A whole industry sector’s websites rated according to their usability

Back in March, 2008, Usability News noted the publication of the 10th annual ‘Better Connected’ report.

If you work on websites for local government, this won’t have passed you by: Better Connected’s annual assessment is the point each year when you find out whether your efforts are acknowledged as successful, or when you start finding some creative explanations for your bad report. If you’re not in local government: so what? Why should we pay attention to this rather specialised area?

Looking at the whole sector

One of the impressive features of Better Connected (subtitle: ‘A snapshot of all local authority websites’) is that it reviews 552 websites: every single one in its sector. Lesson: How often do we look outside our own specific areas of work to find out what other sites in our sector are doing?

Taking an annual measurement – and raising the standards

Notice that ’10th Annual’ Better Connected started in 1999 as ‘Well Connected’. At that time, only 27% of the UK adult population was online; only 75% of local authorities had a website of any kind; two thirds of those sites were purely promotional (what I’d call ‘brochureware’).

Now around 67% of the UK adult population has visited a website in the last three months; all local authorities have websites and they have all progressed beyond ‘brochureware’. Year in, year out, Better Connected has tracked the changes and challenged local government to do better.

They started to look for ‘transactional’ websites in 2001 (websites where you could do things as well as read things). In 2007, they raised the standards again. An ‘excellent’ website now has to be useful, usable, and used.

This change of emphasis says that it is no longer enough to offer facilities to your users: you have to show that users want to do those things, can do them easily, and actually find your website and do them. Lesson: set annual targets, measure against them, and from time to time raise the standards.

Accessibility matters

Only five sites made it into the top ‘Excellent’ category: East Sussex CC, Gloucestershire CC, Kirklees MBC, Salford City and Tameside MBC. 16 others missed out on only one factor, and 11 of those were due to failing on ‘accessibility’. It’s no longer good enough to be useful, usable, and used by one segment of your audience.

Now, you have to recognise that accessibility matters. With an ageing population that is increasingly online, a higher proportion of your audience will have age-related disabilities. And younger people, whether or not they have disabilities, simply expect that they will be able to interact with organisations through their websites. Lesson: a proportion of your audience has disabilities. Don’t lose them through a lack of accessibility.

It’s tough to stay at the top

This year, Better Connected took the opportunity to assess local authorities’ web performance over the last 10 years. They noted: “A large number of councils have appeared in at least one of these lists over the ten years. Just under half only appear once, and just over 10% appear at least five times. Both points illustrate the difficulty of sustaining a position once reached.

‚ÄúThere are many reasons for this, related to changes in funding, critical staff and local priorities. In addition, others catch up and overtake. Often the issue is just that the organisation has not built into their management practices those that will sustain momentum after the implementation of a new version of the website.” Lesson: even a great website needs maintenance in the short term and new aspirations in the longer term.

Congratulations, Better Connected: we can all learn from your 10 years of hard work.

This article first appeared in Usability News, 8 June 2008