Websites for everyone

We live in an information society. In 2010, 30.1 million adults in the UK (60 per cent) accessed the internet every day or almost every day. This is nearly double the estimate in 2006 of 16.5 million. People expect to access what they want via the net and that includes public services.
To meet this need the government has set out to ensure that its services are visible and since 2006 the Cabinet Office has had a policy to improve the visibility and operations of government websites. The focus has been on focused on migrating all transactions services to two ‘supersites’, www.direct.gov.uk for citizens and www.businesslink.gov.uk for businesses.
Understanding users
With more and more public services being put online, many local government departments are looking to build or redesign websites, so what should they be looking to ensure when doing so?

Websites should be designed to suit newcomers and experienced users. This means it’s important to build a site with a user-centered design process; a design that meets the needs of the user.

The definitions of usability have been standardised for two decades, and the latest international standard (ISO 9241) contains a specific section (part 151) for web usability. This extends our understanding of usability beyond simple ease of use into understanding more deeply who is using the site and what they want to achieve.

This requires design of both structure of content and navigation, building in error-tolerance as well as usable help and search functions.
Usability
It’s over ten years since the e-Envoy mandated the use of human-centred design (then ISO13407 and now part 210 of ISO9241). Today, you would hope that public sector websites would reflect this, but the reality is far from it. We still see sites that feature poor information architecture, lack of basic accessibility, as well as sites that are unsuitable for use on small screens (such as smartphones or tablets) and interaction based on how the organisation manages itself rather than activities the users carry out.

Usability is key to the quality of the user’s experience and consequently, ultimately, the success of the website.

Usability measures the quality of a user’s experience when interacting with a product or system. This can be across a website, an application, whether on a PC, smartphone, tablet or any user-operated device.

Usability is a combination of factors including the following which are based on the Usability Framework by Jakob Nielson:
•    How easy the system is to use
•    How well the systems’ interface maps to
 what someone is trying to do
•    How well the system allows people to
 remember how to do things
•    How well the system prevents errors and
 allows recovery from them
•    How satisfied a user is with the system.
Expert advice
Experts from BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, also advise designers to consider such things as:
•    Will the site work consistently in all browsers. Is the navigation straightforward with minimum number of clicks to find what you’re looking for?
•    Is there an internal site keyword search. Make sure the content is up to date and well written.
•    The use of plain English is obviously of great importance.
•    Keep the design simple and clear. Keep fonts simple and ensure it can be resized for accessibility.
•    Ensure where possible that pages will print as good as the page on the screen. Think about how the design will translate to mobile devices including smartphones, tablets and apps.
•    Forms need to be well constructed, with clear guidelines on what is optional and what is compulsory.
•    It is useful to highlight input errors with clear error messages so that people can easily see where they have gone wrong.
•    Ensure simple colour schemes for page, backgrounds, text, images, making it easy on the eye.
•    Provide links to other useful websites, whether government or elsewhere.
•    If payments are to be made over the site, they must be secure and shown to be so. An additional benefit for the user is to confirm payment with an e-mail to the recipient.
Accessibility
One of the most important things that has to be considered by any web designer today is accessibility.

One Voice for accessible ICT, a coalition that brings organisations together to develop a shared agenda for change in accessible and useable ICT so that business and society can enjoy maximum benefits, has published a set of seven steps to accessible websites. They are form the basic steps that organisation need to take on the journey to accessibility and include:
•    Publish an accessibility policy
•    Do a quick accessibility check
•    Provide a “contact us” function
•    Add alternative text to pictures and links
•    Add “jump to content” link
•    Ensure tab sequence is logical
•    Ensure text sizing works
These are the basics first steps that any organisation can begin with. One Voice has more details which can be found at 
www.onevoiceict.org
Standard for digital inclusion
In addition, there is now also a British Standard (BS 8878) to address the need for digital inclusion. It applies to all web products, including websites, web-services and web-based workplace applications (e.g. web-based e-mail interface) that are delivered to users via Internet Protocol, through a web browser.

Designed for non technical professionals, the standard introduces the principles of improved accessibility, usability and user experience for disabled and older people. It is beneficial to anyone new to the subject, providing advice on the process involved.

The standard, which is referenced in the UK government’s e-Accessibility Action Plan as the basis of updated advice on developing accessible online services, includes recommendations for involving disabled people in the development process and using automated tools to assist with accessibility testing; and the management of the guidance and process for upholding existing accessibility guidelines and specifications.

BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, supports and encourages digital literacy and accessibility for all. The professional body holds the annual MP Web Awards, where it looks to raise awareness of the importance of good web communication between MPs and their constituents. The Awards look to showcase good practice amongst MPs, praising those who are using the internet, both through websites and web 2.0 technologies such as social media, to truly engage in a two way conversation with constituents. The Awards have also shone a light on the issue of accessibility and accessible websites – those engineered so that all members of the public, including people with disabilities, can access, read and respond to them. AbilityNet has been involved in the judging of this category.

It’s been true to say that since the beginning of the Awards, the number of sites that are accessible has improved slightly, however, more still needs to be done. MPs sites are once again under scrutiny by the Institute in the 2011 Awards.
Other services
Websites are only part of the story, however, and one of the benefits of the change in attitude in both the current and previous government, is that many public data sets are becoming available, not just as fixed documents but as sources of data that can be “mashed up” with for example geodata such as Google Earth or Microsoft Live Maps. This has led to sites that that can, for example, display levels of crime in your street, school funding in different districts of your city or broadband speed and availability when you’re house hunting.

Websites are one way to present this data to the public, but increasingly it’s done through apps – small, cheap software applications for Android, iPhone, Windows Mobile or BlackBerry. These apps can gather data in real time, perhaps based on your location to deliver LBS (location-based services).

The public sector needs to get smarter in supplying its own apps, to run on each of these platforms (Android phones now outnumber iPhones for example) and to deliver the information that the organisation wants to share to match up with the ambitions of the user. For example, there are opportunities for the NHS to let my electronic diary know that there’s a cancellation this afternoon if I’m waiting for an appointment and my location suggests I can make it in time?

Equally councils could encourage more interaction with their citizens for example if users have already supplied the council with the list of potholes in the district, why can’t they now suggest the priorities to fix? And emergency services could benefit from an app that gives people an alternative to dialling 999. The app could capture and notify the location and allows us (and others) to identify urgency and seriousness of the situation and which service we require, and perhaps receive information on video call to advise us on how to cope with the emergency.

As we move into the post-website world, into the era of the Internet of things, the public sector has the chance to leapfrog the limitations of earlier technologies – if they put people first, and understand the end user.
For more information
www.bcs.org

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