The A-Z index provides an alternative method of navigating to the wide range of services offered by local authorities, many of which will not feature in top task navigation. Our survey shows 88% of sites to have such a facility, although there is ongoing debate over whether they remain essential (see below). Better connected ranking no longer requires a site to have an A to Z to achieve four stars – but only if the site’s navigation and search are rated very good.
Up to eight terms (according to type of council) were tested, and reviewers provided an overall rating for the A-Z. 63% of sites met the Better connected standard, a slight improvement on the 59% achieved in 2014. Our survey also showed 51 councils (12%) not to have an A to Z compared with 28 sites (7%) in BC2014, indicating a clear trend away from including this function. For many years, Better connected supported the view that an A-Z is needed in a council website, including it as an essential criterion for a top scoring website. We argued that because council websites have to cover a wide variety of services, just like long non-fiction books, they can benefit from an alphabetic index, providing a useful catch-all for sites designed by topic or by task, and making up for deficiencies in information architecture and search. However, we now believe that, if a site's information architecture and search are both very good, then sites may work well without one. Where an A-Z is provided, it MUST work well.
- At least a score of 4 from 6 (single tier)
- At least a score of 4 from 6 (county councils)
- At least a score of 3 from 5 (shire districts)
- At least a score of 2 from 3 (NI districts)
- Use of A to Z index rated satisfactory or very good
|A-Z (% pass)||64%||70%||63%||61%||70%||69%||41%||64%|
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
Better connected recommends the following for optimising the A-Z function:
- Make accessible from all pages or sections as well as home page.
- Use a visible and clickable alphabet.
- Explain clearly what the scope of the A-Z index is (e.g. council services for this organisation, or services provided by other public services, or all services in the community).
- Offer a list of items to browse through and click, but organise in such a way that each section is not too long (say, two screens maximum) or too short to be useful.
- Ensure that entries are closely linked to specific information pages.
- Only include entries that are meaningful and avoid common introductory terms such as ‘council’ (more on this below).
- Explain acronyms and hold alternative names for services (beware of using automatically generated lists).
- Point to the relevant area of the website that contains information on the topic or to the appropriate start point for the task (rather than to an intermediate or holding page). Only if this is really impossible should the A-Z point to a page giving a brief overview (including contact details, especially e-mail) and a link to the main information page.
- Check the location and relevance of any entries generated when new pages are added if using an auto-generated A-Z.
Many A-Z index involve much scrolling down a lengthy list of links to find an appropriate entry and it can be very difficult to decide which link is most appropriate for a particular task. Focusing on top tasks overcome this, particularly for letters such as ‘C’ where there may be numerous related links. For example, under 'council tax' there may be council tax exemptions, council tax bands, benefits, change of circumstance, single person discount, payments and reduction. In these sort of cases, it should be possible to identify the two top tasks for the service area and add these to the A-Z index, together with the service landing page, dispensing with all the other links. So, for council tax, libraries and planning, we might see something like:
Council tax payments
Council tax benefits
Libraries – renew book
Libraries – join a library
Planning – view an application
Planning – comment on an application
This approach reduces the number of entries, while retaining the top tasks, making it easier to maintain the A-Z index and ensure that customers searching for something more unusual can still find what they need.
An alternative approach is to show the most popular entries for the most used letters such as C above all the other entries, which can then be listed alphabetically (the Allerdale and Carlisle sites are good examples of this approach).
Better connected analysed the 51 sites that have no A-Z by looking at the quality of the navigation and search. In only three cases did reviewers rate both the navigation and the search as excellent (our rule for allowing a top site with no A-Z to achieve 4 star ranking).
In 31 sites, neither feature was excellent, and in 23 of the 31 cases reviewers rated one or the other as poor. This suggests that web teams are deciding to abandon the A to Z because they detect a trend, rather than because they have clear evidence that the A to Z is not needed.
Sites that we recommend
Reviewers found 73 councils providing very good A-Z. Those picked for mention in the Better connected 2015 report included: