Websites play an important role in the relationship between government and citizens. In the UK, this has been recognized by central government, which has encouraged the use of websites for better citizen communication and service delivery. In 2000, Prime Minister Tony Blair set the end of 2005 as the target date for local councils to “carry out 100 percent of council services electronically.” Clearly, their websites would be a major factor in this drive. But were they up to the challenge?
Two local councils met the challenge and set their own ambitious goals for ensuring that their online government services are highly accessible and usable.
- West of London, in South Wiltshire, Salisbury is home to 114,000 people in a countryside that includes Stonehenge and medieval cathedrals alongside innovative technological industries in biotechnology, defense, and advanced engineering.
- Far to the north in Scotland, Aberdeenshire is a local government council in the Northeast of Scotland with a population of 235,000. Aberdeenshire encompasses a large area surrounding the city of Aberdeen, much of it rural with farming, fishing, and distilling activities, but also with several tourist attractions and businesses connected to the oil industry.
Both sites had been online since the late 1990s and were already a major “face” to the public. But the early sites reflected their times. There was abundant information online, but it was organized by department and the designs did little to help citizens interact with their local government.
Both councils turned to user-centered design to update their sites. In Aberdeenshire, a local usability company, User Vision, started with usability testing to set benchmarks for user success in finding information. In Salisbury, an internal team focused on creating an information architecture that focused on a user-centered view of the site content.
The results are dramatic, and tell a story about how user-centered design benefits e-government websites.
- In 2003, the Salisbury District Council home page had little structure or clues about how to find the underlying information. In the new site, seven themes organize the site into easily understood pages (http://www.salisbury.gov.uk).
- The Aberdeenshire site was heavy on graphics, but users failed to find information, partly due to the organization by council area and a design that blended into the grey of the browser. Now, a crisp design supports task completion rates over 90 percent and strong accessibility (http://www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk).
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