The first Salisbury District Council website opened in 1999. Created and maintained by administrators from council services who updated to their own content, the site simply evolved, with no clear sense of purpose or ownership. Even in 2003, expectations of the website—and our reliance on it both for internal information needs and external communications—were low. But with national e-government initiatives—the UK’s e-government targets required local councils to “carry out 100 percent of council services electronically by the end of 2005”— and growing use of the site, it was time for change.
The sites had major structural, usability, and management problems:
- The website structure was based around our internal service unit boundaries—fine if you happened to know that concerts in the district’s parks were organised by our Environmental Services Unit.
- The site content was provided and maintained according to the enthusiasm of the web administrator within each service unit. The result was that some core council services had no content (or worse, the dreaded “Under Construction” message sometimes for years).
- There was no clear mechanism for deciding where new content would fit, or how particular services could be developed online, with the result that certain services were starting to set up their own “rogue” Internet sites.
- The site didn’t meet mandatory guidelines for web accessibility.
To begin the redesign, the council adopted four guiding principles, which set the direction and are still used today:
- Utility: Is it useful to our customers?
- Usability: Can our customers accomplish their objectives?
- Accessibility: Will it work for all our users?
- Scalability: Will the structure work as the site and our services develop?
A district council offers around a hundred distinct and often widely varying services: we collect both local taxes and rubbish; we inspect building works for quality and restaurant kitchens for hygiene; we grant trading licences to anyone from a local taxi driver to a multinational oil company wishing to build a new petrol station.
All of these services—and many more—have to be provided for an area of about a thousand square kilometres that contains both a major city and isolated villages and market towns. Because Salisbury has relatively poor public transport and access to the main council location is awkward for residents who may live up to thirty miles away (sixty miles round trip), the website provides services that would be difficult to access face to face. Structuring this information in a user-centered fashion was clearly a major challenge. Clearly, the information architecture needed to be the first step in the redesign project.
A small team from the IT and communications units conducted an audit of all the services the council provided. The aim was to focus the site on how users would expect to see our information rather than replicate our internal structures. For example, why should a user be expected to know that car parks are actually provided by our Forward Planning unit?
We used our analysis and the (then immature) Local Government Services List (see http://www.esd.org.uk/standards/lgsl/) to derive a list of what should be on the site. A workshop with a large group of information owners and contributors within the council helped decide how that content should be grouped. By involving stakeholders, we ensured that we had broad support for the proposed structure before we extensively redeveloped the site.
We created three primary navigation routes through the site, in addition to search—navigation by “theme,” by “action,” and via an A to Z index.
Seven themes within the site draw together related information from different service units. Each theme could have content from several service units, and a service unit could contribute to several themes. The themes are:
- Living in south Wiltshire
- Business in south Wiltshire
- Housing and benefits
- Leisure and tourism
- Transport and parking.
- Your council
Each theme is made up of a number of sub-themes, with each sub-theme made up of a group of services. For example, the “Living in south Wiltshire” theme consists of Waste Collection and Recycling, Council Tax, and others. Waste Collection and Recycling in turn consist of around a dozen individual services. At a structural level, our services are at the third level in our hierarchy, although in practice you can reach any service within two clicks from the home page. .
“Actions” are actual services that the public can obtain: for example, applying for a license or booking a course. There are four main actions: users can apply for something; pay for something; book something; or report something. Each action has quite a tightly defined structure, meeting our “usefulness” principle. What would users want to do when they visited a web page? Ideally they should be able to do the action online (such as paying for a service). But if not, the page should tell them the basics: what the service does, how much (if anything) it costs, and how they can access it—online, by phone, by email, or face to face.
The A to Z list presents a separate route into our service information. It has two important features not available from the themes and actions navigation:
- Synonyms. For example, our service allowing users to report an abandoned vehicle appears under both “A” (Abandoned vehicle) and “D” (Dumped car).
- Links to non-council services. Some local services are provided by us, but others (such as education and social services) are provided by Wiltshire County Council, which occupies a middle tier of government. Few residents understand the distinction or know exactly which tier provides which service. The A to Z allows us to direct users to the county council site for the county services; similarly, the county directs users to our site for district services.
Making the Architecture Scalable
The split between themes and actions emerged quite early in the design process. We realized that the website would inevitably become more “transactional” and that users would enter the site to carry out tasks (such as completing an application) rather than just to read information. The task-based future of the site in turn suggested a series of verbs, along with a series of nouns, to classify the information. Thus the themes are essentially nouns and the actions are verbs.
