One of the key areas we looked at when re-developing Liverpool.gov.uk was the way in which news was both managed and viewed on the site.
Who’s site is it anyway?
It’s been a long held problem for local government websites; on one side there are the communications team who see the site as an ideal tool to get the council’s message out, and on the other are customer services that see it as the best way to deliver services quickly and cheaply. The problem is both side think the website belongs to them, the answer of-course is a bit of both, and our problem as a web team was how we squared the circle.
At Liverpool we where very keen to follow an evidenced based approach to every decision we made on the site, and news was no different. While the message was hard for some to accept, the simple fact was no matter how much the council wanted to get its message out, no-one really comes to the site for news.
When we looked at the usage of our site, we found that just 2% of site traffic was to the news section, and when we looked at the news items themselves we found that only 10 of the approx 200 items over the year accounted for 64% of the news items read, and those 10 news items, they where all service related about things like Closed Schools, Christmas bin dates and fireworks.
The reality was people on read news when it wasn’t news it was a service alert.
Balancing business needs
The first thing many people said was “But we can’t just drop news”. Well no we can’t because the council has a need to tell people what its doing* and this is where the hard cold facts of a customer focused website meets the reality of business needs and wants.
The challenge we faced when putting news on the site, is how do we enable the council to get its message out and not get in the way of people who have come to find something out and get a service?
For Liverpool.gov.uk we have a number of different approaches to news
- Put news on the homepage in a non-intrusive way
- Get service alerts to people where they need them
- Target news to people so it’s more relevant to the tasks they are doing.
The first task was to get news on the homepage in such a way that it was noticeable but not intrusive, and here we continued to use existing user experience research to aid us in our design.
There are many studies into user behavior that tell us people look first at the top left of a page, and then scan down to find the things the are looking for. research also backs up keeping the important information on the left of the page.
So we put the news on the right, where most people won’t look for it, unless they want too.
This is an ideal situation for us, the news is still on the homepage, ticking the council communication box, but it’s not in the way of service delivery, ticking our customer service box.
As I said before when we looked at the usage of news we discovered that the most read news items related directly to services.
Based on this evidence we decided to separate service related news from the traditional news items. We called these service alerts, and we designed the whole site to allow for these service alerts to be placed on the site where they are likely to be relevant to users.
We can place a service alert across the top of any page – including the homepage – but we reserve that for special cases – and highlight information to people that might be relevant to the task they are trying to perform.
Next we looked at how we could more people to look at news, while not getting in the way of what they wanted.
Firstly we segmented news, so we could target it to different parts of the site. This allows our news team to put news on any of the three ‘homepages’ the site has at resident, business or council. But also it allows them to target news for the leisure centres and libraries.
The news on these pages follows the same pattern as the homepage, so we are putting news in the position that it can be noticed but doesn’t get in the way of the tasks around that area.
still more to do
In reality this is just still simple targeting based on site section, but one area we are still working on much more targeted news by looking at how we can use our golden pages.
Golden pages are the pages at the end of a task that allow you as a website owner to point your users to the next thing you may think they want you to do.
So for example on fixmystreet the golden page is the one at the end of reporting an issue and mySociety use this page to promote their other services, such as writetoyourmp – this means they can help people get more engaged in democracy, because people who come to report street issues – a relatively low level task – are then offered to move to the next level and write to their mp, something that they probably wouldn’t consider doing just on spec.
For council’s this concept has great potential, one example we are looking at are council payments, when someone pays their council tax online, we are looking at ways of prompting them to move to direct debit or setup online billing, both things that can help save the council money and make the whole process easier for residents.
For us we are having some fights with our online payment software, but this is part of our work in progress, and it’s only the beginning of the possibilities.