd think the $250,000 designers would know how to do that.

Posted by joe, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 8, 2007 at 9:02 am


It's great that you posted the increase text size link, but it plain doesn't work for much of this web site. For example:

Some text, like under the photo icons for city departments is not text, it's an image, so increase text size doesn't affect this.

The web site is not designed to handle increased text size, it gets garbled in various places. Take a look at this page for example
Web Link
the stuff in the horizontal boxes under the title is overwriting and obscuring itself.

Text size doesn't address the headache-inducing eyestrain from the poor contrast and the need to read way too much and click like crazy to try and find stuff.

Posted by George Lucas, a resident of another community
on Aug 8, 2007 at 11:51 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by joe, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 8, 2007 at 12:56 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Lori, a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 8, 2007 at 2:53 pm

I am an independent marketing consultant who has built dozens of websites for my clients over the years. I agree with nearly everything people have mentioned about what is wrong with the city's new site. What strikes me as the saddest aspect of this colossal failure is that it potentially could have been avoided if the folks responsible for managing this project had opened up the process to accept input from website experts in the community. Palo Alto must be filled with hundreds of professionals who build and manage websites for a living. I, for one, would have been happy to have volunteered my time, pro bono, to review early design mock-ups and navigational architectures to assist the city with getting the best possible outcome. Imagine what a different result we might have had if a volunteer community committee of website designers/consultants had been a part of this process from the beginning. It seems naive to expect any city employee who doesn't work day-in and day-out in the Internet world to know how to build an effective website -- one that balances design with functionality, one that incorporates a logical navigation scheme, one that takes into account the latest Jakob Nielsen usability research on legibility, typography, and so on. In my experience, it's also naive to expect your website vendor (in this case, the web design firm) to have this expertise. Sometimes you get lucky and your vendor is knowledgeable, but sometimes you don't, and if you're not able to critically evaluate a vendor's work, you're going to be swayed every time by smooth salesmanship and pretty pictures of past designs. Having independent reviewers who understand intimately the intricacies of doing a project like this could have gone a long way toward mitigating the risks of such an expensive, highly visible project.

Posted by bob, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2007 at 3:08 pm

Thanks for you comments, Joe. I went to your web link and tried my method. It worked without distorting anything. So I am confused as to what you see. Are you using a different browser other than Firefox? I haven't yet, but I will try something similar in Internet Explorer.

Posted by bob, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2007 at 3:25 pm

Joe, I tried Internet Explorer and used your web link. But I couldn't find the equivalent to "View" which is on Firefox. So I was unable to find a way to change the font from any of the choices on the Explorer tool bar. Any ideas?

Posted by bob, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2007 at 3:39 pm

Joe, I went back and saw what you meant about overwriting titles in the box at the top of the page if I increase the size twice. However, if I want to increase text size only, that is not a problem. If it becomes a problem, I'll simply go back and decrease the font size until they are all present.

Posted by Herb Borock, a resident of Professorville
on Aug 9, 2007 at 1:12 pm

I have located the city staff report and the contracts on the new web site, but I don't want to take the time to explain what I had to do to find these addresses:

The staff report, CMR:102:06 (January 23, 2006) is at:

Web Link

The contracts with the two consultants are at:

Web Link

Civica's corporate name is Pixelpushers, Inc. and its Chief Technology Officer is Mark Kelly. Their address is in Newport Beach.

Creativewerks is called a sole proprietorship in the contract, but is signed by a partner of a Partneship, Tom Joyce, who was the person assigned to the Palo Alto project. The other partner is Robert Johnson.

Look at Web Link for a portfolio of the kind of work they actually do.

Their contract says they "shall conduct two off-site focus group sessions looking at basic site usage questions for sites similar to City of Palo Alto web site." That language appears to mean that the focus groups did not look at Palo Alto's web site and were not held in Palo Alto.

Civic's contract appears to assign Palo Alto staff the responsibility for choosing the data to place on the different pages in the site.

About half the cost of the contract is for standard modules Civica has used elsewhere.

I did a Google search on the terms "Civica" and "Mark Kelly" and found the term "civic" included in URLs for a number of local governments, including the cities of Hawthorne, Mountain View, Redondo Beach, Martinez, and Visalia; the Orange County Great Park Corporation, and the California CUPA Forum, an association of Certified Unified Program Agencies, whose board includes Dan Firth of the Palo Alto Fire Department.

A discussion of Civica's product is discussed in a Visalia staff report at pages 29-32 of 73 at
Web Link.

If all this leads to the conclusion that Civica is capable of producing usable web sites for local governments, then the problem must be with either the other contractor or with the City staff.

One clue to who is the responsible party is in the Scope of Services for the Creativewerks contract, where is says the City's web site "does not posses a clearly recognizable visual identity, branding or message."

Is that concept an original idea from the contractor or did they get that idea from the City staff?

This gets back to the fundamental question of what is the purpose of a local government web site. I don't believe it is to possess a "clearly recognizable visual identity, branding or message", unless the message is the City does not want the public to use the web site.

I don't believe it is the responsibility of the public to redesign the web site for the City by our comments on this forum or our suggestions to the web master. The redesign needs to come about by first having the City Council give clear direction to the staff.

In the meantime, it is important for the Council to direct staff to presrve all of the information on the old web site and make it accessible to the public.

If you do a Google search for City information you get a lot of links that now lead to a default page with no information.

Posted by Cant believe it, a resident of Community Center
on Aug 9, 2007 at 4:15 pm

Thanks to Herb Borok for finding the January 2006 staff report and the contracts. I looked for them and gave up in frustration.
Please people, stop wasting space talking about text size and creek monitors. Those details aren't the problem. The whole design is wrong.
Sometimes web sites have backups. Did our late lamented web site have one?
I don't think we need to focus on the IT manager --she is being humiliated forever here. Alberto Gonzales does what his boss wants him to do. Probably she does too. Her bosses are the responsible parties, they put up the money, and who is her supervisor?

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2007 at 8:45 pm


Cant believe it: You're absolutely right about the whole design being wrong. But Bern Beecham continues to tell us we can increase the font size. Web Link

I agree that the IT manager, Lisa Mainarick-Bolger, is in a tough situation. From her resume, she sounds too junior to have been responsible for the site and managing the agencies. Perhaps she was only brought in to do the demo. But because she talked to the press, her name is known and she's taking the flak. We need to know who hired the agencies, what direction the agencies were given, who approved work at each checkpoint, what testing was done, and who signed off on everything. There's got to be some accountability on this.

Posted by bruce, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 9, 2007 at 10:35 pm

Thank you Herb Borock. Instead of complaining you did some digging and made a good contribution.

Now if Mr. Loo would try his own search engine, he might find out what many of the complaints are.

My. Several members of the council are sure defensive. You would think it was their own money, not ours that has been wasted.

Posted by Not a tech whiz but...seriously?!?, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 9, 2007 at 11:57 pm

WORST WEBSITE EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
why couldn't they have paid a high school kid a couple hundred bucks to make it--probably would've been a THOUSAND times better. no joke. it's literally depressing how bad the website is and how much the city paid for it. im ashamed to say i live in the silicon valley...

Posted by Jakob, a resident of another community
on Aug 10, 2007 at 12:40 am

the text version is much easier to navigate - start there

Posted by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger
on Aug 10, 2007 at 8:07 am

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

It's upsetting, after all these comments, to read in the Weekly that the staff and some council members are still defending the site:

On today's Palo Alto Online web page, is a story on the Web site ("City's new Web site slammed." In it, Chief Information Officer Glenn Loo said:

"We knew that by introducing a new look and feel it was definitely going to be generating some comment," Loo said. "We hoped that people would give it an opportunity ... look into the information that's being presented and hopefully see some improvements."

"We feel we've accomplished this."

... "The attempt was to be more engaging and enthusiastic and definitely to promote the community," Loo said. "I believe residents and businesses are proud of the level of services we offer here ... and I think that's reflected through the Web site."

We all make mistakes and misjudgments, and I can easily accept that the web designers and city staff wanted to make Palo Altans proud of their community on the web site.

But clearly that is not what we want, and yet the site is being defended.

The council the other night said changes may occur a couple of months from now.

Why not immediately? Why not just say, okay, we'll give the community what it wants?

Loo, in an earlier e-mail to a resident, also said some of the top people at city hall had reviewed the site and approved of it.

That's surprising, since community reaction to the site is, according to the Weekly's story, "nearly universally decried."


Posted by Marvin, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 10, 2007 at 9:00 am

The city council and their buddies that run the city (into the ground) have their rose-colored glasses on--as far as they are concerned all the complaints are coming from malcontents. The city council and their acolytes know what is best for the city--they have viewed the site and they approve--now everyone in PA can shut up.
Their is a complete and total failure by our mayor and city council to provide any kind of reasoned leadership for our city, expecially in these trying times.
It is clear that no one at city hall can ever do anything so bad that they will be dismissed from their post--over the last year or so we have seen many examples of incompetence and bad behavior by the "powerful elite" in city hall. yet none of these people are called to task by our elected city leaders.

Posted by Herb Borock, a resident of Professorville
on Aug 10, 2007 at 1:59 pm

Frank Benest's Weekly Memo comments about the new web site have already been posted by other at the other links on this topic.

Here is the link to the Memo:

Web Link

Posted by Herb Borock, a resident of Professorville
on Aug 10, 2007 at 4:02 pm

The City of Palo Alto web site contractor Pixelpushers, Inc., doing business as Civica, has been the contractor for many government web sites.

Click on Web Link to find the links to 36 other government web sites and compare them to the new Palo Alto web site.

For some reason, Pixelpushers, Inc. (Civica) has not included Palo Alto in the links to web sites it has helped build.

Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 10, 2007 at 6:06 pm

Herb, thanks so much for all the great research you've done!

Looks like Pixelpushers is to blame for the search engine and presentation of search results.

Mountain View is one of the sites done by Pixelpushers, but the Mountain View staff had the good sense to use a Google search bar.

Looks like all the sites shown on the Pixelpushers web page have nice clear white backgrounds. Did someone at Palo Alto City Hall come up with "slate grey"?

Posted by Annette, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 10, 2007 at 9:49 pm

So what can be done? I think that Frank should convene a citizens panel to revise the web site. This should be fast track - 30 days. The panel should be composed of many of the writers to this blog, who have enormous experience in design and web site usability.

In the short term, I suggest 1)do a spell check on site, 2)reverse the color scheme- to a white background with black text, 3)eliminate the large and inappropriate pictures, 4) eliminate the fluff text on each section, and 5) eliminate the "knowzone" category name.

That's my two cents.

Posted by Time for a change, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 12, 2007 at 9:49 pm

Does anyone else notice the similarity of Benest's handling of this fiasco to George Bush's handling of the war?
Disaster and humiliation all around and he issues press releases that all is well and we are going to make it all right, just wait. No matter the evidence, no matter that there is overwhelming rejection of the plan/web site he send out memos saying it's a fine project.
Time to replace this manager and get someone who understands the community. And we should do it before we get screwed royally by subsidizing the Stanford expansion. I'm not sure he is the right person to stand up for us.

Posted by Don, a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2007 at 12:01 am

One clue to the reason Civica's work product seems different seems to be contained in this quote from the Daily New's Sunday story about the website:

""In fact, Mountain View used the same vendor, Civica Software, that Palo Alto hired. But Mountain View spent only $35,000 because it used its own employees to implement the software, Levin said."

Mountain View's employees seemed to be actively involved in the implementation - unlike Palo Alto's, and perhaps that is the reason they do not have the online fiasco we have here in Palo Alto.

It is also noteworthy that the use of outside contractors for the implementation seemed to have cost the city in excess of $200,000 (using the figures in the PADN story). This begs the question of why Palo Alto, with 50 percent more employees per capita than mountain view has to outsource so many city functions. What in the world are all those people at City Hall doing all day?!

Indeed perhaps if they did more of the city's work, rather than outsource it, they'd be involved enough in the process to catch errors like this.

One has to ask - once again - what we're getting for the "premium" we pay to live here.

Posted by Hmm, a resident of another community
on Aug 16, 2007 at 11:54 am

Wow. Civica's website is ugly. Validation throws 44 errors and it looks like it was designed in 1997.

At least it's heartening to know that you can be totally incompetent and scam rich cities out of wheelbarrows full of cash. If we run out of work, all we have to do is hang a shingle, get very rudimentary production skills in photoshop, and charge a ton of money to city governments to redesign their websites (you know, to fill our "impressive" portfolios).

And it'll work, too. Almost all city government websites in the Bay Area are horribly designed, most of them look like they were done by the mayor's kid, and almost none of them adhere to modern notions of accessibility and usability. That's too bad. It's 2007, not 1997.

You don't have to be good at web design and development to make a ton of money. You just have to outrun Civica or That's like trying to win marathons against guys who run 15 minute miles.

Posted by Give them a break, a resident of another community
on Aug 16, 2007 at 5:00 pm

It's not fair to compare this website with those you see while day-to-day browsing. And especially not fair to compare it to websites of typical silicon valley companies.

The IT people at these companies are professionals in their fields, often with years of both direct experience and related experience. Sometimes, smart. And they've been sifted through tests of delivering on requirements and accounting for expenses and resources used. People who don't deliver are not promoted or are asked to leave.

