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Splitting the site – still?

It’s almost four years since I wrote this post about how we segmented the content of  liverpool.gov.uk. If you look across local gov nowadays, you can see this pattern all over the place.

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As with any pattern, I have seen this implemented well, and I’ve seen it done really badly, but if I am honest, I have been wondering for a while if this is still a good model to be using at all.

Back in 2011, the reasons for segmenting the site were two-fold: like most council sites, we had lots of content around policies, procedures and democracy, and more often than not, this was just getting in the way of people doing what they had come to do; secondly, this was important content to many people (especially inside the organisation) – it wasn’t something we could just remove.

Now, a recent Alertbox article articulates the problems with audience segmentation: if people have to stop to work out what audience they belong to, it can throw them off their task and make it less likely that they will finish what they started. It may be that segmentation is adding an extra layer of confusion, that for some users, will tip them over the edge.

It’s not to hard to separate the things that help people do what they want, from the stuff that forms the background of how a council operates. Beyond that simple split, though, there are a myriad ways to divide a site, and I am not sure that any of them work perfectly. Residents and Business seems to make logical sense, but I am no longer convinced by the argument that business is a section in it’s own right. It’s true that if you can manage to get your development agencies and Local Enterprise Partners on board you can put quite the business section together, but if it’s just planning and licences, then, really, it doesn’t warrant its own part of the site, any more than Births, Marriages and Deaths do.

Equally, I am not convinced by the services/information split, where things that are provided are in one place and information about them is in another. It seems a bit arbitrary to me. After all, the borderline between information and service can be very fine: finding out when a library is open is information, but visiting the library when it is open is, to the user, more of a task, and library provision is a service after all, so where does that sit? Some of these judgments are highly subjective, and if you have those questions, people with little or no knowledge of local government are likely to be even more confused.

Section creep

Once segmentation has been implemented, it’s far too easy to succumb to the (often political) pressure of adding another segment. You see this with all the “Leisure” tabs on sites – they are there not because that’s a valid segmentation of the website’s audience, but because leisure has been taken on by a trust who want higher visibility.

Section creep, often quite political

Section creep, often quite political

This happened in Liverpool with the appointment of the Mayor: there grew an unbearable amount of political pressure to create a new section, which just led to a section for the council, democracy & policies and another one for the Mayor. To this day, I have no clear idea of what is in each one, and I was there!

A necessary step?

Of course, relative to the mess that many council sites suffer from, segmentation can represent a massive improvement. In some senses, it’s part of the journey from mega sites to simple, clean user-focused web delivery. It would be great to leap, gazelle-like, from the behemoth to the perfect website, but the reality is that getting there is a process, and your organisation will probably need to go through the steps.

Simple Navigation

So, if segmentation no longer makes sense, what navigation options should we be looking at?

I am still a strong believer in simplifying navigation right down. Many, many sites have far too much navigation, offering people too much choice, and just cluttering up the page, and making it harder for people to actually achieve anything.

You don’t actually need to offer people a navigation that lets them go all over the site from any page. There is strong evidence to show that people just don’t do that on government sites.

I do think there’s still a case for moving policies, procedures and the like away from services. No one wants to see your cleaning policy when looking for bus timetables. The case for an ‘About Us’ section is strong – much like the Inside Government section of gov.uk, keeping services and policy separate, and giving a cleaner experience of both.

I just don’t think you need to go any deeper than that. A simple, clear navigation, across the whole site, that gets you to a task, lets you do it and then leave, is enough. As long as there’s always an option to go back to the homepage or search, and start again if needed, the user should have no difficulties finding where they want to be. Really, I just go back to looking at the ethos documents we produced, and the questions every user has:

  • Is this the right bit of content for me?
  • Where is the right bit of content for me?
  • What is this?
  • How do I do the thing?

If the page and its navigation can answer those four questions, then it’s done its job, and doesn’t need to do any more.