We were also concerned that the site structure be scalable, our fourth principle. The structure defines where additional pages (such as online forms) will fit as they are developed. To make the information useful, we ruthlessly stripped out content about each service to get down to the “What does the customer need to know?” level. This was not an exercise in secrecy, in fact quite the opposite—we aimed to make everything explicit and easy to find. After reading the twentieth page beginning “The strategic aim of the X service is to provide…” it was obvious that much of our old website was inwardly focused, rather than being useful to our customers whose taxes, after all, fund us.
Once we had a structure, we looked at technical standards. The site is XHTML v1.0 Strict, with the visual layout achieved using cascading style sheets (that is, with no tables used for layout). There are separate print and screen style sheets. We aimed for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Level AA (http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/), though we make no specific claim for the site.
Only when information architecture and technical standards were sorted out did we start to think about a visual design. Our experience here was less happy—despite a clear brief, we received disappointing results from a design agency we selected to design the site.
In the end, we implemented a simple, no-frills design in-house. Although people often equate “accessible” with “plain and boring,” we demonstrated that this didn’t have to be the case. The fact that the site loads quickly and users get straight to the content is now so popular that moving to a bloated, “old-school” design would be unthinkable.
The council has developed a new corporate identity protocol, and it is quite likely that the visual design of the site will change as a result—though sticking to our core principles, of course! It is also fair to say that the local design community is much more aware of the techniques for building attractive yet accessible and easily maintainable websites.
Moving to Flexible Maintenance
Initially we adopted a very rigid, disciplinarian mechanism for managing the site simply because we had few resources for keeping the site up to date. Indeed, for the first four months after launching the site, all the maintenance was done by one part-time person—myself. We had designed a very flexible template system that automated some structural tasks, such as automatically completing breadcrumb trails and maintaining a consistent look and feel. Unfortunately, much of the site was edited in HTML and links had to be maintained by hand. So, until we implemented a proper content management system in late 2005, everything had to be reduced to very simple terms, with little scope for variance.
Appointing a dedicated, communications-driven, content editor to carry out the daily maintenance and development of the site has let us retreat from that rigidity.
Her first task was to provide a proper editorial style guide (previously, the guide was implicit). As content comes up for renewal, it is being re-edited to meet the style guide; new content is written to conform straight away.
We also spend time analyzing our web statistics. This has let us modify the structure to reflect the actual popularity of certain pages. We now actively flag certain key services on the home page as they become topical—for example, publicizing the leisure centres during school holidays or linking to the page detailing special arrangements for collecting rubbish at Christmas, Easter, and other public holidays.
We randomly survey users of our site. One in five visitors is offered the survey and about one percent of the total visitors participate—typically around 200 to 250 responses per month. These surveys provide demographic information about our users and collect information about what they were looking for and whether they successfully found it. They can even leave comments; reading these can be either sobering or encouraging!
We want to move the web site from being a straight listing of what the council does towards a model where the council acts as a leader within our community, focusing on all the issues within the district, whether we are directly involved as service providers or not. The content editor and ongoing surveys allow us to give the site a more human feel.
Highs and Lows…
The redesign work started with awareness-raising and initial design thoughts during mid to late 2003. Most of the content migration and development took place during a rather hectic two weeks around the 2004 New Year. More than two years on, what are the results?
- A month after relaunch, the site leapt from 288th to first (out of 460) in the SiteMorse survey of UK local authority websites (http://www.sitemorse.com/).
- No one complains about accessibility, the visually plain design, or the paring down of content, though all were initially contentious. Defining our design principles first and concentrating hard on information architecture were clearly important in the overall success of the project.
- Concentrating information provision and approval in the hands of a dedicated editor has clearly benefited the site. The consistency of style and depth of coverage for different services is much improved.
- And people are using the site: Traffic has doubled every year since the redesign. We receive around 650,000 to 750,000 page impressions per month now, compared with just 806,000 impressions for the whole of 2003.
Of course, there are things we could have done better. We would have done better to have written the style guide for the site first and edited content to match, rather than leaving it implicit for eight months. And although we have implemented a form of authoring workflow, we still haven’t cracked the biggest headache for ourselves and, I suspect, many other organizations: who “owns” the information in terms of its accuracy and relevance. This is the challenge to come!