You can't expect city employees to meet these standards. There is no sifting. There is no accountability. There are no shareholders holding feet to fire.

Be gentle and make your suggestions as you would to sensitive students.

Posted by Cant find, a resident of Southgate
on Sep 2, 2007 at 5:49 pm

I heard that the Planning commission is talking about the Stanford project this Wednesday so I went to the web to see the agenda.
Nothing on the main page gave me a clue as to where to go so I put Planning Commission Agenda into the Search. Sounds pretty straightforward to me. It took me in circles and up and down and around. Eventually I found it.
Now I'm beginning to wonder, seriously, was it designed to keep people from finding out what the city is doing? I was about to give up. I mean, this is crazy.

Posted by Can't find, a resident of Southgate
on Sep 7, 2007 at 5:44 pm

I thought I'd give the web site another try for something else. The home page highlights three items, these are the top two:
- City staff is off today 9/80
- Worm composting workshop
You just couldn't make this up.

Posted by Joan, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 7, 2007 at 10:37 pm

Thanks, "Can't find", for a good laugh. But this website is not a joke, it is a disaster. I sure hope you and everyone else who agrees that this website is worse than an embarrassment also remember to send all your comments to !!

Only if the council members feel the heat will anyone in City Hall pay any attention to the legitimate and constructive complaints that have been raised on this blog and others.

Check out the incredibly arrogant and non-responsive attitude shown in this week's edition of Frank's Weekly Memo (issued by the City Manager's Office), pasted in below. Based on past incidents, I didn't expect an actual apology, but this PR piece was written by someone without connection to the real world. What possible hope is there for "fixing" the extremely serious problems with the site if the folks in charge think that this is a response to the criticism given so far?

City Web site Continues to Evolve
(from Frank's Weekly Memo for September 7, 2007) -- see it for yourself at:
Web Link

"Since the launch of the City web site redesign last month, staff has
concentrated on refining search capability, adding new content, posting news releases and uploading reports for upcoming meetings. The site continues to take on new shape as this new information is posted, special events are highlighted in the calendar section, and photos highlighting Palo Alto's many attractions are added to the web site. Staff will transfer dated content pertaining to Council, Boards, and Commissions. All content from 2007 is currently available on the site. In addition, staff is making modifications to the many on-line forms to provide greater ease of use, and this remains our highest priority. The next initiative will be to train key staff members from each department to handle routine updates and develop new content for their sections. The web site continues to evolve and we look forward to its growth."

Posted by Cant find, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2007 at 7:23 pm

Every candidate for the city council should be asked what he is going to do about the web site. Is he going to hold the administrators responsible or just put in a few cosmetic fixes. This is truly the tip of an iceberg that has needed fixing for a long time. Larry Klein promised to do so but never got around to it.
Benest's PR piece isn't fooling anyone. The thing needs to be trashed and redesigned, and Benest's incompetence acknowledged. Changing the gray to another color isn't going to do it.

Posted by Can't find, a resident of Southgate
on Sep 9, 2007 at 10:05 pm

Another day, another adventure on the City web site.
The Worm Composting Workshop is over, gone.
New Item: Monday, Sept. 10th a Study Session by the City Council. Click on it.
Repeat announcement, Study Session. period. No subject, no information.
Go to Calendar. Sept. 10. No events, empty box.
As I wrote the other day, you just couldn't make this up.

Posted by aboyd, a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2007 at 4:37 am

Ironically (maybe?) although the city has had over a month to fix the issues mentioned here, I was able to fix many issues with just a weekend. Diana, if you're able to use the Firefox browser and Greasemonkey plugin, I hope you'll try my script. It fixes pages on-the-fly as your browser downloads them. By doing this, you don't have to wait for the city to fix the site. You can apply fixes NOW, whether they intend to fix things or not. I have some introductory text on my Web site here:

Web Link

If you are able to get it running and you like what you see, perhaps you might write a new blog entry about it? I understand that for many, installing a new browser may be strange and uncomfortable, so I understand if people aren't willing. However, I do think my changes are worthwhile. Thanks.


Posted by Can't find, a resident of Southgate
on Sep 14, 2007 at 10:04 pm

Here's another possible solution. Offer to buy from Mountain View the structure of their web site, without the content of course.
I had never been to their site before, and I am astonished at how attractive it is, how straightforward and easy it is to navigate, at the same time there is really complex material that I found in an instant. Take a look! Web Link

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