Navigation, Search, A-Z
People come to local authority websites to do things and want to get to that point as quickly as possible. Most people now come to sites via Google or another search engine, but once in the site they may need to use site navigation or internal search to find specific information or services they are looking for. Local authorities have traditionally offered an A-Z function also, and although there is a trend away from this, nearly three quarters still provide one
Date of assessment
April and May 2017
All UK councils
Our survey is designed to test the three key means visitors are likely to use to find their way to information and services once on a local authority website. To test navigation, reviewers scored sites on how quickly they could achieve five specific tasks, and answered some additional questions about the experience of navigating from home and landing pages. To test search and A-Z reviewers tried to find the same information and services via these routes. For each function reviewers scored the overall experience, and then scored sites as a whole for usability, and also whether all routes tested took them to a consistent destination. 68% of councils scored three or four stars, almost the same as last year, when 66% did so.
Find your council report
Go to councils page and select your council. Look for link to task report under 2016-2017 results
Provide a good or very good online service based on this survey
Better connected rankings
*Discrepancies in the figures are due to rounding off
- 4 stars (Very Good)
- 3 stars (Good)
- 2 stars (Unsatisfactory)
- 1 star (Poor)
Different topics were sought depending on council type since not all services are delivered by all councils
|Search and A-Z||Percentage answered correctly|
|• Does a site search for the task 'find council budget 2017-18' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||43%|
|• Do navigation, A-Z and search usually lead to consistent destinations?||87%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task?||24%|
|• Does a site search for the task 'make complaint' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||86%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task?||62%|
|• Does a site search for the task 'find band C charge for 2017-18' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||58%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task?||69%|
|• Does a site search for the task 'recent planning applications' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||65%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task?||67%|
|• Does a site search for the task 'find local park' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||38%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task?||58%|
|• Does a site search for the task 'find council budget 2017-18' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||58%|
|• Do navigation, A-Z and search usually lead to consistent destinations?||89%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task?||31%|
|• Does a site search for the task 'make complaint' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||91%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task? (search term complaints)||60%|
|• Does a site search for the task 'find nearest library' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||67%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task?||65%|
|• Does a site search for the task 'find primary schools' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||77%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task?||60%|
|• Does a site search for the task 'register baby' return the correct result listed in the first five results?||91%|
|• Does the A to Z list include this task?||60%|
|Navigation||Average score all councils (0-4)|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find details of the council's 2017-18 budget?||2.1|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find out how to make a complaint?||2.6|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find access to a list of recent planning applications?||3.7|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find band C charge for 2017-18?||3.0|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find information about local parks?||2.2|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find details of the council's 2017-18 budget?||2.5|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find out how to make a complaint?||3.2|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find my nearest library?||3.4|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find find a list of primary schools?||3.4|
|• Navigating from the home page, how quickly can I find out how to register a new baby?||2.8|
|Percentage answered correctly|
|• Are services the main focus of the council’s home page?||79%|
|• Confirm that the home page offers NO MORE THAN ONE navigation route to top tasks (excluding search and A to Z and pay/report/apply features)||78%|
|• Are service landing pages focused on top tasks?||81%|
|Overall||Average score all councils (0-4)|
|• Based on what you have observed during task completion, how would you rate the A to Z list?||3.0|
|• Based on what you have observed during this review, how would you rate the site search?||3.0|
|• How do you rate the usability of this website overall?||3.0|
|• Would you recommend this site as an example of good usability practice across search, A-Z and navigation?||15%|
68% of all councils achieved a good or very good rating for this year’s search/navigation/A-Z test.
The result is comparable to last year’s (66% good/very good) and the test followed a similar format, but with the addition of three questions on navigation (those in red in the question set) that formed a significant part of the scoring.
More than 90, or 22% of all council websites, have been redesigned since we completed last year’s Better Connected survey, and reviewers did comment that many sites feel very modern, showing lots of white space and good font and padding, which makes content easier to read. (Information on site redesign is provided by Jumoo, and can be accessed from the ‘Website last redesigned’ link on council landing pages this website).
Sometimes, however, style has been put ahead of substance, so that a site with a very modern look and feel turns out to be not that easy to use. Looks can be deceptive and testing is the only way to assess how well a site functions. We will be examining the success or otherwise of these redesigns in terms of before and after Better Connected scores at a later date.
In this year’s test we introduced three key questions on navigation reflecting Better Connected thinking on what makes a good home page and how navigation to tasks is facilitated by landing pages. These questions were:
- Are services the main focus of the council’s home page?
- Confirm that the home page offers NO MORE THAN ONE navigation route to top tasks (excluding search and A to Z and pay/report/apply features)
- Are service landing pages focused on top tasks?
