Chris Bush 07 January 2016

Is your council website up to scratch?

The UK is paving the way in transforming public sector services through the Government Digital Services (GDS) and with its digital by default initiative. As a result there is more pressure than ever for public sector websites, more widely, to be up to scratch.

As digital channels are now the primary method of engaging with public sector organisations, it’s time for them to start thinking of their website as their most important communications medium. Here, there are some key considerations that they should bear in mind from the outset.

Considering user needs

For local government websites in particular, it can be difficult to build a picture of a typical user. As it’s the general public that will be using the website, it’s not easy to determine individual needs and build a website that addresses them. However, it is true to say that undoubtedly some users will have an impairment or disability - 11 million people in the UK live with one - that will have an effect on how they use and navigate a website. This is why all government websites must be accessible, which means easy to use by people with a physical, cognitive, or visual impairment.

Design approaches

The user needs to be at the heart of the design when creating a website, in order to prevent them becoming frustrated and abandoning the site before they’ve found the information they need. But too often designers focus more on how a website looks, and forget to keep the target audience in mind. There are a couple of things that should be considered initially:

Content

Understanding why a user has landed on your site in the first place is key to its service design. Local council websites need to direct users to practical, task-based information (such as paying your council tax) as efficiently as possible. Because of this, the user journey needs to be streamlined, and key content needs to be structured correctly, easy to find, and concise.

Following the ‘top-tasks’ rule can help to make this process smoother – that is, the most popular content in each section should be ‘brought to the top’ and easiest to find. The 3-click rule is also important – the idea that users should be able to find what they need in three clicks.

Different devices

As with all websites in this day and age, local government websites need to be mobile-friendly. And as mobile devices have overtaken desktop as the most popular means of accessing the internet, it’s more important than ever for people to be able to use a website on mobile with ease.

Considering adaptive and responsive layouts is a good place to start. Adaptive layouts detect screen size as a page is loaded and then optimise the site to this size. Whereas responsive layouts – which the majority of mobile sites are now built with are fluid, and scale to screen size – which avoids that jump you sometimes get with adaptive layouts. Responsive sites are usually cheaper and easier to develop than adaptive ones too.

Although this is just a snapshot, these considerations are great places to start for local government organisations that are looking to make their websites more user-friendly and successful. There are many other things, from the positioning of ‘calls to action’, to form design, and the size of touch zones on mobile sites, that can be considered after the initial teething problems are smoothed out.

And ultimately, although there are a number of accessibility checklists and laws, really it’s important to focus on winning over users. And by doing so it’s likely these boxes will be ticked anyway.

Chris Bush is head of user experience (UX) at Sigma

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Click here to register for your free copy.

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