Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

WMATA.com: The evolving history of D.C.'s Metro website

November 10, 2011 - 09:12 AM
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Hooray! Online money onto your SmarTrip card online. This image is both kitschy and wonderful. 23 Photos
(Photo: WMATA/WMATA)

Brian Anderson began working as Metro's social media manager this past summer and it didn't take him long to notice something wrong with WMATA's 15-year-old website. He turned to his fellow coworkers in the communications department and asked where the social media links were. Why not add a link to the @WMATA Twitter account, with its 21,000 followers, or the Facebook or YouTube pages? "Brian, you're a genius!" Dan Stessel, WMATA's chief spokesperson and himself a recent hire from the beginning of summer, recalls musing at the natural, correct observation. Fast forward a few weeks and suddenly there were big graphics directing WMATA.com's visitors to the agency's social media presence.

What's the face of WMATA? The uniformed men and women who work in the system? An official Twitter account or Metro Forward Facebook profile? Spokesperson Dan Stessel's quotes in the countless Metro stories that fill our local news media? The thoughtful face of Richard Sarles?

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WMATA.com, 1996. (Photo: Wayback Machine)

Sure ... those are good answers. But here's a better one — the website. The Internet home of Metro, WMATA.com, is the official source of information for most people curious about transit options in the District. The website presents countless bits of data, from the Trip Planner to audio of Metro board meetings to giant PDFs about how the system is functioning month to month to the many Powerpoints and press releases released over the years. Yet it remains intimidating due to the crushing depths of its facts and figures, a labyrinth with a long history of evolution.

In 2011, WMATA jazzed up its communications outreach, however, and began paying demonstrable attention paid to social media, PR, and efforts to be transparent, which I've examined and discussed before. The next logical step is to examine just how far the Metro website has come. From September 30 to October 30, WMATA.com clocked nearly three and a half million visits with 1.5 million absolute unique visitors. People care and people are clicking. Riders rejoiced when a few months ago WMATA announced they could finally add money to SmarTrip cards online. What else can the Metro website do? I took a hard look at the WMATA site, with its grays and blues and big rotating visuals, and studied both its past and its potential future.

"We can make it easier for folks to find stuff with some pretty simple changes," WMATA's Stessel said when I asked him about the site.

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Text-heavy WMATA.com in '03.(Photo: Wayback Machine)

WMATA.com has undergone multiple different incarnations in Metro's history.  The WMATA.com domain was first registered and the transit site first launched on May 2, 1996, just seven months after The Washington Post launched WashingtonPost.com and two months after the Washington City Paper registered its current domain. By 1999, WMATA realized it should prevent potential web impostors and registered WMATA.org and WMATA.net. An Arlington ad agency registered MetroOpensDoors.com, which now links back to WMATA.com, in August of 2000 as part of an ongoing Metro PR campaign. In February of 2011, WMATA registered another web address — MetroForward.com, which takes you to WMATA.com's explanations about the agency's six-year $5 billion Capital Improvement Program.

The site trudged on, ugly and primitive in its first years, and soon evolved. In 1999, the transit agency began selling fares, passes, and merchandise through its website. The raw barren face of the first webpage in the late '90s soon featured the different colors of the Metro lines and then became deluged with different WMATA documents, buried in depths, as the site grew in the last 10 years. Text overwhelmed the homepage at times a decade ago but WMATA kept tweaking and changing different elements. The principles of good web design took time to emerge. The transit agency knows the value of a good site and has invested money into these improvements — just one IT contract for "website enhancements" cost $300,000 in Metro's approved 2010 budget, for instance.

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WMATA homepage before the '08 relaunch. (Photo: WMATA)

The last great web relaunch happened in late 2008. A WMATA slideshow from December '08 claimed the old version of WMATA.com was fraught with rich information but "disorganized," with "unpredictable navigation" and "no common look or feel, small hard-to-read text." There were too many words and too few images. The search never worked right. Stare into WMATA's online heart and see monotone. The new version set out to change that and established the common aesthetic you're used to seeing now as well as multidimensional pages. WMATA touted its enhanced Trip Planner, real-time information, and the interactive Metro map. Former DCist editor Sommer Mathis declared the launch a "step in the right direction" when it went live on December 8. WMATA also set up a little online gift shop in the last couple years.

With its 2011 communications relaunch, WMATA has begun treating its homepage more like a news site, with the new spokesperson and his team holding greater control over what we see when we visit the transit homepage. "When I got here, the web team revamped the site to give us content management for the homepage," Stessel told me.

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WMATA.com, still less visual than now, in early '11. (Photo: WMATA)

The tweaks were relatively small but significant. The main image featured on the homepage grew larger and Stessel is able to select three important WMATA news items to highlight and put in what Metro calls the "marquee" or what many news sites might call the carousel slots. These three images rotate automatically, one after another. Stessel controls what stories go here as well as the news box, full of links to Metro press releases and statements, featured in the right-hand corner.

"I try to shuffle the deck at a minimum of one to two days," Stessel said. "Having a large rotating image can really drive traffic. You'll see an instant spike.

When the earthquake and hurricane hit, WMATA featured flashy visuals of red spiky emergency lines and of piled sandbags ("We're getting ready," the WMATA tag cutely announced). A little Photoshop magic went a long way toward creating a personality and directing riders to where they needed to go. Stessel pulls images from the marketing department and alters them to help sell the WMATA news about the Farragut Crossing free transfer, about the track work, about town halls for MetroAccess and MTPD. These images can, at times, tend toward the zany — a woman sits cross-legged and cheers at her laptop, now equipped to load money onto her SmarTrip card; a rotten sandal is juxtaposed with metal teeth and the phrase "Don't Feed the Escalators." See examples of recent homepage graphics here. Yet the sense of personality, apparent in other ways such as the fluffy mascots at the Farragut Crossing conga-line launch, is a welcome change for a transit agency known for grim opaqueness in recent years.

But more change needs to happen, as Stessel, Anderson, and the rest of the communications and IT team seem to be well aware. Later this year, WMATA hopes to launch online bus alerts in addition to its existing NextBus service. Also on the agenda is a mobile site, modeled after the version at Stessel's old employer, New Jersey Transit. Their team realizes that some landing pages that may not be necessary any more as well as features that need to be rethought or may be redundant. Transit Police once provided a blotter of Metro crime that ceased operations this spring. Communication strategy changed in part because regular updating of the blotter grew tedious and Metro communications staff thought they could use their resources more strategically. The average visitor to WMATA.com has to click through about six pages on average to find what he or she wants.

The WMATA website today contains a wealth of data that, as Stessel indicates, does need to be reined in. But it's a far superior website now compared to what it was in 1996, 1998, 2003, or 2007. WMATA has evolved with the times, and its Internet presence (no matter how frustrating the news of Metro delays are) stands as a testament to that evolution. The three and a half million monthly visits speak to the vital and growing community need that our country's transit websites attempt to fulfill. I can't wait to see how it changes over the next 15 years.

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WMATA.com today. (Photo: WMATA)
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