The use of mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, to access online information is rapidly catching up with access from desktops and laptops. Information from Socitm’s Website performance service indicates that in 2014, 42% of visits to council websites were made on mobile devices (tablets as well as smartphones) and that this is steadily rising. The numbers may rise sharply above that level for council web visitors at times of emergency, including severe weather. This level of adoption that means organisations must ensure their websites are usable across a wide range of devices.
Testing the mobile experience for Better connected is done from a smartphone and is now fully integrated into Better connected's overall assessment. A site's mobile rating depends on satisfactory answers to questions specifically about the mobile experience. Two tasks per council from the main survey are also tested on mobile devices, although this only affects the scoring of those tasks, rather than a site's score for mobile. Sites performing poorly in the mobile tasks are likely to get a lower Better connected rating overall, as is appropriate, given that up to one half of visits to council websites are now coming via mobile devices. Tasks in the main survey undertaken from mobile devices were only two thirds as successful as those undertaken from a desktop. In 2015, 131 sites (32%) passed the Better connected mobile standard, being rated as very good or satisfactory, a slight improvement of 1% over 2014.
- An average satisfaction rating for each of five questions to find common information from a mobile device plus overall ease of use
- Absence of any errors while browsing the site
- Overall, mobile experience rated satisfactory or very good
|Mobile (% pass)||31%||44%||26%||47%||36%||53%||18%||18%|
KEY CC = County Council, SD = Shire district, LB = London borough, MD = Metropolitan district, EU = English unitary, WU = Welsh unitary, SU = Scottish unitary, NI = Northern Ireland district
Where councils make no attempt to optimise their sites for mobile access, the user experience is almost always a poorer one. However, even sites that have made an effort to cater for mobile devices sometimes make fundamental mistakes, reducing the value of any mobile optimisation and further frustrating the user.
Check how your site is displayed on mobile phone browsers in order to ensure that there are no major problems and that the most important services are seen first. Better connected also recommends :
- Using a mobile-friendly layout as key to good navigation, but be aware that this is not effective if the detailed information is unreadable on a mobile device.
- If offering a stripped-down mobile site by default, ensure that the user can easily return to the full site for everything else.
- Ensure that basic information such as the council’s main contact number is clearly visible on all pages (many people still use a smartphone primarily as a phone and so finding a council telephone number should be as easy as possible).
- Assess key location-based interactions, such as fault reporting, to ensure that they can be carried out with reasonable ease and without having to rely on a mapping system.
- Where dedicated apps exist for certain tasks, ensure that they are promoted at the relevant point of the user journey. (Note: too often, we only learned about the existence of apps following a Google search.)
- Test thoroughly on both Android and iPhone devices, as a minimum.
Some sites offered a special version of the website for mobile devices. In such cases, reviewers were asked to choose the mobile version. Caution is required with this approach, though: mobile users will not notice a tiny link to a 'mobile version’ on a cluttered home page. Arguably, a more successful approach to ensuring the optimal experience for the widest range of common current user devices is responsive design. This makes the website respond, and display appropriately, on screens of different sizes.
However, a responsive design is only part of the solution. The better the design of the main website, with effective use of a top tasks approach, the better the mobile user experience is likely to be. Although desktop users may be able to cope with cluttered home pages and poor signposting, the bad customer experience is magnified for mobile users.
A well-designed main website, orientated around top tasks, can work better for mobile access than a separate mobile website or template and can save significant investment and maintenance. In general, less is more when it comes to using council sites on mobile devices. Many of the principles of good design and layout, e.g. 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. Particular points to note:
- The site should be quick to load.
- The council’s contact details should be prominent, ideally on all pages.
- The design should be task-orientated rather than focusing on news or events.
- The format ‘Report it, Pay for it, Apply for it’ should be used because, being direct, it works much better on a phone screen than on a standard desktop version.
- Online forms must be short and easy to complete, without relying on technologies that may not be available on a mobile device, and avoiding any unnecessary data input.
- Any separate mobile site should clearly link back to the main site.
If there is no mobile-specific site, then the best way to make your site usable by people on mobile devices is to follow this advice:
- The presentation of the Google search results for ‘Council name’ is really important for mobile phone users, because it can provide instant access to top tasks without the need to load the home page.
- The site should provide a short home page with links to tasks.
- Text should be clear and concise.
- Navigation links should not be clustered together; there should be space around each link so that mobile users can tap the chosen link without accidentally tapping an adjacent one and ending up on the wrong page.
- Every effort should be made to reduce the need for users to enter data, e.g. through use of an A to Z index.
- It should not use too many graphics, which can waste space, take time to download and incur extra cost.
- The most important information should always be placed at the top of the page.