Sites that were easy to navigate had home pages focused heavily on services, with clickable key tasks listed under service headings on the home page.
Sites that were less easy to use had home pages that were very cluttered, with too many different navigation options competing for attention.
Many added to the distractions by having the main space of the page taken up with pictures, news and promotional content rather than services. Sometimes services weren’t immediately apparent because they were either below the fold or behind links.
We remarked on clutter and distractions in our mobile test report because this is even more of a problem on a small screen - which is how most visitors to most sites will now be viewing content.
The best performing sites in this test designed their sites around services, with uncluttered home pages, precise labelling and good links to sub sections / sub tasks visible on the home page giving access to well-used services in just one click. Sites that put imagery, promotion and council messages above usability, with too many, too prominent notices, twitter feeds, pop-ups, disclaimers and more, scored less well.
There seems to be a trend for putting menu options at the bottom of the page rather than the top, which seems strange, as it’s easier for users to see a menu at the top.
Apply/Report/Pay menus are common and while they may be useful for regular visitors who know where the things they need are hidden, they are frustrating for new users unless they are completely comprehensive.
Persona based navigation (council/resident/visitor/business) can be frustrating because its hard to intuit where some services/functions will be found. ‘Register a birth’ for example had reviewers going round in circles as this was sometimes found under ‘Council’ and sometimes under ‘resident’.
Some councils add further to this clutter with ‘my property’. Clearly, if the council has a customer account ‘my account’ does need to be readily available – but it does add another option and less important ones may need to dropped as it is added.
Clear, descriptive labelling avoiding jargon is hugely important, and it helps if they are task based, eg ‘Apply for a primary school place’ rather than ‘School admissions’.
Some labels that hide services need a rethink – are they needed at all? Can’t visitors just get direct access to a rigorously considered list of top services without having to guess what might lie behind these labels? Examples include ‘Browse Our Web Site’ (visitors are already, surely), ‘e-services’ (all online services are e-services – maybe the site editor means something else?), ‘popular services’, ‘straight to’, ‘your council’ and so on.
The use of icons in navigation was another topic raised in the mobile report when we asked: ‘Do icons have a role council website design?’ Judging by the number of councils using them, the answer is currently ‘yes’. But as we point out, they make content less easy to scan, take up a lot of room (even on the desktop) and can’t substitute for words, so end up just taking up space. We repeat: web editors and managers should be clear about the value added by icons.
The quality of landing pages varies between sites and sometimes within sites. The best ones are free of images and other clutter and have clear, simple, task-focused menus, so that visitors never have any doubt about which route to follow. Landing pages used down to different levels of the site to enable easy switching between topics.
To test search we deliberately used phrases incorporating verbs like ‘find’ or ‘register’ and with qualifying words like ‘recent’ in front of eg ‘planning applications’. Some search functions are not flexible enough to cope with phrases – while they would return useful results on ‘planning applications’, nothing at all would be returned for ‘recent planning applications’.
Other gripes with search included:
- results where the heading did not match the search term and the page description did not provide sufficient clues about relevance
- results that returned many pdfs, sometimes with unintelligible file names, rather than web pages that would assist the onward journey. Even running pdfs as additional items is not helpful if they are short leaflets containing information that is better conveyed on web pages with context
- searches that take visitors to a landing page - where they have to choose the topic again – rather than direct to pages with the specific content sought
returns with multiple duplicate entries, forcing the visitor to make random choices. This is more of a problem if descriptions associated with results are non-existent or very short
- searches that take users to external sites with no warning.
- poorly labelled results that mean users may have to click on something that doesn’t seem right but could be – for example on council tax when seeking budget information
- use of colour, blocks and lines to separate results, which could made them much easier to read, but not where different colours are used within an individual result
- results that display very large making if difficult to scan them quickly. Display fonts that are too small are a problem also results that display ‘suggested content’ ahead of the rest in a style similar to that used for the advertising found at the top of Google results. Such content is easily missed if users have trained their eye to ignore such content
- Reviewers noted that very few sites have the alternative spelling function, “did you mean?”
107 of the UK’s 416 council websites (26%) have now dropped the A-Z function, a slowly but steadily growing trend. Last year we found 80 sites (19%) without one, 12% in 2015 and 7% in 2014.
Sites without a A-Z do tend to perform better (78% are 3&4 sites compared with 68% of all sites) but this is not a causal relationship – there a many found with 1 or 2 stars also.
Better Connected does not penalize websites that have no A-Z since scores for sites without A-Z are calculated without them. Our thinking is that, providing a site’s search and navigation functions really well the A-Z can be dropped without impacting the visitor experience. Sites with one less feature to maintain may perform better, and if search and navigation are really good, then usage of the A-Z should fall off (with data collected to demonstrate this).
