Useful, usable and used – your new look council website

front of Harrogate Council offices
Like every local authority Harrogate Council now has to offer its services online as well as from its impressive offices

Question: where do you go to find 225 local government officials, all talking about usability?
Answer: the recent Headstar / Socitm event: Building the perfect council website.

So what is Headstar / Socitm?

Headstar is a pioneering e-publisher. If you’re into e-government then think about signing up for their free weekly newsletter – and they also recently started a similar one for accessibility.

Socitm is the Society of Information Technology Management. But it’s really the professional association for senior people working in ICT in local government. For many years now they have published the Better Connected review. This looks at every UK local government website and assesses them against each other and against a set of independent criteria. It’s tough to be at the top of their list, and each year they make it harder to get their best ratings.

For example, if your local government website merely threw out a bunch of brochure-ware, then Better Connected would award the lowest rating: ‘Promotional’.

To earn the next rating, ‘Content’, you have to provide useful stuff. And to get to ‘Content+’, you have to organise it in a way people can find it.

The highest accolade, ‘Transactional’, means that you can actually do things – and find content where you need it.

The patchwork website

The Better Connected rating system was introduced in 1999, when only a few councils even had websites. Now, they all do. As one reviewer put it last year: ‘The standard of [local government] websites certainly keeps improving overall year by year.”

The average site now contains features such as online payment that were confined to a few brave pioneers just a few years ago. However, a new phenomenon has appeared: the patchwork site, which is great in some areas but dire in others. How do you rate a site like this?’

Useful, usable and used

So Better Connected has changed its rating system. Henceforth, they will be checking to see if a site is ‘useful, usable and used’.

  • Useful content: Does the website have the information that people are looking for?
  • Usability: How easy is it to find and use the information on the website?
  • Usage: How well used is the website?

Isn’t that great? It’s no longer enough to merely have content – it’s got to be good content. And people must be able to use it. And they must actually use it. Hooray!

Back to the event. So our 225 people gathered together to find out how to make their websites useful, usable and used.

Gee-Kay Wong started us off with an engaging presentation that set the scene and introduced us to the idea that usability means user-centred design aimed at building great user experiences.

Martin Greenwood of Socitm explained the changes to the rating system (much scribbling of notes in the audience).

Then Morgan McKeagney compared a selection of UK and Irish websites – encouraging us all by telling us that on the whole, the UK ones came out ahead.

A lively panel discussion finished off the morning, as attendees challenged the presenters with a series of practical questions.

Disabled users reviewed the Council websites

In the afternoon, Stefan Hasselwimmer of the Usability Exchange gave us the results of a review of the top council websites – by disabled users. Their innovative service has a panel of people with disabilities who will try tasks on your website, and give you an immediate rating.

It’s cheering to see a change from the sometimes mechanical idea of accessibility as conformance to a set of guidelines and towards the idea that accessibility is about people doing things. It was less cheering to find out that the panel couldn’t do two simple tasks on some of the top 20 council websites – or took an excessively long time.

Gee-Kay asked the question we all wanted the answer for: ‘How much does it cost to get Usability Exchange to review my site?’ And the answer is: not much. Visit http://www.usabilityexchange.com/ to find out.

We then broke into groups: search, writing for the web, accessibility and (yes, dear readers, my chance to speak) forms. I was impressed that about 30 people stormed up several flights of stairs to compare ideas on forms. The top two concerns were: how best to build electronic and web forms into good business processes, and how to choose and integrate the technologies.

Sheenagh Reynolds of Better Connected and Steve Palmer of Hillingdon Council provided their practical insights, including a rousing mini-speech from Steve on the importance of understanding users: “You’ve got to think about the real people. What if the person filling in your form has only got a couple of minutes in the library to tell you about being beaten up by her partner? It’s got to be really easy.”

And finally, we returned to the hall to hear about three Better Connected reviewers’ choice of their favourite websites: the ‘Wow’ factor.

‘Wow’ equals usable

And it turns out that the ‘wow’ factor for a council website is really about thoughtful usability – providing things that people can use, yes, but also that they want to use. For example, Helen Williams picked Clackmannanshire Council.

It’s not the loveliest website you’ve seen, and it’s short on fancy features. But that’s not its purpose. What it does, it does very well: provides easy access to the information and services that are relevant to the citizenry of Clackmannanshire.

So, are you working on a patchwork site? Perhaps ‘wow’ equals usable for you, too.

This article first appeared in Usability News

Picture of Harrogate Council offices by Tim Green, creative commons