- The site should make the telephone number prominent (always as text, not images, so that it can be copied or clicked to make the call).
- Forms should be simple to use; if maps are used, the site should offer a non-map version.
- It should not be mandatory to register in order to use an online form or access an online service.
Reviewers often found that, even on fully responsive websites, forms lacked any mobile optimisation. This meant that the user was taken from an attractive, usable page of information to a tiny, fiddly form.
Another common issue was that forms often ask for a large amount of text to be keyed, something that is clearly more difficult on smaller mobile devices. The best sites alleviate this by only asking for genuinely essential information and offering handy shortcuts like postcode search instead of requiring a full address to be entered. Some sites offered the choice to register, which potentially meant that key details could be retained and retrieved by the site without requiring re-entry. However, many sites made registration mandatory before an online form could be completed. This is clearly a significant barrier for mobile users who may not wish to spend the extra time filling in several fields of personal data before they can complete the task.
Drop-down menus caused some problems too, especially when very lengthy and requiring significant scrolling to find the right option. Some reviewers reported erratic responses when interacting with drop-down menus, such as the inability to select certain options and even ‘pdfs’ opening without warning.
Crucially, some forms were simply impossible to complete on a mobile device because of functional limitations. For example, some forms required the use of an online map to pinpoint the location of a fault. Where such maps failed to load, or proved too difficult to interact with, the task became impossible. In other cases, forms offered a help button to give extra information about a particular question field, but tapping on this option either had no effect or resulted in a large pop-up box with no apparent option to dismiss it and return to the form.
Reviewers also struggled when faced with a CAPTCHA style verification system (where you have to read and re-type a word or code to prove that you are a human user and not a spam robot). In some cases, the required image was too small or too distorted to read on a mobile screen, and was sometimes missing completely.
Councils need to be especially careful when deciding to remove elements of the website to simplify the mobile offering. Although this can be a useful approach to de-cluttering pages, it may also lead to unhelpful assumptions about what a mobile user wishes to accomplish on their device. One reviewer reported that a form required the use of a postcode search, although this function had been removed from the mobile template, rendering the task impossible.
Better connected reviewers identified the following as poor practice to be avoided:
- The home page has too much text and too many pictures.
- Drop-down menus are overused; they are difficult to use on a smartphone.
- Key information and links are too far on the right of the screen and so are easy to miss.
- Key information appears at the bottom of the page and so requires scrolling.
- Key information is only found in ‘pdfs’ (e.g. job descriptions). Even if the mobile device manages to download it, the ‘pdf’ is often far too lengthy and detailed for mobile users to read.
- Users are asked to set up an account before being able to use a form.
- Forms use maps that are difficult or impossible to use on a mobile device.
- The organisation has an app but fails to promote its availability adequately on the home page or the relevant service pages.
Reviewer 1: There seems to have been a clear increase in the number of sites offering some form of mobile experience – with an impressive amount of responsive designs, although not always well implemented.
Reviewer 2: The question set highlighted which mobile sites were usable and which, while technically mobile-friendly, presented usability issues due to poor design and wrong prioritisation of content. The same issues that cause user confusion on the desktop are also apparent on mobile if sites use multiple methods of navigation and include promotional content above tasks.
Reviewer 3: I was too often disappointed with the quality of the mobile experience, even on sites that had apparently been optimised for smartphone display. Too many councils had implemented a technically competent mobile interface with no zooming required but without seemingly giving any thought whatsoever to the logical placement or sheer quantity of home page content users should be faced with. On the desktop the clutter might be reasonably manageable and the placement of the various menus and items logical, but the mobile interface, in including every element sequentially in a very long page, was sometimes ordered with no thought about how the site might be used.
Reviewer 4: I do not feel that many councils really make the most out of the responsive design technology. Many are responsive design websites but a smaller version of the desktop rather than identifying functions and features to drop or simplify, e.g. getting rid of pictures. In some cases I found the websites dropped the most useful direct way into the task that the desktop provided.
Reviewer 5: The success of sites in handling our 'quick-fire' questions was generally dependent on how well the council promoted top tasks on the home page. Here, factors such as poor task promotion, use of LGNL (which often buries top tasks and popular topics such as recycling/rubbish) or search that is hard to use or find really made a big difference in the customer experience. Sites that use the Weejot tool initially seemed as if they would perform well here, but ultimately did not, as they led to non-mobile-friendly web pages.
Sites that we recommend
The following sites achieved a 'very good' rating in all specific tests and very good overall for ease of use. They showed no errors while reviewers were browsing the site, were responsive and did not require reviewers to zoom in when using the mobile device:
East Riding of Yorkshire
Hinckley & Bosworth BC
Ribble Valley BC
South Lakeland DC
Tonbridge & Malling BC