Vicky is programme co-director for Connected Local Government Live and the Boilerhouse series of Digital Innovations Showcases. She is programme director for Socitm - Better Connected and a board director of Boilerhouse Communications Limited@vickysargent
Fewer than half of the 91 council websites re-designed between April 2016 and March 2017 passed both of two key performance tests in Socitm’s Better Connected survey 2017
The annual survey programme, which reported results for 2016-17 in June, tests the performance of all UK council websites from a customer perspective, using a series of mystery shopping tests carried out by a team of reviewers.
Analysis of the results of recently re-designed council sites focused on two tests only, the usability of the site when accessed from a mobile device and the usefulness of site search, navigation and A-Z facilities.
The outcome is that 45% of the 91 new sites scored 3 or 4 stars for both tests, compared with 41% of all council websites achieving that achieved this result for the same two tests. It is disappointing that newly designed sites do so little better than the whole cohort of 416 local authority websites, and it is worth examining why this should be so.
The simple answer seems to be that commissioners of these sites appear not to follow best practice for designing council websites that emerges each year from the Better Connected process. This is all the more surprising since this best practice has been free to view online since the Better Connected website was launched in the Autumn of 2015.
Each year, all council websites are subject to seven tests that determine their Better Connected star rating on a scale of one to four. There are four service-based tasks, testing, for example, how easy it is to apply for a single person’s council tax discount, renew a library book, or find out about building regulations. There is a test so see whether sites are accessible to people with disabilities, a mobile test, and search, navigation and A-Z test.
The last two tests are better indicators of the success of a site re-design than the service based tests, which notwithstanding a site redesign can still perform badly because of legacy third party systems or poor content management specific to a particular service area.
The Better Connected mobile test checks that a site has been designed with the mobile user in mind (highly important now that most councils are reporting that a majority of visits are made this way), while the search, navigation and A-Z test checks that the site information architecture works, that key customer journeys have been properly tested, and that facilities like search and A-Z work well for visitors.
The mobile test first checks that a site is purposed for mobile. These days that generally means the site is responsive (ie adapts itself automatically for the smaller screen), since the separate mobile site has almost died out. ‘Desktop’ sites are hard for everyone to use on a small screen and are inaccessible to many with disabilities. Encouragingly, based on Better Connected 2016-17 research, only 11% of council websites remain desktop-bound. All the more astonishing then, that two of our 91 new sites have not been purposed for mobile despite their re-design.
The mobile test continues with reviewers assessing how quickly they can find popular information or services starting from the site home page, using navigation only. There are a number of key issues that slow the process.
Sites with multiple menu options, where the visitor is forced to choose between ‘popular’ or ‘top tasks’ or a plain service-based menu, or where the user must decide whether they are a visitor, business or resident before they start, or where there are also options for ‘quick links’ or ‘pay’, ‘report’, ‘apply’ all tend to be slower than those with straightforward lists of most used service categories, like libraries, council tax, or waste and recycling.
Space saving is essential on a small screen, but hiding often unpredictable links under many different options can be a false economy. So too can be the unlabeled ‘hamburger’ menu, which, if a home page is cluttered with promotional material, news stories, feedback buttons, email pop-ups, invitations to use ‘my account’, and more, can get missed completely.
Another classic mistake revealed in our testing was to put a ‘find my nearest facility’ on a site home page and then fail to link to it from service pages. Our test was looking for libraries and parks, and sites with a find my nearest facility frequently failed the question through this really simple error.
Problems with information architecture and details affecting customer journey were also key factors for sites failing the search, navigation and A-Z test. In it we asked three questions, two of which had to be answered correctly for a site to pass the test. They were: ‘Are services the main focus of the council’s home page?’, ‘Is there no more than one navigation route to top tasks from the home page?’ and ‘Are service landing pages focused on top tasks?’ Each of these questions was answered incorrectly by around one fifth of sites.
On the plus side, six newly redesigned sites achieved the top ranking of 4 stars overall in Better Connected. All six were also winners in the Better Connected Awards, so congratulations are due to Chelmsford City Council, Eden District Council, Harrogate Borough Council, Herefordshire Council, Midlothian Council, and Warwick District Council.
48 of the 91 redesigned sites (53%), scored 3 & 4 stars overall in Better Connected, compared with 55% of all councils. Of the better scoring re-designed sites, 77% are subscribers to Socitm Insight and therefore get access to full Better Connected results and reports for their council.
Better Connected headline results for all councils and task reports for all services and facilities tested are free to view without registration or login at https://betterconnected.socitm.net/