Poor design of UK council websites for access on mobile devices - an increasingly vital access channel for local public services - has led to a drop in the number of sites awarded the highest rating by this year's review of UK council sites by the Society of IT Management (Socitm).
Just 31 council websites have been rated by Socitm as four-star sites, eight fewer than last year, in "Better Connected 2014: a snapshot of all local authority websites", published today.
Lower ratings have shown a marginal improvement: 157 sites are rated as three-star sites this year, 18 more than in 2013; and the number of two star sites has increased from 127 to 133. The number of one star sites has reduced from 127 to 89, although this is largely explained by the exclusion of 23 Northern Ireland council websites from the survey this year pending a reorganisation of local government in the region.
The main reason for this year's drop in the highest quality sites - halting a previous increase in four-star ratings over the past four years -is a poor mobile experience, the report finds. Overall, fewer than a third of sites (31% - 126 sites in all) passed a mobile standard set by the review, with achievement of this standard set as one requirement for awarding of four-star status.
This year, Socitm reviewers subjected sites to more extensive testing on smartphone screens than in previous years, in acknowledgement of the fact that huge numbers of site users will now be accessing sites by mobile.
Specific tests included reporting fly-tipping using a mobile device - a service more likely than most to be accessed while out and about. "The majority of councils do not deal with this task very well, with only 42% achieving our standard", the report found. Examples of poor practice included sites using digital mapping systems for users to report flytipping which were difficult or impossible to use on a smartphone screen.
Overall, the survey found that tasks undertaken from mobile devices were only half as successful as the tasks undertaken from a desktop.
The lessons council website managers need to learn about improving their users' mobile experience include using responsive design, to so the site responds to different web browser widths; avoiding presenting key information in pdf files, which are harder to access on many smartphones; avoiding overly complex, fiddly online forms; and using a 'top tasks' approach - focusing the site's design around achievement of the most commonly-used transactions.
"In general, less is more when it comes to using council sites on mobile devices", the report finds. "Many of the principles of good design and layout, eg structured pages with relevant links and not overcrowded with text, become absolutely critical on a smartphone screen, because it is so much smaller than a computer screen".
Other issues which are increasingly affecting the usability of council websites include a growing trend for authorities to share online services, the report finds. "Sharing of services is now becoming extensive... [but] if these sharing initiatives are not implemented intelligently... they can disrupt the online user experience", it says.
Council web managers also need to be more assertive in dealing with the extensive range of suppliers of third-party applications to modern sites such as online library systems or planning system, the report finds. These "also have a major role to play in contributing to the quality of the user experience."
The 31 sites rated as four-star in Better Connected 2014 are: Adur & Worthing (a shared website); Allerdale; Blaby; Bristol; Carlisle; Cumbria; Dorset; East Dunbartonshire; East Renfrewshire; East Riding of Yorkshire; Eden; Edinburgh; Guildford; Harborough; Haringey; Hinckley & Bosworth BC; Kent; King's Lynn & West Norfolk; Leeds; Leicester; Lichfield; Midlothian; North Ayrshire; Oxfordshire; Preston; Sandwell; Scottish Borders; South Oxfordshire; Surrey; West Dorset; and Wigan.
NOTE: The author of this article is a member of the Socitm Better Connected review team.
Pictured: The cover of Better Connected 2014: a snapshot of all local authority websites.
Socitm Insight: www.socitm.net/insight