That said, with nearly three quarters of sites (including many that have recently been redesigned) continuing with this feature, it is important to get it right.
Finding the A-Z is not always easy, as it is located in a range of different places and presented in different styles, from the simple ‘A-Z’ to the whole alphabet run across a header or footer. Sometimes the A-Z is offered as an option with service menus.
In terms of presentation, reviewers noted that:
- A-Zs crowded or cluttered with text close together are hard to scan
- Those with to few terms - or too many – are problematic
- Specific links within a topic, eg within registration links to ‘Register a Birth’ or ‘Copy birth certificate allow the user to get straight to content without having to start search a landing page
- Entries for a single letter split over multiple pages are a problem and it often occurs with the letter ‘C’ when many entries start ‘council
The solution to the above issues st to rationalize these entries rather than make one huge page. In the case of the word ‘council’ it is important to overcome the tendency to start every service with the word ‘council’, and care needs to be taken with automatically generated lists.
We provided advice on this in Better Connected 2015 and it still holds, suggesting that the A to Z index include first a link to the key service landing page, followed by two or three ‘top tasks’ for that service.
Applying this to council tax, users would see three entries, first ‘council tax’ followed by, for example ‘council tax payments’ and ‘council tax benefits’. Users looking for something else to do with council tax would simply click on the council tax entry to go to the council tax landing page where they would be able to access further ‘top tasks’ within the section.
A number of our recommended councils exhibit good practice in this area that is worth studying.
Sites that we recommend
Very good, clear A-Z. Search engine provides excellent, clear results. Re navigation, home page is impressive but landing pages even more so.
Basingstoke & Deane
I like the fact that the main A-Z page lists absolutely everything, saving you from having to select a letter to get started. Very easy to move around the site with plenty of sensible navigational options and a strong emphasis on the top tasks under each heading.
Bath & NE Somerset
A to Z provides good coverage of content and appropriate and useful cross references e.g. B>Births - Registering and R> Register offices. Search is speedy with clear titles and abstracts. Site navigation generally very good and landing pages give prominence to top tasks and are clearly laid out.
A to Z has well-described entries from across the site.Search speedy and efficient with informative titles and abstracts and relevant results. Navigation provides drop-down menus as user moves across the menu headings offer good access to detailed information about services. Service landing pages are clearly laid out.
Dumfries & Galloway
A to Z includes all terms with e.g. primary schools under P. Search worked very well. Navigation excellent - simple logical routes from home through landing pages with good customer focus.
Very good A-Z, simple but covered most of our terms. One of the best searches I have used. The type-ahead type feature predicting my search terms, which I usually find annoying, was actually remarkably accurate this time. Another best of breed navigation system. Slightly longer / busier home page because navigation is essentially repeated - not sure this is necessary.
Top marks for an excellent A-Z. Search completely reliable and so easy to use. Site navigation excellent. My only quibble is the 'More services' isn't quite so easy to spot - also a lot of unrelated services listed on the more services page.
Search very efficient and fast. Clear results and useful abstracts Navigation very easy to use. Lack of jargon. Homepage displays a comprehensive list of services. Service landing pages extend these options. Layout is very clear and accessible. Works very well without an A-Z
The search engine retrieves links to every topic. The information points were easy to find via navigation with the exception of council tax information. No A-Z
Search was excellent both in terms of presentation and how well it found results for me. Site navigation is very good, though I would consider reviewing how the More services links are presented to make them more visible. The design aids navigation as the font is nice and clear and the links both well chosen and clearly defined. Felt very confident using this site. Very usable.
Really good A to Z. Presentation clear, which aids reading. Search generally worked really well although it doesn't prioritise web pages over PDFs and there's some SEO work to do. The navigation is excellent. It dominates the home page and is well designed, with clickable key tasks underneath the service headers. I completed each task in a matter of seconds. A lot of thought has clearly gone in and continues to go into this site to make sure that all aspects meet users' needs. Events information, social media links etc are all there but are relegated to underneath the services, which is where they should be on a user-centred site.
A-Z easy to browse and access. Search engine pretty reliable with handy suggestions as you type. Fantastic navigation with a strong emphasis on top tasks, yet easy access to all the content under each section without ever needing to think too hard.
Easy to identify relevant information from A-Z. The subheadings would provide very useful for the resident for example e.g. Planning applications View or comment on planning applications What is planning permission? etc
Windsor & Maidenhead
No A to Z. Search engine has accessible titles and descriptions. Uncluttered and accessible homepage. Landing pages offer easy route to relevant tasks. Very good customer journey.