Over the past few months, I’ve been getting myself acquainted with my new Job at Camden Council and learning the ropes. I’ve been brought in to work on Camden’s new website redesign project. For the past few months, I’ve not only learnt a lot about why and how the website works but also understand the mechanics and workforce that work behind it. Being a researcher, I’ve always valued how much data can help improve customer service. And all of the research conducted on this project so far has proved to be a very valuable process to the project. It has delivered some insightful data on how we should design the website.

Design Vs. Usability

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, redesigning a council website does not have the same impact as redesigning an e-commerce website. Its impact has further implications to citizens lives and is not just about fulfilling a desire to get a new pair of shoes or even a brand new car. They just want to find the information they need and complete transactions without any fuss. And this leads to the argument of what is more important, design or the website’s usability? Or can we find a balance between the both? If yes, how do we do this?

Citizens ‘wish list’ and frustrations with local government websites

Based on the user research that we did on Camden residents, we found that people’s expectations on a council website are not that difficult or unreasonable. They just want things to work. Sometimes just an email or letter notifying the process of the query is enough to put their minds at ease. But the truth is, a lot of council website are failing in doing just this based on my own personal research into local council websites. Among the most obvious challenges for citizens when using local council websites and specifically for Camden residents are as follows:-

  • Better e-forms – E-forms are not clear, confusing and sometimes just doesn’t work.
  • Need bigger headers and better filters – Some users complained that the headers were too small and the need for better filters of the information.
  • Need acknowledgement of service, not referring to automated reply – Need notification or acknowledgement of current processing stage of query or transaction.
  • The site is confusing, there is too much information – The site is very heavy text and a bit too overwhelming for users who don’t come to use the site regularly or are novice internet users.
  • Wanting to pay online for recycling – Users don’t mind paying for council services online, even the novice users. They feel secure enough to make even the smallest transactions online like for their recycling.
  • Better and clearer way to sign up for leisure centre and library online – The sign up process can be unclear and confusing.
  • Website should have distinguishing categories like the BT website – Users agreed that there should be a clear distinction between corporate and resident users versions of the website like the BT website where business and home users are clearly defined.
  • Prefer information such as news, events and general information on updates or emergencies to come to them through social networking channels – A regular social network user who subscribes to Love Camden, Camdentalking and our uservoice Facebook page described our social network channels to be useful to her because she likes information to come to her instead of coming to the website.
  • Ability to give feedback – Users also expressed the want and need to give feedback on service, not necessarily on the website but through online channels.
  • Have a “What is your diagnose” type facility – A lot of users seem to like using the NHS website because it has the “What is your diagnose” facility and wondered whether that could be incorporated into the council website
  • Wanted to order lid for bin online but there wasn’t any for lids – User’s bin lid was stolen during the snow, possibly due to people stealing the lids to slide through the snow. Wanted to order the lid online but it was not possible. Therefore had to call to explain that she didn’t want to order the whole bin, but only the lid.
  • Felt the website was information heavy for families but for childless couples or single individuals, it was limited – Interesting insight to how single or childless couples or individuals felt that the website wasn’t particularly relevant to their needs on the website because they did not need the schools, children and etc information. Maybe we should consider a section where this particular group of residents services to be highlighted.
  • Desire to be digitally engaged with council – It seemed that particular segments of users want to be digitally engage with their council but not been clearly guided on how to do that on the website. This might mean that the council and democracy section does appeal to them or give the necessary tools to get involved.
  • Desire to volunteer within their local area – There is also a limited or unclear online resource to look for volunteering opportunities, which also shows they are interested to be involved but yet again, the website does not engage with the activities that they may be interested in.
  • Online licence application – For license application (letter to oppose & licensing list), you must make application by paper and can’t do it online.
  • Unable to find information online – Customers mostly found they would resort to calling after having an unpleasant experience with the website. This mostly happens when they can’t find the information they are looking for.
  • Unrelated headings – Headings and subheadings for categories on website is confusing and somewhat unrelated to the information being searched for.
  • Services with most problems online – Most when asked about their general experience with the website, they refer to services such as

  1. Licensing issues
  2. Planning permissions – Some of the residents mentioned they couldn’t find the planning application on the website.
  3. Housing repairs and
  4. Recycling – Some of the residents mentioned that they would use the website for finding out when to put out the recycling and not for news.

  • Preference of using the search box – Users found that they couldn’t find a particular service such as building control and rather have a search box to go directly to the information needed. This is mostly down to the unrelated categories in their minds. They also sometimes find the A-Z not useful either.
  • Emergency services (24/7 contact details) – There was also a complaint regarding certain services which needed 24/7 attention such as complains about noise. We tried to search for the number and the number supplied was only for office times only. No 24-hour number was supplied via the website. The user had to refer to Camden magazine to get the 24-hour contact number. This causes a lot of frustration for users when using the website when they need it. It lessens their level of confidence to use the website again in case of emergencies.
  • Limited use of council services – Some users indicated that if you don’t use the housing or education services, their usage of the council website and services is limited. For somebody who doesn’t use many of the council services, some users found the whole process of calling, polite and preferable but still didn’t get an answer. Therefore they feel that if a person can’t help them, how could a website help them.
  • Wanting more interaction with officers online – They want the ability to make objections online and questions to officer about general interest.
  • Events request – They also wanted to know more about events happening on the website.

Obviously in a project of this scale, we are trying our best to ensure that our user experience is a pleasant and satisfying one. And in order to do that we are calling out Camden residents through various channels to get involved in our usability testings and research. We even recently launched a development site which you can visit here.

Here is a some snapshot of the newly launched development site front page.

  1. Front pageThe front page reflects on the content of the website with carousel rotating on the main content.
  2. Camden Website Redesign Project BlogThis blog will talk about the projects progress, some lessons learnt, related topics in regards to the website redesign and the challenges we’ve faced throughout the project. We hope to get feedback from people to ensure we are on the right track.
  3. Featured interviews with experts and camden staff involved in the projectWe’re also featuring interviews with either experts or our own staff to talk about topics that matter to this project to further inform people on the project progress.
  4. Camden’s Project StagesThis section was created as a one-stop-shop or summary where readers can find consolidated blog posts in the form of a PDF for easy reading.
  5. We encourage Camden residents and university students to volunteer with our projectOne of our main aims is to encourage more people to get involved in the project while we are building the website. Usability testings will ensure that the website satisfies every user experience. We also encourage students to get involved for their research projects.
  6. The project website includes links to websites and articles that we feel can help educate people on website developmentWe wanted this website to not only be about this project itself but also a place where people can come and learn about website development.

Hope this was useful.