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Council websites – all but 11% - make transition to mobile

Local authority websites have nearly completed their repurposing for a mobile world in which globally, desktop browsing now lags that from mobiles and tablets.

According to the latest survey released by Better Connected, 89% of council websites now present a responsive or mobile site when accessed from a smartphone. This compares with 80% in 2016 and 57% in 2015. The overwhelming majority of councils have made their websites responsive, rather than presenting a separate mobile site.

For the Better Connected survey, carried out in April and May 2017, a team of reviewers visited all 416 UK council websites from a smartphone. Starting from a Google search and then direct entry of the corporate url (XYZCouncilname.gov.uk) reviewers identified all sites purposed for mobile.

These sites were then further tested on ease of use, findability of content via navigation, and whether functions like forms or maps worked properly on mobiles. Reviewers did not evaluate the quality or accuracy of actual content found, or the quality of the search function since these aspects are tested in other Better Connected surveys.

Of the 373 mobile-purposed sites tested, 60% were found to provide a good or very good experience. Counting non-mobile purposed sites, which score 0 in the Better Connected test, 52% of all council websites provide a good of very good experience when accessed from mobiles.

The trend towards mobile and mobile only use are important factors driving councils to redevelop their sites since this is something affecting government websites along with all other websites. Data from GOV.UK for May 2017 shows desktop visits to its site at 51%, down from 54% in May 2016.

It is also well known that Google favours mobile-purposed sites in its search results. While this may be less of an issue for gov.uk sites than for others, the additional fact that sites not purposed for mobile can be inaccessible to users with disabilities is extremely important - something highlighted in another, recently reported Better Connected survey.

One significant issue identified in the research was the number of councils that have responsive sites but rely on non-responsive third party software to deliver transactions and interactions. The survey’s first question, about consultations, often took reviewers direct to a non-responsive consultation application. The separate Better Connected accessibility test highlighted use of third party payment modules that are non-responsive and therefore not accessible by people using some assistive technologies, making it impossible for them to complete tasks online.

The sites that perform best when accessed from mobiles have designed their sites around services, with uncluttered home pages, precise labelling and good links to sub sections on the home page -giving access to well-used services in just one click. Sites that put imagery, promotion and council messages above usability, with too many, too prominent notices, twitter feeds, pop-ups, disclaimers and more, scored less well.

The role of icons in council website design is questioned in the survey report. These can adversely affect the user journey on a mobile, especially where icons are oversized for a small screen and much scrolling is needed to get to key content. Web editors and managers should be clear about the value added by icons and, like other aspects, should subject them to user testing.

The report also says that councils should be taking a mobile-first approach to writing and designing content since ruthlessly concise and well-formatted content is probably the single biggest factor that will improve a site's usability – with benefits extending to desktop visitors. 

Other usability issues raised by reviewers included poorly implemented generic calls to action like ‘apply’ and ‘report’ and the meaningless ‘do it online’; persona-based navigation, where visitors need to guess whether ‘resident’, ‘business’, ‘visitor’, or ‘council’ is hiding the content they want to access; and the unexplained ‘hamburger’ menu icon that may confuse the less experienced mobile web user.

Commenting on the survey findings, Better Connected Programme Director Vicky Sargent said: ‘Its been good to see how quickly councils as a group have re-purposed their websites for mobile use. This benefits all website users in that a site that performs well on a mobile will be uncluttered, simple, and fast to use, from whatever device it is accessed. There is some evidence from our surveys that service managers, who are usually responsible for commissioning forms and other software for online service delivery, need to move faster to ensure third party software they procure accommodates mobile users.’

Neil Phillips, Lead UX strategist at Zengenti*, sponsor of the survey said: ‘Users expect to be able to find the information they are searching for with ease no matter what device they are using. With 60% of search traffic coming from mobile users – which we expect to rise even further in the next year – accessible mobile design is key. It's great to see that councils are recognising the importance of having a site that performs well on mobile."

Good practice from councils of all types and from all parts of the UK is highlighted in the report.

Headline results of the mobile surveys for all 416 UK council websites are now available and free to view. Individual council results can be found from the council index page at https://www.betterconnected.socitm.net/councils. The ‘all council’ reports - also free to view - can be found at on the betterconnected website.

Findings from the access from mobile surveys will be presented as part of Better Connected Live and the Connected Local Services Workshop on mobile (also sponsored by Zengenti*) taking place as part of Connected Local Government Live 2017 on June 28 & 29 in Birmingham.

Notes for editors

Anyone can access ‘all-council’ reports and individual council headline results from Better connected surveys at https://www.betterconnected.socitm.net/. Full details of individual council reviews are available to Socitm Insight subscribers only (around 75% of all councils).

Any employee of a Socitm Insight subscribing council (see list at  https://www.inform.socitm.net) can register for free with Socitm.net at https://www.socitm.net/user/register and then get access to the detailed results for their council

* Zengenti supports the teams that manage the most sophisticated and complex websites. Our Contensis CMS powers some of the world's leading public-service sites. We build elegant web systems designed with channel shift in mind. We make it so websites deliver the right information, to the right people, at the right time.

Further information

Vicky Sargent, Director, Better Connected programme

Email: v.sargent@boilerhouse.co.uk

Tel: 07726 601139