How essential is it for council web managers to commission external testing with 'real' users before publishing their sites to the world? One leading UK council site - rated "four-star" in this year's "Better Connected" annual web review by the Society of IT Management (Socitm) - was launched with no usability testing at all, it was revealed yesterday.
The revelation came at an event hosted by Socitm on learning from Better Connected 2014.
Matt Johnson, digital communications manager at Sandwell Council, said Sandwell had looked into the possibility of user testing, but in the end decided to use other methods to improve usability. Nevertheless it had become one of just 32 authorities gaining a top four-star rating in this year's Socitm survey.
"I agree everyone should do user testing if they can, but for us time and cost was an issue", he told UKAUthority.com. "We thought about doing it, and got quotes from suppliers at a few thousand pounds, but these are difficult times for budgets."
Sandwell's website was kept as clear and simple as possible, and uses responsive design so it can be accessed from mobile devices, adapting itself to the user's screen size, Johnson said.
The council developed and launched the design with no external testing by trying to put themselves in the shoes of customers at each stage of development, he said. His team also looked to copy styles and ideas from what they identified as best designs from elsewhere in local government - including a responsive site design by Liverpool City Council - as well as best designs from the private sector.
Another key is to respond quickly when problems with design are raisd after launch, Johnson said. When we went live with it, we got a lot of feedback: if people aren't happy, they are not shy in coming forward to us or on social media and saying things don't work, and we'll then fix it."
However he admitted user testing did have a value - though could also be run informally with family and friends. "Nothing beats seeing actual people sitting in front of a PC and doing it, there are massive things to learn. I showed it to my mum - and you couldn't have second-guessed what she would have done."
Stephen Parkinson, head of communications at Preston City Council - another council with a four-star website - said sometimes external user-testing was useful to show staff internally why change might be needed: and this can be done at low cost.
Parkinson played a video of a live user test of a kind that can be commissioned at low cost online. The test showed a user attempting to carry out a specified task of renewing a taxi licence, with running commentary. It showed the user found it easy to find the right general licensing area but then struggled to locate the renewal task, growing frustrated.
"People at the coalface sometimes struggle to grasp that changes need to be made, so we use user testing to show them why", Parkinson said. "Then we can show them and say you might not want to change it, but this is the reality." Each recorded test such as this cost just £25, he said.
Martin Greenwood, director of the Socitm Insight research programme, agreed that internal testing was not always reliable. "Using your own people is better than no user testing, but there is a bit of a perception sometimes that people in your organisation are a bit too close to your website, so they might be a bit more tolerant than some of the people out there."
Pictured: Sandwell council website home page.
Learning from Better Connected 2014: www.socitm.net/events/learning-better-connected-2014