Local Councils Make Significant Improvements to Online Services

Local councils in the UK have made considerable improvements to online services in the past year, according to an annual usability study into local council websites. The report, from Webcredible, the user experience consultancy, shows a promising trend towards improvement of online services, such as council tax payment and planning application viewing, provided to citizens in the UK. In this year's survey, six of the council websites lead the group with scores of over 60%, whilst the vast majority scored over 50% and the average was 56.6%.

Last year's study revealed that more than half of websites scored less than 50% and concluded that with an average usability rating of 45.5%, local authorities needed to review the online service they provided to the public. The leading councils this year are Clackmannanshire, Greenwich, Haringey, Southwark, Brighton & Hove and Merton.

According to Trenton Moss, director at Webcredible, "This positive turnaround in online services ultimately means that these authorities will benefit from improved communication with citizens and significant cost savings."

He adds, "This year's study shows that council sites have been much better at providing simple navigation of their websites and prioritising and displaying key information. Areas for improvement include better form processing and error handling, providing text resizing controls and progress indicators to support users when transacting online."

The Webcredible study benchmarks the Socitm Top 20 local authority websites against a set of 20 best practice guidelines for ensuring optimum user experience. These guidelines were developed by Webcredible specifically for local authority websites.

Some key areas highlighted for improvement across the board include:
Displaying a prominent 'contact us' link with phone number and hours of operation (average score 2 out of 5);
Having clear text resizing controls at the top of the page (average score 1.1 out of 5);
Providing search function that understands common mistakes and abbreviations (average score 2.1 out of 5).

Table of results
Company - Website - Total score
- Clackmannanshire - - 66
- Greenwich - - 66
- Haringey - - 66
- Southwark - - 65
- Brighton & Hove - - 60
- Merton - - 60
- East Sussex - - 59
- West Lindsey - - 58
- Bracknell Forest - - 57
- Richmond - - 57
- Salford City - - 57
- Rochdale - - 56
- Gloucestershire - - 55
- Trafford - - 55
- Nottingham City - - 54
- Tameside - - 54
- East Riding of Yorkshire - - 48
- North Lincolnshire - - 44
- Barking & Dagenham - - 43
- Stockton-on-Tees - 42

Average score - 56.6

4 Pillars of Usability

Webcredible's 20 evaluation guidelines centered around four critical usability pillars.
1. Site and Homepage priorities e.g. prominent 'contact' link, homepage returns buttons, a-z of services, text resizing controls.
2. Support for important user tasks e.g. paying council tax, finding a councillor, planning applications.
3. Transactional capabilities e.g. ease of use of online forms and information gathering.
4. Navigation and orientation e.g. sitemaps, how it helps users know where they are, searching and language.

Each website was evaluated against the 20 best practice guidelines and rated 0 to 5, with 5 the highest score. With 20 guidelines in all, websites could be assigned a total Usability Index rating out of 100.

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