In the second half of 2003, Tasmanian Councils were invited to participate in a process that involved an analysis of their existing website from a usability perspective. This analysis concentrated on the presentation that citizens see when they access a council website. This included a heuristic analysis of the website, coupled with interviews with local residents. Following these a report was written and presented to councils at a workshop. This paper outlines the lessons learnt from the exercise and is provided as a valuable tool for consideration by all councils. Eight councils elected to participate in the review. These were:
- Huon Valley
- West Tamar
Councils have been appreciative of this work as it not only allowed them to gain feedback from the community but it also gave them a 2-3 year blueprint for the future direction of their website. A number of valuable suggestions came out of the reviews that can be applied to any website.
Some useful guidelines
Perhaps the most important recommendation arising from the review, is for a website owner to carefully consider the return on investment before proceeding with developing, maintaining, and/or enhancing a website. For any dollar that is spent, consider the anticipated return. What is the "life" of the website, and the net present value of any expenditure. Will moving ahead with expenditure result in a net benefit over the life of the website? Also, decide which existing council services that are currently offered offline can be targeted for reducing costs and increasing your customer service/satisfaction.
- Tell your website visitors something about your organization that both identifies the website owner and/or states your mission and objectives
- Let users know who you are by clearly branding your website using things like a logo and positioning statement
- Your website visitors may want to know how they can contact you, so include alternative contact methods such as phone and fax numbers, and email address, wherever possible
- Visitors like to know that your site is up-to-date. The best way to convey this is to include information that is (obviously) regularly updated. This is much easier if you have a review and update schedule. Assign this task to someone in your organization. What's New is an excellent way to reinforce the currency of information. However, try and avoid duplication of information if its available elsewhere on the site. Instead, include links to the relevant pages
- To keep visitors returning to your site, provide online services that result in complete fulfillment. Try to think of (creative) ways to provide services that result in more than just information and a contact phone number. Help users transact online, and respond promptly to requests, submissions, and queries
- Testing found that if users have to spend time finding and reading information on websites they would prefer to use the telephone to call to get a specific answer to their questions. They will persist with web page information if it also permits follow-through. The current website at the secondary level puts a lot of information finding responsibility onto the user and the user's motivation for participating in this typically only comes if there is the possibility for a transaction at the end of it
- Only include a sitemap if it clarifies the structure of the site and users can link to the desired page from the sitemap
- Improve usability of the main page by either including information about, or at least providing contact details for, the online services you are offering
- A Good Ideas section gives users the ability to communicate easily with Council about community issues
- Links to pdf and other downloadable documents should show file sizes and include a link to download the pdf (or other) reader if required
Menus, navigation, and structure
- Make it clear when small thumbnail images are clickable and link to an image gallery.
- Include a link to the homepage on every page of the site to minimize the need to use the browser "Back" button. Include this link at both the top and bottom of each page. Keep the use of a "Home" link to specifically link to the homepage.
- Include links on each page to other major sections of the site.
- Try and maintain consistency of navigation throughout the site and a menu that predominantly looks the same on each page.
- Carefully consider the relevance of pages and structure the site accordingly. Don't give prominence to pages (or links) that don't justify it. Consider what information most users will be regularly accessing and group information and/or links under related headings.
- Categorise information into sufficiently broad categories with clear explanations about their contents.
- When you want to include links to other sites or information, make sure its under the appropriate section. For example, only include a link to Tourism Tasmania from pages that have relevance to tourism. Focus links by not necessarily putting them on every page of your site.
- Include a Search facility and enable access to it from every page.
- Let the user know when they are about to link to an external site e.g. Service Tasmania, so that they are less likely to get lost and have trouble finding their way back to your site.
- Use an "inverse pyramid" presentation of information - where each successive link contains more information about the subject of interest, and users can "drill down" to the desired depth. However, make sure that the content of lower level information is clearly identified at higher level links.
- When no information is available locally on a topic, provide a link to State or Federal webpages that deal with that topic. This gives the user somewhere to go if they cannot find what they are looking for on your site.
- Include "return to top" buttons or floating secondary menu bars that will help the user navigate around the site.
Layout and design
- Maximise white space and avoid clutter
- Check the layout (and the need to scroll) on an 800x600 pixel screen resolution
- Try to avoid the need for users to scroll pages
- Don't overuse graphics.
- Avoid the use of text of a font size less than 12 points. This may have some impact on the page design (there is sometimes a trade-off between usability requirements and design preferences).
- Avoid the use of "book page" text layout as users will tend to scan rather than read a page. Consider using dot points, in a concise form.