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This article was inspired by the Society for Information Technology Management's (SOCITM) publication Better Connected : Aiming High which asked users what they thought was best practice on Local Authority sites, and an explanation of how their surveying and scoring of Local Authority Websites is being changed. For the full article you will need to order a printed copy from SOCITM.

I am a web developer for a Local Authority, but it is important to understand that the opinions below are my personal beliefs and not necessarily those of my employer or of SOCITM. I believe that most of these tips are common usability or accessibility techniques and could be used for other websites, although some are obviously written from the point of view of a Local Authority.

I have divided my thoughts into four areas - features, ease of use, look and general approach, and the bit where I disagree with their findings. Within each section, the points are ordered approximately according to my personal opinion of their relative importance. Obviously every Local Authority will have their own individual sets of circumstances and some of these may not be appropriate, but take on board as many as possible.

Look and General Approach

  1. Always be honest and upfront. Never claim anything you don't have, or can't back up. Always use plain language, even when something appears negative. This will generate a aura of trust. Conversely, you don't want to create a situation where your residents don't believe a word of it!
  2. Proofread pages before putting them live. It might sound simple, but spelling mistakes and typos significantly detract from how professional a website looks.
  3. You know it already - achieve at least conformance level Double-A for accessibility. Read the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for more information.
  4. Do not restrict the users settings - use a fluid design. You don't know your user's screen resolutions, or whether they're accessing the site through WebTV. Allow all sizes to be scalable to the screen size. Some parties consider that this is a requirement to achieve the AA level of accessibility.
  5. Users prefer a consistent style across the entire website.
  6. The user of colour should be encouraged to catch the visitor's attention but only a limited number of colours should be used and you should avoid multiple shades of the same colour. It is also important to note that no information should be conveyed by colour alone.
  7. Relevant and uncluttered icons or images are good for catching a visitor's attention.

Ease Of Use

To some extent, Local Authorities have a captive audience. If you live in our area and you want to use our services, then you have to come to us, you can't choose to take your services to a neighbouring authority. However, users can choose not to use your website if it proves difficult and instead rely on personal or telephone contact - with a correspondingly higher cost to the Council per request. If the visitor is trying to solve their own problem it is of practical and financial benefit for the Council to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

  1. Keep the user and the purpose of their visit in mind. Ensure that the information that they wish to find is easy to locate, rather than simply whatever you are trying to promote at the time. If you can help a visitor by directing them away from your website, do so.The key point here is to help the visitor in want they want to achieve, not forcing them to remain on your site whether or not it is appropriate for them.
  2. It is vital that pages are regularly reviewed and out of date pages are removed. Pages which appear to be haphazard, inconsistent with the rest of the site, duplicated or out of date can make a website impossible to navigate - particularly if these pages show up higher in the search results than the page the user was actually trying to find.
  3. A logical grouping system for online services might be 'apply for it', 'pay for it', 'report it', and if appropriate 'discuss it'. Visitors will usually be able to immediately identify which category their service request falls into.
  4. Users find that the use of a breadcrumb trail and/or 'you are here' links to be of significant benefit when navigating a website.
  5. Users who visit the council jobs site will usually do so for one of two reasons: they are either looking for a specific post at the Local Authority, or they want to find a job in the local area. Make this easy for them - ensure that your jobs site is easily searchable and also provide links to other local job listings.
  6. When you have a multi-part task the visitor needs to complete (such as making an online application), keep the user informed at every stage exactly how many steps are required and where they are in the process. Someone reaching the fourth step in the process with no obvious sign of an end could easily be discouraged, whereas an indication that they were on 'step 4 of 5' would probably be enough to keep them working through the process.

Features

I'm not mentioning features that your website will already have - like the ability to pay your Council Tax online, for example. These are just extra add-ons to make your site look that bit better.

  1. Search. Your website should have a prominent and permanent search box in the same place on every page. It may be of benefit to also offer an 'advanced search' page for more experienced users.
  2. It is of great benefit and is attractive to a local visitor if they can type in their postcode on the site front page and immediately see information specifically about their local area that may be relevant (remember, prioritise the visitor, not the structure). For this reason, include such information as refuse collection, school catchment areas and local events ahead of information such as who the local councillors are or where the ward surgeries are held.
  3. If a user has a question about a Cabinet Portfolio, they don't need to know the actual Cabinet member. Don't force them to track down the right councillor before they can ask a question - offer a system whereby they indicate the type of query (or the Cabinet Portfolio as appropriate) and the email is automatically directed to the correct person.
  4. Gimmicks. If your website has some form of gimmick it will be attractive to users and they will want to come back. Offer the chance for users to take part in an online poll (but change the poll frequently and publish the results otherwise it will look as though your site is never updated or you are not bothered about it!), show live webcam feeds - one Council offers couples undertaking a marriage service to have their ceremony broadcast live over a webcam if they want so that people who are unable to attend can still watch.
  5. Offer email alerts or newsletters for features (particularly if the users can select the categories of information that they are interested in and only receive this). Another idea would be to produce an email newsletter containing a digest of the more important recent local issues to present people with a brief overview and point them in the direction of further information should they wish to expand on any of the stories.
  6. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). If users have a searchable database of frequently asked questions where they can check for common queries, they may be able to resolve their query themselves. If not, allow them to publicly post their query. Ensure that you indicate to the visitor how quickly they will receive a response, and as well as emailing the visitor once you have a response, post the answer to the query online also to make it more likely that a future visitor will find what they are looking for.
  7. Most private sector websites offer an online shop with the chance to purchase goods. Very few Councils do, despite their being very obvious types of goods to sell - goods commemorating local events, local maps, walks in the local area, etc.
  8. Offer interesting and quirky facts or statistics about the local area. If a user is entertained by your site, they may well tell other people about it. Also, providing local facts gives an opportunity to link to other local interest groups (and possibly for them to link back to you).

Findings I Disagree With

It's important to note that the survey made note of genuine user experiences, and I am not disagreeing that some users may hold these views. However, these are areas where I feel following the suggested advice may have negative consequences.

  1. Some users felt that the fact the Councils offered a link to Browsealoud or similar software would be of benefit, particularly to people with vision difficulties. This may only be partially true. Users with poor sight may benefit from hearing the websites read out. However, unless the websites have been designed with accessibility in mind, the benefit they will get from this will be minimised. It is also worth noting that any blind visitors will already be using their own screen reading software - otherwise they would not be able to access your site in the first place!
  2. One user commented that sites making use of 'the full range of accesskeys to the UK Government standards, which is all the numbers plus the letters A-I and S'. This is incorrect. The Cabinet Office Resources shows that the UK Government Accesskeys standard only includes the numbers 0-9 and the letter S. WATS.ca have an excellent resource showing why accesskeys can be problematic - see AccessKeys and Reserved Keystroke Combinations or More Reasons Why We Don't Use AccessKeys. In short, while accesskeys can be of benefit in some situations, the implementation of them means that the accessibility community is not able to come to an agreement on their usefulness. Within the UK, the consensus appears to be that if you are going to use Accesskeys you must stick to the UK Government standard, and not define any other keys.