A while ago, in a conversation with the web manager of a major UK charity providing information and advice, I asked where their web presence would stand if they had to make harsh cuts (as was being speculated upon at the time). He replied that they saw the website as the ‘beating heart’ of the organisation – and that even if everything else was cut, there would always be a website and someone at the end of a phone.
I was reminded of this sentiment again recently at a web accessibility talk. Someone made the point that one of the reasons why web accessibility has become so vital is that it is fast becoming the main or only way of transacting with some organisations. Gone are the days when websites were a gimmick, a luxury, an add-on. They now act as the beating heart of many large organisations.
But a few recent conversations have had me worried about where local government websites might be heading, in the light of increasing budget pressures, and one project in particular has brought this to a head.
One UK local authority have taken some drastic steps recently in pruning their web presence, dumping hundreds of pages and documents, and concentrating almost exclusively on the ‘top tasks’ of their citizens.
There are some interesting stats behind this move. Apparently, 85% of their traffic came to just 200 pages of the 4000 previously on their site. Of the 4,500 documents on the site, none of them related to their top 20 tasks.
The solution (it would seem) was to bin the bulk of these pages and documents – happier customers, and a huge saving in everyone’s time and effort.
And what’s more, SOCITM (who produce the highly influential Better Connected annual survey of local authority websites) have suggested that they support this approach – less is more and top tasks are key.
The design of the website should be focused on top tasks. No longer should organisations aim for the most comprehensive website possible. Less is better!
Now, I’m certainly an advocate of keeping things simple. I am continually negotiating with colleagues to trim their pages, get rid of complex or meaningless jargon and, ultimately, get to the point. This is a vital element of offering useful online content.
But getting rid of swathes of pages and documents completely, just because they’re not seen as ‘top tasks’?
Trimming the long tail
What about the minority groups with niche interests or needs? What about that parent who wants to see the policy behind a decision that impacts on their child? Or the partner organisation looking for materials to support their work? Or the disabled person needing to find out about a service?
I’m not being overly dramatic with that last one. I did a search of the site in question. Just two results for “blind” – on Blue Badge permits and voting. When I searched for “deaf”, it returned nothing. Clearly, services for these groups are not deemed to be top tasks.
And many other authorities appear to be buying into this idea. On the online Communities of Practice a lengthy debate is still raging (log-in required) about SOCITM’s new emphasis on top tasks. One contributor, supporting the idea of stripping things back, said:
…if only 0.03% of our customers are interested, what’s the point?
Well, if those 0.03% were looking for information on reporting a concern about a child’s welfare (thankfully not a top task), I think I can see the point.
Although I cringe at the term, I think it is appropriate for local government websites to aspire to be “one-stop shops”. The information need not even be on the site itself – linking out to related sites and content is fine.
Fair enough, let’s not deceive ourselves – people don’t come to local government sites to browse around and see what we have to offer. They go to the search engine of their choice and find it that way. Indeed, that was an argument the local authority in question used themselves, to argue against A-Zs. But if you’ve stripped back your content so much that the word “deaf” doesn’t even appear once on your site, I would argue that you can expect to start slipping down the SERPs pretty quickly.
Cold hard cash
And finally, worryingly, the goal of saving money was cited as another key driver for making this particular site so streamlined, as well as for all but scrapping their model of devolved web publishing and bringing it mostly to a central point of control.
Now is not the time to be cutting back our websites – quite the opposite. We’re seeing huge cuts in print and comms budgets meaning less posters, leaflets, adverts and other means of getting information to people. We’re seeing a huge rise in the request for information, informally or through time-consuming FOI requests. We’re seeing the public increasingly demand corporate accountability and openness. We’re seeing web or mobile web access hitting unprecedented new heights, empowering more and more citizens to reach out and grab the information that they need, when they need it.
By all means do customer research, find out what your users want the most and make it easier for them to find it. Use analytics to get the balance right. Test, test and test again to get closer to perfection. But don’t assume that less is always more. For that small minority who needed that rarely visited page, which stats suggest is all but useless, less could mean an awful lot less.